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kentmitchell
05-13-07, 08:49 AM
I have a cousin who is a retired Army chaplain (Major) and we rag each other about the two services. His latest is that Marines don't get to Z when trying to learn the aphabet. Well, Cousin (Father) Bart, here's one who does and he makes me proud he's from Georgia:

From the May 13, 2007 Atlanta Journal-Constitution Opinion Section; kinda long but worth every second it takes to read it (bring a dictionary).

ON THE FRONT LINE: Returning to Iraq oddly like coming home

By John Mathew Bishop
For the Journal-Constitution
Published on: 05/13/07

Editor's note: This is another installment in an occasional series of essays by Atlanta-born Cpl. John Matthew Bishop, a Marine who is serving his second tour of duty in Iraq. For operational security reasons, the exact location of his unit cannot be revealed.

Northern Iraq - As our C-130 cargo plane touches down, I check my watch. Local time here is 0900 hours, which means it's 1 a.m. on Peachtree Street. What day is today? Saturday? Sunday? I've lost track already.

Oddly, while I can hear in my mind the bass-thumping, horn-blowing traffic crawling through the Atlanta nightscape thousands of miles away, somehow the country in which we've just landed doesn't register as very near or very real at all. It almost seems absurd that in a few seconds our plane's cargo bay will open with a loud, hydraulic yawn and disgorge us onto the most frequently mortared base in Iraq.

But as I step outside and my boots land on Iraqi soil, I'm in the desert again, and the simple, dull scrape of sand underfoot is an instant summons to reality, transporting me thousands of hours, thousands of miles in a split-second. Next to me, my favorite sergeant - the best Marine I know - peers out over the sand, his expression, as usual, an inscrutable mask. This is his fourth tour. "We're back!" I yell at him over the roar of the C-130's propellers. He nods. "Feels like coming home, doesn't it?"

And strangely enough, it does. I've known this moment would come since I got back from my first tour nearly a year ago. In the interim, memories of this place have stolen into every part of my life, shadowing me during my morning runs and waiting under my pillow each night. And joining them, sired by the passage of time, a fresh brood of expectations and uncertainties have shaped this place anew in my imagination. For months, I've wondered if our area would be improved, if we'd still receive a smile now and then, if all the familiar faces would still be there.

For now, it feels as if we never left. Perhaps it's because stepping into most parts of Iraq is like stepping into some cosmic time-lapse. The unchanging, daily sunbake, the pristinely barren stretches of sand in every direction, the mosques' five daily calls to prayer: Each day is like the one before it, like the ones 500 years before it. Time begins to seem as it actually is - an everlasting parade of the present. Paradoxically, we come to feel at home here, for what is home if not a feeling of stillness, a sanctuary of constancy in the midst of the flux and chaos outside the front door?

Over the next weeks, the Marines will slowly begin to look more and more at home here. Accustomed to jeans and polo shirts, many - especially gunners, who are exposed to excessive amounts of dust and sun - will don shemagh, the Arab headdress that covers one's neck, face and scalp. Many will grow mustaches, too, because Iraqis view men without facial hair as boys. They'll learn on their patrols how to interact with Arabs and grow surprisingly skillful at communicating in Arabic. Many of those returning for a second, third or fourth tour have already had tattoos inked in Arabic script. There's something graceful, even beautiful in how naturally the sons of America shape-shift and adapt into sons of the desert.

Most, if asked, would probably describe Iraq in terms unfit for public discourse. But this place, albeit inhospitable, has its own ascetic, almost monastic voice. In the absence of the collective psychological noise that seems to have reached a maddening crescendo in Western postmodernity, one ironically feels as if, in stepping into the wasteland, one were stepping clear of an endless, invisible bombardment.

For example, I remember doing surveillance one night on an extremely remote village. Like most villages of its size and remove, it consisted of a smattering of simple, one-room mud huts and livestock pens. The surveillance was routine - more to ensure that the village was unmolested by roving insurgents than owing to any perceived threat from this group of shepherds. Our approach undetected, we fanned out and took our positions, silently observing the village's only activity: a few families sitting around an open-air fire. Occasionally they erupted into laughter - over what, we did not know, perhaps could not know. Seldom have I witnessed much Iraqi cheer. These simple people - their halo of laughter and light like a miniature world in the midst of the dark desert of the universe - must have understood life in a completely different way than us.

Normally, per our standard operating procedures, we would have questioned them following this period of observation. But when our patrol leader's voice came over the headset, he simply instructed us to maintain concealment as we egressed.

When we rallied back at our vehicles, the prevailing mood was thoughtful. A few of the Marines affirmed they were glad to have skipped the questioning; we were coming back the next day, anyway, and could make our inquiries then. Had we made our presence known to the villagers, we all knew the confusion and concern that would have resulted. It was then, looking around at my comrades, that I understood that they had all felt, in their own way, what I had felt. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but something had spoken, and paradoxically, it was only in this place of ubiquitous squalor and violence that it could be clearly heard.

As I settle here for the second time, I wonder whether this place is such a paradox, or whether I am simply seeing, as in a mirror, the paradox we've brought here with us. Living in relative peace and prosperity, have we Americans not matured into postmodernity somehow fundamentally malnourished?

I turn these questions over in my mind now, and something funny keeps reoccurring to me, as if it were suggesting itself as an answer. Last night I woke up and couldn't go back to sleep. Walking outside to get some air, I saw a Marine sprawled out on the top of his vehicle. Thinking he had fallen asleep on it, I went to wake him up so he could go to bed. He wasn't asleep, though - he was actually just lying on his back, looking at the sky through his night-vision goggles. When I asked him what he was doing, he laughed and explained that when viewed through the light-amplifying NVGs, even the faintest stars became bright. He was from Boston and had never seen so many.

If we've missed something, perhaps it's because we haven't looked up often enough.

THE JOHN MATTHEW BISHOP FILE

Military rank: Corporal

Military branch: U.S. Marine Corps

Military occupational specialty: 0331, Machine-gunner

Current duty station: Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Theater of operations: Northern Iraq

Birthdate: Aug. 9, 1981

Birthplace: Northside Hospital, Atlanta

Age: 25

Education: North Gwinnett High School, 1996-1999, University of Georgia 1999-2004 (A.B.-English)

Contact: Bishop@desertpen.com