MOHAMMED AL AHMED NAVAL BASE, Kuwait – Relieved U.S. Marines began a long sea trip home, satisfied with their efforts to quell Iraq's insurgency but grieving over the loss of comrades on the battlefield.
"I'm glad it is over," said Lance Corp. Frank LaRue of Buffalo, N.Y. "I lost a lot of friends."
LaRue was among 2,000 U.S. Marines and sailors attached to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (search) who boarded landing craft from this Kuwaiti base on Monday to Navy ships anchored off the shore ahead of a four-week voyage to a base in Okinawa, Japan (search).
On the landing craft, Marines armed with digital cameras took photos and video recordings of one another, while one played guitar and sang The Eagles classic, "Hotel California." Others set their M-16s aside to relax under the sun.
From Japan, the U.S. service members — many of whom served in Iraqi's hot spots, including the one-time insurgent stronghold of Fallujah — will head home to spend time off with their families after six months of service.
It will take a few more days to load the unit's equipment — around 150 amphibious assault and light armored vehicles, and trucks — onto three ships.
"Words can't even explain how I feel," said a smiling Corp. Jeff Deluca, 22, who is taking home a Purple Heart and hand-grenade shrapnel lodged in his left shoulder.
Deluca, a Marine of four years from Cleveland, Ohio, plans to marry after getting back home. He spent three months in Fallujah, taking part in the November U.S.-led offensive that took the city back from insurgents and religious extremists.
Fifty members of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit were killed in Iraq, the majority in a Jan. 26 helicopter crash. More than 220 were wounded.
"All that fighting they did, they had to die in an accident," 22-year-old LaRue said, referring to the helicopter crash.
He added that even the four-week voyage to Japan "still feels like going home. Every movement is one step closer."
Kuwait, a small oil-rich state, has been a major ally of Washington since the U.S.-led international coalition fought the 1991 Gulf War (search) that liberated it from a seven-month Iraqi occupation.
It was the only Arab country that openly supported the American invasion of Iraq almost two years ago that toppled the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. It remains a major logistics stop for American and other multinational troops serving in Iraq.
Some 25,000 troops are currently in Kuwait, but the figure fluctuates as units deploy to Iraq or leave through this country.
About 130 members of the Marine unit will stay behind for a week to take care of administrative business, while others have already left for Japan.
The unit's spokesman, Capt. Burrell Parmer, said the Marines not only fought insurgents, but they built hospitals, coordinated voter education and set up polling stations for January's national elections.
Their efforts to secure Iraq's border with Syria resulted in "seriously lessening" infiltration of fighters and smugglers into Iraq, he said.
The U.S. and Iraqi governments accuse Syria of failing to stop Arab fighters from entering Iraq through its border to attack multinational as well as Iraqi security forces.
"It felt good to liberate the city (of Fallujah) and see the people happy," said Sgt. Raul Munoz, 24, of Indio, Calif.
However, he said the memory he is taking home from his Iraqi tour of duty will be the three friends — two Marines and one sailor — who were killed there.
"I know they died for a cause," he said after staring at the landing craft's floor.