Left for Miramar last Wednesday, was supposed to be back Sunday but the bus never arrived, so we didn't get back 'til Monday, then had to go out to Range 210A until today. The Miramar field op, despite taking up my weekend, turned out to be pretty cool. There's a film studio set up there with some pretty accurate sets portraying towns in the Middle East, including prop RPGs, IEDs, and VBIEDs. I guess on weekends Marines take over the sets for training purposes. They had some pretty good scenarios set up with professional actors playing OpFor, and the best part: a killhouse for sim rounds (like paintball rounds) with moveable walls so every run-through was different. It was actually probably the best training I've ever had.

After that, 210A was quite a letdown. And ten days of being in the field is no picnic. But the weather's cooling off, and I'm falling into my new company quite well.

And yesterday was the last day of my third year in the Marine Corps. And as if to celebrate, the world treated me to a real visual feast last night. None of us were sure what it was exactly, but some airborne, or perhaps even sub-orbital body streaked across the sky just after dusk, trailing a streamer of deep orange and pink that persisted for a good half hour. After the first few minutes the projectile's exhaust turned into a huge translucent plume of barely visible fire before it all disappeared. None of us had seen anything like it. Some speculated it was some kind of missile test.

It didn't occur to me until later that the color of the vapor trail was probably due to the sun, which was far enough past our horizon that it left our sky mostly untouched, but not so far that that wobbly streak of exhaust was out of its fiery reach. What delighted me was the improbability of that intersection of fading sunlight, vapor trail, and line of sight, the three things coinciding with my three year mark as if to say: "Here is something you would not have witnessed."

Three-quarters finished, three of the longest, most eventful years of my life behind me, and only a single revolution around the sun remains in my way, abandoned by his brothers, puny and unintimidating without them.

Three years since I threw myself into this fire, full of fear and uncertainty, of excitement and expectation. You'd think the wonder and disbelief, that what-the-hell-am-I-doing-how-did-I-get-here-who-am-I feeling would fade, but it doesn't, it just hides, stays mostly out of sight, only to hit you like a punch in the throat, just when you start to feel like you're getting the hang of things, starting to understand what's going on.

I remember boot camp, three months of simple hazing, really. Three months of hazing that turns soft masses of flesh into machines. I remember being a third-phase recruit, the senior company on the Depot, about to graduate. I remember seeing brand new recruits, no more than civilians with shaved heads running around so lost and disoriented and scared, so very soft-looking and being amazed that I had ever been as they were.

But then, I also remember once when I was still a first phase recruit, and still reeling from the jarring brutality of Black Friday, I ran into a few senior recruits in the head at the Dental Clinic, and they reassured and encouraged me, told me to keep my chin up, that it would get easier. It's amusing, seems a little silly now, but it meant a lot to me then.

It's strange, too, now, to regard the new guys hitting the fleet, just as ignorant, just as fresh. Some come out of School of Infantry or LAV school thinking they know it all, and for these, fleet life provides a rude awakening. Some come ready to learn, ready to do as they're told, and these adapt better, assimilate more easily.

My peers and I were largely of the latter category, because we were thrown from SOI almost directly into a combat zone; a bus ride to Margarita, then to March Air Force Base, a commercial flight to Kuwait, a C-130 ride into Iraq, to join our unit for the first time to the sound of none too distant nighttime gunfire, alien smells and foreign sights. We were all lost and dazed, and we had intimate knowledge of this.

And here we all are now, three years in. Somehow, excepting the second-termers and the staff NCOs, we are the old guard. We're the ones talking about The Old Corps, the good old days, how different it all is now, how easy these new guys have it.

There's an old joke:

Back in 1775, Robert Mullen (the first Marine recruiter) was in Tun Tavern (the birthplace of the Marine Corps) making his pitch to a prospective enlistee.

"How'd you like to be one of the world's finest, sir?"

"I don't know, what are you going to offer me that the Army and Navy won't?"

"Well, tell you what, you sign up here right now and I'll buy you a beer!"

"Hell, that sounds good to me," and the guy signs and goes to sit down with his beer.

The next guy sits down and Mullen makes his pitch, beer included.

"One beer? Idunno if that's worth it."

"Tell you what," Mullen replies, "I'll make it two."

"Two beers, huh? You got yourself a deal."

So the guy signs, takes his two beers and goes and sits down next to the first guy, who takes a minute to regard him and says, "Two beers? In the Old Corps, we only got one."

And it's like that. Each generation of Marines makes claims about how different things were in their time, and not baselessly. As anything else, for good or ill, the Corps changes to suit the times.

And we've all changed, too. We're experienced, we know the ins and outs, we have all this knowledge and all these skills to pass on, and we do. It's so strange to find myself in a teaching capacity, so surprising to find myself containing these things and somehow able to impart them to my juniors. And it's such a frighteningly huge responsibility with war staring us all in the face. It sometimes feels like too great a burden, I sometimes feel like it's presumptuous of me to carry it.

But every once in a while, a thoughtful young Marine notices my efforts to give of my experience, my attention and care, and thanks me for it. And I am filled with pride and a renewed clarity of purpose.

One year left, most of us are making plans, thinking about getting out, going to school, starting careers or whatever. But not all. Some guys re-enlist. And I guess I can understand, if only intellectually, their reasons for doing so.

Some guys can't resist the juicy re-enlistment bonus, which I've seen get up to fifty grand. Tax-free if you sign overseas. But money, I think, is no good reason to do anything.

Some guys have gotten married, started families, and can't pass up the financial security re-enlistment offers. The Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance is at $400,000 now.

Some guys, at the end of their first four years, find that they know this, and not much else. These have mostly enlisted right out of high school, never had any interest in higher education, and find the idea of starting again somewhere else unappealing, maybe even frightening.

Not me, though. Driving home from Palm Springs the other night, I got stuck at a red light, and noticed all the rest of the traffic lights as far down the street as I could see were green. This is how I feel right now. This last year is the final hurdle beyond which life is wide open and imagination provides my only limits.