Capt. Zeb Philpott has spent the past four years of his six-year Marine Corps career fighting in Iraq.

The nation plagued by a war now entering its fifth year is as good as home to him.

He’s witnessed change here — from a country whose people once greeted U.S. troops as rock stars, he said, to one ravaged by sectarian violence and an insurgency that has befuddled the most experienced of war commanders.

For this fourth tour, Philpott serves as the anti-terrorism/force-protection officer for the 2nd Marine Logistics Group, headquartered at this outpost in western Anbar province. And he’s prepared to come back for even more deployments.

But he awaits the day when he can travel to Iraq, a country he has grown to love and admire, with a passport and visa instead of military combat orders.

“I’d love to come back and visit,” he said in a recent interview. “This country is absolutely beautiful. Its beauty is stark, raw. It has a raw beauty about it.”

One day, he says.

Philpott, 30, was part of the initial push into Iraq in March 2003. He served as a platoon commander with the 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion and crossed the berm from Kuwait into Iraq as part of Task Force Tripoli in the war’s early hours.

His unit pushed from Kuwait through Nasiriyah, Kut and up and around to Tikrit.

“I had 28 Marines up in Iraq, in an unknown combat environment. There was excitement and anticipation there,” said Philpott, from Missoula, Mont.

The platoon encountered less resistance than anticipated, from both Iraq’s army and the local population.

“In 2003, we came in [to towns and villages] and people were real emotional, real appreciative,” Philpott said. “In some places we went through, we were like rock stars.”

Maybe it was time, or war, or death, or poverty, or unemployment, or rage, or exasperation, or a combination that warped the welcome-wagon sentiment.

He noticed the stark difference between his 2004 and 2005 deployments.

“There are times, there are places, where the people just stare at you. At first, I was really taken aback. Kids in some places don’t come running out to us. They’re not engaged. That was surprising,” he said.

Some memories resonate more than others.

Like an elderly man who exited the voting polls in Fallujah in December of 2005.

“He came out, inky fingers, came out and hugs one of my sergeants,” he recalled. “It was so unexpected. He’d said in his entire life, this was the first time he felt part of the country. ‘Now I’ve left my mark on this country,’” Philpott repeated the man’s words.

“That was such an emotional time. I felt like we were part of a watershed event, part of a bigger picture.”

Some memories aren’t so blissful. He doesn’t talk about those.

“Let’s say that working with the Marines that I do, the discipline and experience of the good Marines here, makes those moments fade a bit.”

Some of his experiences he can laugh at — now that he’s on a base with access to a good dining facility, gyms, cardio classes, martial arts lessons, an Internet cafe, phone bank — all the comforts of home, albeit set up in tents and plywood shacks.

There was a point just after the push into Iraq in 2003 in which he and his crew hadn’t showered for 42 days.

“We were living inside the same set of cammies. One of my corporals finally lost it one day and comes on the radio: ‘Sir, you stink,’ and clicks off.

“You get pretty ripe.”

In the early days, they’d stand in ammunition cans, “bare to the world,” and bathe as best as they could. They would launder their clothing, dump the grimy water and call for the next guy.

Now living at TQ, as it’s often called, where one can shower six times a day if work schedules permit, makes the memory a laughable one, he said.

“This is my fourth time back, and it’s almost comfortable,” he said, referring to living conditions.

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