FALLUJAH, Iraq, April 9 -- Two years ago, Cpl. Justin Soule rushed across the Tigris River bridge into Baghdad with the Marines who first entered the city and toppled a statue of President Saddam Hussein. During a bloody uprising that swept Iraq last April, he and his battalion fought their way into insurgent-held Fallujah before commanders ordered a halt.
Today, the infantry squad leader from Itasca, Tex., is back for a third tour in Iraq, living in a bombed-out soda factory, surviving on packaged meals and junk food and admitting that he thinks more about his own liberation than Iraq's.
Cpl. Justin Soule takes a break in the room he shares with 13 other members of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, in a gutted soda factory in Fallujah. The battalion is on its third rotation in Iraq since the fall of Baghdad two years ago.
(Photos Ann Scott Tyson -- The Washington Post)
"I don't really care for the desert, the flies, the dust storms, the trash on the side of the road with kids playing in it," he said as he sat on his bunk this week in the dank, 25-foot-wide room he shares with 13 other Marines. "I'm ready to get out. I'll have a taste of the freedom I've been fighting for."
Soule proudly counts himself among the "Darkside" -- the battle-weary 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines -- the first U.S. military unit to serve three rotations in Iraq. About two-thirds of the battalion's 800 men are on their third tour, having spent more time in Iraq over the past two years than at home.
Like many of his comrades, Soule is a 9/11 Marine, driven to join the corps by duty or outrage after the terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001.
Yet over the course of two years, fighting in Iraq has robbed these young Marines of buddies, left their bodies scarred and tired, and snatched away their innocence. Last week, the conflict stole another Marine from the 3rd Battalion, the 11th killed so far as fatalities among U.S. troops grew to 1,543.
Many Darkside Marines, feeling the pull of family and civilian life, say they don't plan to reenlist for what will inevitably mean more combat zone deployments. A far smaller number say they live for being at war and vow never to leave.
On the anniversary of Baghdad's fall, Marines described the war with stories of euphoria and helplessness, of bitterness and hope and the toll on the lives of U.S. troops.
Lt. Brian Sitko watched the glow of munitions exploding on the horizon, creating the surreal appearance of a sunrise as U.S. forces launched their invasion of Iraq in 2003. He pulled out a pen and paper and wrote a letter to his wife, then slipped it into his chest pocket.
As the Marines battled north, the possibility of death accompanied Sitko as "a daily presence, a fear you have to manage," he recalled in an interview. At war for the first time, many Marines in their teens and twenties grew up overnight, he said. "Childhood is lost, and innocence is left behind."
Officers warned the Marines to expect heavy casualties as they thrust into Baghdad. But they were surprised to find their push into the city relatively unopposed. Instead, some Iraqis offered flowers, candy and a sense of purpose to Marines who say now they were uncertain what they were fighting for.
At Baghdad's Firdaus Square, Marines from the battalion used a chain and a tank-recovery vehicle to pull down Hussein's statue, unleashing jubilation among the crowd. A portly, balding Iraqi man, sweat streaming down his face, approached Sitko to give him flowers and a hug. Sitko said he suddenly remembered an Iraq guidebook that said kissing another man on the forehead signified high respect. In an instant, he pulled the man toward him.
"I gave him a smack on the forehead," he said. "It was probably one of the more gross moments for me, but it was something I wanted to do. He lit up even more. It was so joyous."
Within hours, though, the mood gave way to chaos as looters swarmed the city.