Lance Cpl. Santiago Tejada, 23, of Milwaukee, enjoys a well-deserved burger outside the Burger King tent on Camp Matilda, Kuwait. His Marine unit recently withdrew from Iraq.

Lance Cpl. Santiago Tejada, 23, of Milwaukee, enjoys a well-deserved burger outside the Burger King tent on Camp Matilda, Kuwait. His Marine unit recently withdrew from Iraq. (Rick Scavetta / S&S)

CAMP MATILDA, Kuwait — Like many Marines who fought in Iraq, Lance Cpl. John Burling had his share of ups and downs.

He heard news of his son’s birth and watched his best buddy die.

For many Marines returning from Iraq to camps in Kuwait, memories of combat are fresh in their minds. But after some sleep, showers and fast food, their thoughts quickly shift to returning home.

Burling, 19, of Jacksonville, Fla., is somewhere in between.

On April 7, his unit, Company B, 4th Assault Amphibious Battalion, was in a defensive position by a bridge near Baghdad. Lance Cpl. Andrew Aviles stopped by Burling’s amphibious assault vehicle to chat for a few minutes before heading to his own track parked just ahead.

“I told him I’d see him later that night,” Burling said.

Then artillery explosions boomed steadily closer to the Marines’ tracked vehicles. A shell landed directly on top of Aviles’ vehicle.

“It blew him outside the ramp. I saw it happen,” Burling said. “I thought another round was going to hit me.”

Burling and several Marines rushed forward, hoping that Aviles and another crew member survived the blast. But Burling found Aviles’ bloodied body lying on the ground. The other Marine also died in the attack.

“He had an academic scholarship to Florida State,” Burling said of Aviles. “He was a smart guy, much too young to be killed.”

In Baghdad, Burling later watched Marines tear down a statue of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, a sight broadcast worldwide.

Then in early May, he received a message from the Red Cross. His wife, Valerie, gave birth to a son, John. He’s hoping to be home with them by June.

Marines like Burling killed time at Camp Matilda, a desert outpost about 25 miles north of Kuwait City, chatting about their experiences in combat over cheeseburgers and pizza. The camp’s chapel is now home to a Pizza Hut and Burger King.

“Actually, we were dreaming about those buses,” Lance Cpl. Miguel Garcia, 19, of Roscoe, Texas, said as he pointed to a fleet of coaches parked at the camp’s entrance. “Then those buses taking us to planes.”

But other than tragedy, what memories will the Marines take home with them? What stories will be told to grandchildren years from now?

Foremost, they recalled the humor found in extreme situations, such as the Marine who stripped bare atop his amphibious track to catch a shower in a thunderstorm.

Sometimes they even fought in their skivvies.

During a midnight fire mission, Pfc. Michael Scott, 26, of St. Louis, and fellow artillery troops hopped naked to their 155 mm howitzers.

“We didn’t have time to get dressed,” Scott said.

One night, Lance Cpl. Bryce Jacobs, 20, of Howell, N.J., set out to relieve himself. Gunfire erupted and someone shouted to hit the dirt.

“There I was, crouching down with my pants around my ankles, pointing my M16,” Jacobs said. “The guys were throwing dirt balls at my butt.”

They’ll also recall acts of camaraderie — the Marine who gave away his last cigarette or dip of tobacco to a buddy.

And they will remember the heartbreaking reality of postwar Iraq, the mobs of begging children clustered around patrols and schoolrooms filled with Iraqi weapons and ammunition.

Army troops could only shake their heads when they recalled odd things Marines did in combat. While waiting to fight, some Marines tested their flak vests by stabbing each other with knives, asccording to Army Pfc. Christopher Montgomery, 20, of Slippery Rock, Pa.

“They found out a knife goes through it,” Montgomery said. “We did dumb stuff, too. It comes with boredom.”

Care packages arrived recently stuffed with toothpaste and toilet paper, items they could have used during the fighting last month but now are overcrowding their gear. Still, it was those little tastes from home that helped them through the final weeks.

Capt. Eric Dominijanni, 30, of Queens, N.Y., was surprised when his mom sent Italian favorites. Her package, which arrived in Iraq, had hot Calabrese salami, Bustello coffee and a single-shot espresso maker.

“That woman is great,” Dominijanni said. “She is getting a car [or] something when I get home.”

His unit, the 3rd Assault Amphibious Battalion from Twentynine Palms, Calif., faced “urban cleanup,” the lawless chaos that follows the initial assault.

“We saw droves of soldiers in civilian clothes,” Dominijanni said. “They had dropped their uniforms at the side of the road.”

But nearer to Baghdad, the fighting intensified. Small squads of enemy troops would fire a few shots and then surrender, Dominijanni said. None appeared eager to fight. Locals were painting Arabic writing over Saddam’s wall-size portraits.

“When we went into the cities, everyone was cheering,” Dominijanni said. “It made me realize that we were doing the right thing.”

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