HADITHA, Iraq (Oct. 6, 2006) -- After almost seven months of combat operations in western Al Anbar Province, Iraq, the Marines of “America’s Battalion” returned to families and loved ones Oct. 5, 2006, at their home base in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii.

Just two weeks ago, the Hawaii-based battalion transferred authority of security operations of the Haditha Triad region in Al Anbar to another Hawaii-based unit - 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment.

The Haditha Triad Region consists of the three Euphrates River towns — Haditha, Barwanah and Haqlaniyah, and boasts a population of about 50,000.

Throughout their deployment, 3rd Battalion’s forces trained Iraqi Security Forces, located 54 weapons caches and detained more than 800 suspected insurgents, according to Master Sgt. Ronald Rice, 36, operations chief for 3rd Battalion. They also conducted more than 8,000 patrols.

The battalion also worked closely with Iraqi police and soldiers to provide security in Baghdadi, a small city of about 5,000, just 25 miles south of the Triad along the Euphrates.

The Marines were accompanied by Iraqi security forces on approximately one-third of the patrols, said Rice.

The battalion suffered 11 deaths during its deployment. Still, the Marines performed to par, and made a dramatic difference in Iraq, according to Lt. Col. Norman L. Cooling, 3rd Battalion’s commanding officer.

“The Marines’ enemies here do not follow the Geneva Convention and play by a different set of rules that Marines do not recognize,” said Cooling. “The enemy often does things that are shocking and repulsive to civilized people – like machine-gunning several unarmed police recruits to death earlier this summer.”

Cooling, a native of Baytown, Texas, said the battalion’s most valuable contribution to Iraq was the advancement of Iraqi Security Forces, to include Iraqi policemen and soldiers.

Upon arrival, the abilities of the Iraqi soldiers were limited to individual skills and were “very basic.” Now, the soldiers have motorized capabilities to react to situations and are conducting platoon, company and battalion-level operations independently and some Iraqi units are frequently assigned their own area of responsibility, said Cooling.

For 3rd Battalion’s final large-scale operation, dubbed Operation Guardian Tiger IV, only a handful of Marines accompanied Iraqi soldiers when they spread out through the Baghdadi Area to conduct a complete census of the city’s villages.

“The Marines did what they have always done in the past,” said Cooling, 42. “They came to a hostile area that was riddled with chaos and initiated the process of establishing security.”

Sgt. Rodrigue Jean Paul, 31, a platoon guide assigned to 3rd Battalion’s Lima Company, says the deployment was an “eye-opener” for him and his Marines.

Rodrigue was close friends with Cpl. Yull Estrada Rodriguez, a 21-year-old who was killed Sept. 20, 2006.

“You cannot describe the loss of one of your friends,” said Rodrigue, a native of Queens, N.Y. “It is a part of you that is lost and you can never get back. You just take what you have left and move forward but never, ever, forget those that you lost.”

For some Marines, they say that they no longer take things for granted that they once did – like a hot shower after being in 130-degree heat all day.

“Your feelings toward life itself changes out here,” said Lance Cpl. Timothy Trumbull, 21, a rifleman assigned to Lima Company. “I can’t even explain how good of a feeling it will be when I get home to see my family.”

Cooling, who also command the battalion during a six-month deployment to Afghanistan in 2005, said he is “exceptionally proud” of his Marines, their accomplishments and sacrifices.

“When the greatest threat of our generation came, the majority of Americans watched it on T.V.,” said Cooling. “Only a select few with a moral compass, selflessness and a strong set of values will volunteer to risk their lives to meet that threat.”

The Marines say their last mission will be their easiest one – getting on a plane and flying home to their families.

“It is time to make up for time lost,” said Trumbull.

Email Sgt. Seigle at seiglemf@gcemnf-wiraq.usmc.mil