DRA DIGLA, Iraq -- Cpl. Jeffrey M. Roberts scratched his stubbly chin with a dirty, crusted dry hand. He couldn’t help but smile. He just finished his last operation before he heads home to Camp Lejeune.
“It’s glorious,” Roberts said. “I can’t wait to get home and see my wife.”
Roberts was basking in the afternoon sun in the wide expanses of desert north of Fallujah. He just finished a six-day mission, called Operation Mesopotamia II. The 22-year-old from Destin, Fla., is assigned to E Company, 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment serving with Regimental Combat Team 5 in Iraq.
In a couple weeks, Iraq will be a memory. He plans to try to make up for lost time with his wife, Krisse.
He owes it to her, he said. She’s stood by him through four deployments, including Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I can’t wait to hug my wife and touch the ground,” Roberts said. “It’ll be good to take this burden off my shoulders and know that I’m safe.”
It hasn’t been an easy tour for the Marines in Roberts’ battalion. They’ve served in the heart of Fallujah, walking patrols daily down crowded streets. They’ve dealt with improvised explosive devices, insurgent snipers, random grenades being thrown over walls and sporadic small-arms and mortar fire.
Roberts had concerns as the end of his tour drew near, too. He said he wasn’t nervous or scared to go outside the wire – Marine jargon for leaving the safety of the forward operating bases. It was more for his Marines.
“Safety has probably been my biggest concern,” he explained. “I’ve got one married Marine who needs to get home to his wife. They’ve never been scared, but I’ve got to keep them moving, even when it doesn’t seem to make sense.”
Lance Cpl. Bradley R. Windham is a 20-year-old from De Ville, La., in the same unit with Roberts. He said it “feels good” knowing he’s headed home within a couple weeks.
He’s got reason to feel good too. He left his wife Rebecca in Georgia with his two children, three-year-old Jacob and eight-month-old Raelyn.
“I got to see her born,” he said of his young daughter. “I left a week later.”
He’s also done tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, he wants to spend a little more time getting to know his growing family.
“There’s a lot of time lost,” Windham explained. “My wife … she’s the meat and potatoes. If I didn’t have her, I’d be in a lot of trouble.”
Windham knows the tours in combat zones have changed him. He’s more appreciative of the smaller things in life and takes heart in simple pleasures he’ll soon enjoy again.
“It’s made me appreciative of exactly what I have,” he said. “I see how hard the Iraqis struggle. I’ve got it pretty good.”
Lance Cpl. John S. Hayes is in a different situation than his fellow Marines. He’s single. But instead of thinking about summer beach parties or drinking a cold beer, the 22-year-old from New Tripoli, Pa., wants to get back to his girlfriend, Erica. She’s waiting for him back in Pennsylvania.
He plans on spending his entire post-deployment leave with her.
“I feel better because it’s done,” Hayes said. “We’re one step closer to going home.”
But the closer he got to going home, Hayes said it’s been a bit tougher.
“You have to work to not get complacent,” he said. “But if you’re alive now, you’ve been doing something right all along.”
Roberts said it wasn’t always that way with his unit. They went through a cycle of learning in the seven months they were deployed to Iraq. They started out asking why they were in Iraq. Later, he said, they understood the mission more clearly and toward the end, they’ve yearned to do things better than ever.
Roberts said he counted success in that he and his Marines didn’t treat all Iraqis with disdain. They figured out that most Iraqis were living in fear of insurgents and want peace and security. They wanted school for their kids and clean drinking water. They wanted a better future.
“We were not here to kill everybody,” he said. “We were here to separate the good from the bad. We did that.”
But it hasn’t been easy. They’ve suffered their share of wounded Marines. And killed. They’ve grown tighter together than they ever thought they could and know that a little piece of them will remain here in Iraq.
“Losing Marines has been the toughest,” Windham said. “It did bring us closer.”
The losses didn’t slow them down either.
“A lot of the Marines wanted to get out of the wire more often,” Roberts said. “My Marines wanted to get out and get something done.”
Now that the prospect of returning home is changing from a distant idea to a reality, the Marines can’t help but smile.
“Three months home with my wife … man, that’s going be a vacation,” Windham said.
Hayes said he doubts the Marines will stay apart long though. They’ve blurred the lines of just being friends to warriors who share a kindred spirit.
“We all talk about going home,” Hayes explained. “We realize, though, after a week, we’ll all be bored. We’ll be calling each other up.”
But there’s big changes down the road. Roberts is getting out of the Corps soon after he returns. So is Windham. He’ll have six months left on his contract. It’s a new chapter in life he’s looking forward to.
“I’m going to go buy a house,” he said. “My wife and I are going to pick it out together.”
And they’re not sure to tell others what this tour meant to them. For those who haven’t walked the streets, dodged the gunfire, wept at a memorial for a fellow Marine killed, there’s not much to say.
“I survived,” Hayes said. “That’s all I can say.”