SCOTT HORSLEY: Three years ago today, Marine Corporal Josh Elmore crossed the border into Iraq. Watching the fireworks of tomahawk missiles overhead, Elmore and his buddies had no idea what they'd gotten themselves into.
JOSH ELMORE: And we had guys three or four guys who had actually been in combat before, in Desert Storm. Other than that, no one had ever seen it before, so it was new for everybody.
HORSLEY: Elmore recalls racing up the Iraqi highway into Baghdad, capturing the first presidential palace and being welcomed by the Iraqi people. In his scrapbook of the war, he keeps a handwritten note given to him by an Iraqi boy.
ELMORE: This says: Nice to meet you. I love U.S.A. Thank you, Mr. Bush. See you again. Zayid(ph).
HORSLEY: This time, instead of heading for Baghdad, he and his fellow Marines turned towards the city that would become synonymous with the insurgency. In Fallujah, there were no grateful citizens handing out thank-you notes. Four U.S. contractors had just been killed there.
ELMORE: We knew when we were going the second time, it was gonna be different, but we weren't expecting to have to go in there and do a bloody battle. The whole mindset changed in an instant when they killed those four contractors.
HORSLEY: Elmore says the battle for Fallujah made the initial invasion look like a cakewalk. He lost three close friends in the fighting. Still, his unit wasn't finished with Iraq. Sent back to Ramadi last year for a third rotation, Elmore began to worry for his own safety.
ELMORE: I told everybody that I was either gonna come home in a body bag or come home wounded, cause there's only so much luck that one can have.
HORSLEY: SOUNDITE OF DOG BARKING
HORSLEY: Brandi Dewitt can vouch for that. She lives on base at Camp Pendleton with three children and a protective beagle. Her husband Edward is now in Fallujah on his second rotation. Brandi says, this time they could be separated for a year or more.
BRANDI DEWITT: During the day it's not so bad, you know, cause I'm used to him being gone, but at night it's hard, you know. And the weekends drag by, and, you know, you kind of wait for the phone calls and stuff like that. And so it's difficult.
HORSLEY: Marine captain David Denial jokes that he and his wife are still newlyweds. Even though they've been married two years, they've spent most of that time apart. While based at Camp Pendleton, Denial made three tours of Iraq and he's ready to go back, he says. For now, though, he's enjoying a break from combat, working at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARINES)
HORSLEY: The young recruits training outside Denial's window signed up with different expectations than he did.
DAVID DENIAL: Most of the drill instructors and myself, we all joined the military when it was, basically, a peacetime military--something we'd probably never let the recruits know, but we, I mean, we admired these young men that join the military in time of war when there is definitely a danger. I mean, we're at war. We're a nation at war.
HORSLEY: Denial says progress is being made in that war and he believes it's worth it. Corporal Elmore agrees, although he won't be going back to Iraq himself for a fourth rotation. Wounded and worn out, Elmore left the Marine Corps two months ago, happily trading in his combat boots for an alligator-skin cowboy pair. There's only so much insanity in a person, he says, to keep going over there. Scott Horsley, NPR News, San Diego.
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