Good night, Fallujah: 'Raider' starts for home
ABU GHRAIB, IRAQ
Raider Platoon's final combat patrol in Iraq hardly felt like a transition. During the miserable graveyard shift, the rain-lashed armored vehicles cut along a dark ribbon of highway, east of Fallujah, scouring the cold night for enemies.Skip to next paragraph
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None could be found. Raider's last mission closed in gray daybreak, with mudcaked boots and little fanfare.
The dream of homecoming is finally turning to reality for the US marines of the 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance (LAR), Charlie Company, a key element of the invasion of Fallujah last November.
Their war over for now, this week the marines turned in excess ammunition, grenades, and explosives before beginning the long convoy to Kuwait, by ship to Okinawa, Japan, and finally a mid-April flight to Camp Pendleton, Calif. But as that day draws nearer, the marine scouts of Raider One - the "Death Dealers" - are grappling with emotions that range from joy at safe deliverance to anxiety about slotting back into mundane lives that lie ahead.
In Fallujah they fought and bled, testing themselves in ways they never imagined - leaving an entire city in ruins while hunting insurgents house to house, room to room.
"It's very depressing, actually," says Cpl. Christopher DeBlanc. "Fallujah was the best of times and the worst of times; the most exciting, the most eventful and extraordinary; and the most scary, most miserable, most death-defying."
"I feel like [Fallujah] was the pinnacle of my existence - that nothing I will ever do will be like what I have done," says the religious marine from Spotsylvania, Va. "I'm pretty sure there will be times just as good ... just as awesome - and I'll appreciate it in a different way. But right now, I still have my blinders on; the pall of the city is still over me."
That pall is proving difficult to escape, though the daily routine has changed dramatically since units were cut off from all but the orders of their commanders for weeks during the invasion. The unit's third Iraq deployment, slated to begin a year from now, looms in thought. But on the eve of their departure south, there are frequent calls home and e-mail.
"I called her this morning, to wish her good night," says Lance Cpl. Jason Canellis, a stocky gunner from Bandera, Texas, about his fiancée, Casey. "And I called her last night to wish her good morning."
But his family is still jumpy, and always asks how close he was when marines are reported killed. Corporal Canellis tells them the "good parts" - like steak and lobster for dinner one night - and skips the bad news.
Still, bad news hit home for Raider Platoon on New Year's Eve. Lance Cpl. Jason Smith was killed when two stacked anti-tank mines blew apart the Raider Four vehicle. At the group's last base inside the Abu Ghraib prison compound, his cot was next to Canellis's.
Corporal Smith was driving, and Raider was 16 minutes from the camp gate. The force of the blast blew through the driver's cockpit, separating seams of thick armor plate.
"I looked through my thermal sights, and saw a person go up - I thought it was the driver - raising his arms in a 'V,' and was reassured," recalls Canellis. But then platoon radio switched from news of an "urgent surgical" to a "routine" - a sure sign of a death.
"I don't know what I saw - maybe his soul coming out," says Canellis. "It really was a reality check. We were all feeling complacent. We weren't acting like it - we did not let our defenses down and let the enemy attack us - but we were complacent in our minds. [Now] I won't let my guard down until I am on American soil."
Like other incidents that resulted in the death of an LAR marine, "Smith" has become a defining moment and a landmark date in a unit that has lost track of calendar days.
The death of Lance Cpl. Kyle Burns and Staff Sgt. Theodore Holder in a November ambush is another marker; the killing of Lance Cpl.. Blake Magaoay, shot dead by an insurgent from a few feet away while clearing a house, has been memorialized with a red sign above the Fallujah fire station that reads: "Fire Base Magaoay."
"Doc" Nick Navarrette - the US Navy corpsman who worked on the worst cases when the scout vehicle doubled as an ambulance - is looking for coping mechanisms. "The more I think about it, the worse my dreams will be," says Doc Navarrette, from Omaha, Neb. His sleep is fitful; he wakes tangled in his sleeping bag and blankets.
"The other night I woke up four separate times.... I hope it doesn't have a long-term effect. I don't like being alone," he says. "I think about my friends' bodies - the last time I saw them. The more I am alone, the more I think about it."