http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/30/opinion/30jones.html?pagewanted=print May 30, 2005 Over There By KEVIN C. JONES Carmichael, Calif. ON this Memorial Day, more than two years after the invasion of Iraq, American troops are still fighting and dying. Their deaths have become a staple of the evening news, a permanent column on the front page. Most of the time, we don't even notice anymore. Until death touches someone we know, or someone we used to be. On the morning of Jan. 26, while I rush my daughters through their bowls of cereal, brush their hair and get them ready for school, I learn that a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter has crashed in western Iraq, killing 31 men. Twenty-six of them are part of my old unit: Company C, First Battalion, Third Marine Regiment, stationed at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Kaneohe Bay. Later, at work, I struggle to explain how surreal it is to learn that marines from the infantry company I served with in the Persian Gulf war have been killed in this one. I sit at my desk, processing insurance claims, surrounded by gray cubicle walls instead of sandbags and dirt, behind a computer instead of a machine gun, thinking about the business card from the recruiter tucked in my wallet. He says there's a slot for me in a reserve unit if I want it, and that I'd get a chance to go overseas again, to be part of something larger and greater than myself. To go to the war. I think about what my daughters would say if I told them that I'm leaving, and that I might not come back. I wonder how to justify it to myself if I don't go. My co-worker looks over at me from his desk and says, "Did you know any of them?" No, I didn't know them. What I know is the base where they lived. The way they ran up K.T., Kansas Tower, this giant hill in the middle of the base, gasping all the way to the top. I know the view from the apex, overlooking the vivid blue of Kaneohe Bay, a rainbow in the background. I know how good a cool breeze felt when they reached the top, after running past the flight line, beyond the beach where their leg muscles burned and their feet sank into soft, warm sand. I know what drives a marine, at the end of his endurance, choking back vomit as the battalion runs in a huge formation, to suddenly break ranks and run to the man carrying the Colors, the battalion flag, and take it from him, sprinting around 800 marines in a giant circle before returning it and dropping back in line. I know what they smelled like when they were sweating out the beer they drank the night before. But I didn't know them. I know what they felt like when they were released on liberty at 1600 on a Friday afternoon. How much time it took to iron their clothes and clean up for a night out. I know how many guys can be squeezed into a subcompact car, piling on top of each other for a ride down to Waikiki Beach and Kalakaua Avenue. I know what it's like to spend an entire paycheck in 48 hours, buying drinks for impossibly beautiful women from all over the world who all seem to be in the same bar on the same night. I know the feeling of being thousands of miles from home, afraid because war is coming soon, and then a girl smiles and, for a moment, everything is O.K. I know how a woman like that can make the toughest marine feel 16 again, kissing a girl for the first time. I know how to get all the way across the island back to the base from Waikiki, or Honolulu, with no money and only the other guys in my platoon to help me. I know what it is to become brothers with men you never would have met in the civilian world, and to remember them for years after they're gone. But I didn't know them. I know what it feels like to patrol for days without sleep in Molokai, and at Schofield Barracks and Camp Pendleton; in Okinawa, and the Philippines and Saudi Arabia. I know the industrial claustrophobia of being on a ship, packed in with 40 other marines in a space the size of a studio apartment. The smells, the jokes, the way the surface of the helicopter flight deck cuts into your palms when you do push-ups. I know what it's like to comfort marines when their wives or girlfriends leave them with only a note and a bogus explanation and they want answers, but there aren't any. But I didn't know them. I know what it's like to ride in a CH-53 helicopter. The way it shimmies as it thunders over the terrain below, a crouched panther waiting to strike, marines in the back, heads bowed, trying to catch some sleep, never knowing when they might get another chance to rest. Marines dreaming of their families, of home. No, I didn't know the marines who died, but I miss them just the same. I go to work each day, safe in my cubicle, checking the news for word of the war dead, looking for friends and thinking about that recruiter's card in my wallet. Kevin C. Jones served as a marine from 1990 to 1994. Pretty fucking gut-wrenching, ain't it?