CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — When Staff Sgt. Matt Egelston heard a thunder clap here Sunday, his first reaction was, "incoming."
"Just hearing the boom, it made me look around," he said.
Egelston and 80 other Idaho Marine reservists recently returned to the United States after serving seven months in Iraq and are biding their time at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, awaiting a chartered plane. They are out of danger and painfully close to home.
Camp Lejeune is an idyllic setting — 150,000 acres of pine forest and coastline — but the Marines simply want to get back to Idaho. They started arriving at Lejeune on Oct. 3, have packed for home and taken demobilization classes about getting back to civilian life. Now they are simply waiting for a flight home.
"It's kind of a disappointment," said Egelston. "Everyone says, 'Welcome home,' but we're not home yet."
The Idaho Marines at Lejeune are all part of the Boise-based Charlie Company 4th Tank Battalion, 4th Marine Division. They were deployed to Iraq in March and split up throughout Iraq, two groups going to separate tank battalions and one going to a military police unit.
The 80 Marines worked in some of the most dangerous areas in Iraq, often enduring long hours waiting in sweltering 100-plus degree heat inside tanks.
As military police, they escorted convoys of civilians and military prisoners. Marines in the tank battalions did security patrols in towns and on roads, looking for insurgents. Some were wounded during bombings and mortar attacks.
Among the injured were three Treasure Valley Marines — Lance Cpl. Mitch Ehlke, Lance Cpl. Joe Lowe and Staff Sgt. Chad Brumpton — who were taking part in "Operation Matador," an intense battle near the Syrian border, when a bomb exploded near their tank. And Lance Cpl. Dustin Birch of St. Anthony died after being killed by a roadside bomb in June.
Some Idaho Marines are eager to show their movies and digital photos of Iraq and share stories — it's like therapy, one Marine said.
So they pass their time in Lejeune working out, playing basketball and reading while waiting on a chartered flight to Boise. It could be tomorrow. It could be this weekend. The cliche "hurry up and wait'' is popular here these days.
Depending on where they were, the Marines saw varying degrees of action, with tanks around the area of Hit, west of Baghdad, seeing especially heavy fighting.
Lance Cpl. Justin Fields, 21, missed the birth of his first child, Isabella Cristine Fields, who was born in April, a month after he deployed.
He said it "stinks'' that he missed his child's birth, but he is proud of his service and excited about meeting his daughter for the first time (except for a Webcam shot) when he gets back to his Boise home.
"There's really no way to explain how I feel. It's just a wonderful feeling," he said.
Sgt. Albert Pardo, 29, was a tank commander with the Alpha Company 1st Tank Battalion in Hit and experienced roadside bombs and armed insurgents. He said he is looking forward to getting back to his wife and three children in Nampa after being away for seven months and missing two of his children's birthdays.
"My other two kids asked me, 'Are you going to be gone for our birthdays (again),' and I said, 'No, Dad's not going anywhere for a while,' '' he said.
Egelston commanded an M1A1 Abrams tank, working in an active area — nightly small arms fire, roadside bombs and occasional mortar attacks. In the summer, it was 140 degrees inside the tank, and wearing a flak jacket only deepened the misery, Egelston said. Some missions meant sweating in the same camouflage clothes five days straight, as the stench built and filth crusted onto clothing. Fresh air was often not an option, due to possible insurgent attacks.
"We didn't know if it would be more (harmful) to our health to get out or stay in,'' he said.
Egelston and his wife have six children. The Boise Marine said he started keeping a daily journal in Iraq as a record for his children, but that it became an outlet to relieve the stress of combat.
"It was a way for me to vent,'' he said. "You can talk to chaplains and all that, but for me, it works that way.''
Now, Egelston must find a job — he worked construction before the war, but wants to do something new — and readjust to civilian life after seven months of always being on guard.
"I just don't know,'' he said. "I take it one day at a time."