KIRKUK, Iraq — With the Iraq war in its seventh year, the historic milestones vary. But they exist: a premature declaration of victory aboard an aircraft carrier; subsequent years of carnage and loss; a tentative peace that appears to solidify by the day. And now, an end in sight for U.S. forces here by 2012.

Staff Sgt. Willie Martin has given much of his 20s to this war.

Martin, 28, deployed in 2003, preparing for the invasion and following the tip of the spear. He returned and rode the bomb-laden highways all over the country in 2004 and 2005. Martin said goodbye to his three sons and headed back in 2007, where he helped keep the "surge" supplied and witnessed the beginning of stability in Iraq. In January, he arrived back in country for another 12-month tour.

Six years. Four deployments. His middle son born while he was gone. His youngest born right before he left. His oldest just now at an age where he understands why dad’s gone so much.

This latest tour brings him to Forward Operating Base Warrior in Kirkuk with the rest of 2nd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division. He spends his days mainly assisting the State Department and its Provincial Reconstruction Team. It’s quiet so far. He doesn’t mind.

Since the war began, he’s gotten divorced.

"She didn’t like the deployments," he says simply. Reconnecting after so much time apart was hard. "I think it was the length of deployment that was kind of bad. I was steadily coming and going. You kind of fight two things at the same time."

For better or worse, Martin joins an exclusive club. Only 10.2 percent of the Army’s active-duty ranks deployed three or more times to Iraq or Afghanistan, according to an October Pentagon report.

About 35.6 percent deployed once as of August, 20.5 percent deployed twice and 33.7 percent never went.

Martin, of Fort Worth, Texas, first came to Iraq as a specialist in January 2003. Assigned to the 119th Transportation Company, he moved materiel around Kuwait in the buildup to the March invasion.

"I didn’t know what to expect," he said of those initial days. "You’re just nervous. You’re ready."

The deployment was peaceful. Whenever he did ride a convoy into Iraq after the invasion, people waved.

"A lot of them just wanted food," Martin said.

Camaraderie was high, he said. Getting the job done was paramount. He remembers everybody thinking the war would be over soon.

‘What’s an IED?’

Martin returned to Iraq for a year in March 2004 with the 25th Transportation Company. Initially based out of Forward Operating Base Speicher, his platoon soon moved to Camp Cedar. Martin got with a gun truck and trained for convoy security.

"It was a new experience for me," he said. "I took it and embraced it."

Escorting convoys, Martin and the men around him soon encountered "a lot of [bombs], a lot of sniper fire. I can’t even count them all."

He recalls that when he arrived, people were constantly talking about roadside bombs.

"We were like, ‘What’s an IED?’ " he said. "You started to see the new threats."

During his yearlong deployment, Martin estimates he did about 400 convoys, going from Kuwait to Speicher and everywhere in between. There was danger everywhere.

The deployment brought with it the new Army uniform. About halfway through, Martin remembers his unit finally getting up-armored vehicles.

"We were excited about that," he said. "(Before) we had to weld our own armor and put it in the doors, along with sandbags, Kevlar blankets. We were just scared, man. After we got the upgrade, it put a bit more sense of security with us. It turned out pretty good."

Despite all that time on the roads, his unit only got hit a few times. But they lost one soldier. Martin says he still stays in touch with the guy’s wife.

During this deployment, his second son, Brandon, was born.

"Every day was different," he said of that second Iraq tour. "You didn’t know what to expect. It was the same mission but every day was different."

Readjustment time differs with every return, he said.

"It’s a challenge," Martin said. "Your sleep patterns are off. After the second one, I was a little anxious because [bombs] had been frequent. Boom. Every couple days you see [bombs] blow up near you or hear that someone’s hit. When you get back home you’re used to stuff going off.

A toned down third tour

Martin spent his third tour working out of Forward Operating Base Prosperity in the Green Zone. His third son, Cameron, now 2, was born right before he left.

It was a pretty straight-up gig, moving supplies from point A to point B.

"We had a pretty safe tour," he said. "The tone was pretty good. You could tell the ‘surge’ worked, from my end going out every day. There were some devices that of course we discovered, but it had toned down tremendously."

Martin said he’s heartened to see the Iraqi forces increasingly taking the lead on the ground, and is glad to see the Iraq mission nearing its end.

"I think we’ve helped out a great deal," he said. "They’re ready to take charge. And that’s something we can take great credit for, just coming out every day and working hard and making things happen."

Martin studied computer networking at the University of Texas-Arlington before enlisting and says he plans to do his graduation walk when he gets done with this deployment.

A seasoned Iraq vet at 28, Martin said he tries to talk truth to his young privates, who come here expecting a fight.

"I try to tell these guys, ‘Hey, a lot of guys that I know or that we’ve seen have lost their lives, probably just bringing people up here to set up a Burger King or PX,’ " he said. "It’s crazy, right? We didn’t have those things back in the day."

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