The Marines already are saying their goodbyes. The 4th Civil Affairs Group, a reserve unit based in Washington, is leaving for Iraq -- again.
Lance Cpl. Norman Tompkins Jr., 26, knows the drill by now. This will be his third trip to Iraq in four years. He has taken leave from his jobs as a fire alarm inspector and volunteer firefighter and loaded his iPod with 4,500 songs.
Cpl. Jennifer McNamara, 30, is double-checking her "Gucci gear" -- the upgraded boots and other equipment her husband urged her to buy. Todd McNamara was in Iraq last year as a member of the Navy Reserve. This time, he will be the one waiting for a military spouse to come home.
Staff Sgt. Paul Abila, 39, is trying to spend time with his eight children, ages 2 to 12. They will grow a lot in the months he is gone. The older girls already seem so serious and mature.
"They have asked me everything from am I going to shoot anybody to is somebody going to shoot me," Abila said. "And I tell them, 'Now if I have to kill somebody just so that I can stay alive, you understand that's part of what I have to do, as being a Marine?' "
There is no easy way to do this, to leave behind family and friends and careers, the comfort of soft beds and nonperilous routines, to enter a conflicted land where peace seems elusive. This will be the third deployment to Iraq for the unit, which is pulling out in a few days, but for most of its 200 or so members, it will be their first or second deployment.
Although trained for combat, the 4th CAG is charged with helping the civilian population. About a third of its members are residents of the D.C. area -- police officers, computer technicians, federal employees. The unit's operations officer, Lt. Col. David Bunn, is a lawyer; its executive officer, Col. Erik Grabowsky, is Arlington County's chief of solid waste. They are leaving from the Anacostia Naval Station, where they are based, expecting to be gone a year.
With each deployment of the 4th CAG, the dangers in Iraq have increased. Even as this unit and others are being asked to shoulder a mission that carries a soaring amount of risk, top U.S. military leaders are telling Congress that they fear Iraq is sliding into civil war. Even as many here at home are wondering if the sacrifice has been worthwhile, these Marines speak earnestly of their patriotism and duty as they prepare to say goodbye to everything they love.
"More than anything else, if there's anything I'd like people to know, we would certainly love their support," said Col. Mario LaPaix, the unit's commanding officer. "We would want people to know that Marines have always gone in harm's way to do what has to be done for America. We would like their prayers and, hopefully, their well wishes.
"If I can offer a political statement, that would be it."
The war-toughened veteran
It was a rainy day in Combat Town, and that meant mud.
In a clearing deep in a forested area at Quantico, the Marine training grounds, members of the 4th CAG were staging their last field exercise before leaving for Iraq. The Marines were good-natured about the downpour: "If it ain't rainin', we ain't trainin.' " Several repeated the old military saw during breaks, laughing as mist and smoke from grenades swirled around them.
Lance Cpl. Norm Tompkins, who has a calm air and an economy with words, is a field radio operator. On this morning, the half-dozen concrete-block buildings of Combat Town were standing in for an Iraqi village. Some of the Marines played the part of Iraqis, even speaking in Arabic as they watched from open doorways and strolled the "marketplace."
When three Humvees of Marines rolled into the village to check the safety of the market, a band of insurgents attacked and a brief, fierce fight was waged on the puddled streets. Tompkins's job was to call in "the sit reps" -- or situation reports -- and arrange for medics as needed, amid the sounds of gunfire and the cries of "the Iraqi women."
"That was pretty true to life," Tompkins said after the hour-long exercise, a pile of hand-held radios at his feet.
A volunteer firefighter and horror-movie fan who lives in Landover with his mother, Tompkins finds himself, in his mid-twenties, the war-toughened veteran in the group, one of only two returning to Iraq for a third time. Other Marines have asked him what to expect: What are the living conditions? Are people friendly or hostile? How dangerous is it?
When his superiors asked him whether he would go back, Tompkins hesitated "a little bit," he said. He could have declined.
"But I wanted to go back for myself," he said. "I felt like I wasn't done over there. We're not done building that country back up, so we've got to go back there and help them out."
Tompkins, a graduate of Parkdale High School in Riverdale, studied forensic science at Prince George's Community College. When he was first deployed to Iraq, in 2003, things were relatively quiet. "It was hot -- I definitely remember that," he said. "But it wasn't dangerous at all."
On his second tour, in 2004-05, "it was a little more intense," he said, singling out the roadside bombs, or improvised explosive devices. "They had the IEDs and things of that nature. But it worked out well -- we got the job done."
It was during that tour that the 4th CAG suffered its only serious injury: A bomb hit the Humvee that Sgt. Luke Cassidy was driving, and he lost part of his leg.
Tompkins does not dwell on the incident. He describes himself as "laid-back." As long as he has his music, from the rock band Stone Sour to country legend Johnny Cash, he will be all right, he said. "It calms your nerves and takes you away."
His friends and co-workers wonder at his cool.
"I think about him all the time and how he's going out there, voluntarily," said Steve Stuber, Tompkins's boss at Siemens Building Technologies in Beltsville. "For the third time. When he doesn't have to do it."
The daughter in a war zone
Cpl. Jen McNamara's mother, Mary Crawford, already has a specific list of treats her Daughter the Marine wants included in her care packages to Iraq: Baby Ruths. Gummi Bears. HoHos. Devil Dogs. Little Debbie Zebra Cakes.
Reading that list makes Crawford, a retired teacher from Lorton, think of McNamara as a little girl again. And that is a painful thought as she watches her daughter prepare to go to a war zone.
McNamara had never imagined herself a Marine. But what happened on Sept. 11, 2001, left her questioning her purpose in life.
Although she was employed at the Pentagon as a civilian budget analyst, she did not know anyone killed or wounded that day. And she is embarrassed, she said, to admit that her only personal hardship was the result of leaving behind her keys and identification when she fled her office. But she was deeply affected. "She told me she didn't feel like she was doing anything important," Crawford recalled.
Growing up in suburban Virginia, McNamara felt that her "whole life was kind of sheltered and boring," she said. She went to work full time at the Pentagon after graduating from James Madison University and, three years ago, married Todd McNamara, a longtime family friend. A Navy Reservist, he understood his wife's need to do something concrete, "to give something back."
"I'll just work more hours while she's gone," said McNamara, 30, a project manager for a general contractor.
Todd McNamara was in Iraq for seven months in 2004-05, helping repair airfields and reconstruct damaged buildings. He called the experience "meaningful" and "rewarding." The time passed quickly for the couple.
"I think a lot of people expected me to be the pining wife at home who was so worried, but actually, it was pretty okay," Jennifer said. Now, she said, she uses her husband "as the perfect resource -- he knows everything." He advised her, for example, that she need not pack foot powder, because she can find it at the PX.
The couple, who live in Alexandria, often keep the conversation on that level. Both are trying to be "stoic," and what good does it do to fall apart now?
"When you go through the training, like we have, when you have prepared this much, you want to put your training to use," she said. "I guess it's a good thing, because if we were both really emotional, it would be too much to bear."
Their father the hero
At the Abila home in Dumfries, Saturday mornings will not be the same without "Dad's special pancakes." Neither will Thanksgiving, when Dad won't be there to dance the turkey around the house before settling it into the roasting pan. Or Christmas, when Dad won't be there to hog the pecan pie -- although, to be fair, the only presents he ever wants for himself are socks.
The oldest of the eight Abila children -- Lara, 12, Juliana, 11, and Ciara, 9 -- are trying to imagine life, temporarily, without their father. They hate the prospect of him leaving them, having to go somewhere so far away and full of danger. But they have responsibilities and little brothers and sisters to attend to, and they do not want to worry anybody, certainly not their dad.
Juliana, a sixth-grader, knows what she will miss most about her father: "His kind and loving heart," she said, frowning hard to control her feelings.
Staff Sgt. Paul Abila is the administrative chief for the 4th CAG, responsible for personnel processing and payroll. Originally from Oklahoma, he met his wife, Scarlett, when both were active-duty Marines in the D.C. area. "We got married at the Arlington County Courthouse on our lunch hour and went back to work," Scarlett Abila said of their 1993 wedding. "We were good Marines."
Their children arrived at steady intervals -- three girls, three boys, then the twins, now 2. On a recent morning, Natalie, the twin with the curly hair, and Martina, the one with the straight hair, took turns hurling themselves at their father as he sat on the living-room floor of their impossibly neat townhouse.
As a former Marine, Scarlett Abila understands what her husband is about to do. She certainly does not think that he should be spared from deployment, his first to Iraq, because so many young children are depending on him.
"Our children were a choice and a gift from God, and we would never use them as an excuse not to serve," she said. "I would not want my children to think, 'My dad was a Marine, but in wartime, because there were eight of us, he was allowed to stay behind.' What about the two children of deployed Marines or deployed soldiers? What about the families with three or four children?"
And so the Abilas prepare to say goodbye. They will pray every day for his safe return. They will send him the best care packages any Marine has ever received. They will miss him terribly, but they know he has a job to do.
"I think he's not just some big, bad Marine," said Lara, a seventh-grader. "I think he's kind of a hero."