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Over the span of a normal lifetime, how often do you see a loved one off for a trip? A long trip? A long and dangerous trip?

It’s five o’clock in the morning in a parking lot at the Del Mar area of Camp Pendleton on January 18, 2008. The sun hasn’t come out yet, it’s freezing cold, and the best shelter anyone can find is not the wide open tent — with the lukewarm watered-down coffee that is about two degrees warmer than it is “outside.” The people who know — the ones who have been here before — have blankets, sit inside cars and SUVs with engines running and heaters on, waiting until the last moment to exit. The less fortunate (read: experienced) group stands around shivering and almost hoping for the word to load up onto the buses; almost, but not quite.

These Marines are getting ready to leave for a year-long deployment to Camp Fallujah in Iraq, and if you didn’t already know, one look around you would reveal this. Everywhere are faces bearing the reddened eyes and drawn, haggard faces betraying the recent sleepless nights and constant anxiety faced by everyone assembled.

There are families here: huge groups of wives, husbands, children, sisters, brothers, and parents, all circled around the one deploying as if a protective circle of love could ward off the impending departure and separation. Some clusters are smaller, just the wives (sometimes husbands) and children. The most common sight is a baby or toddler held, an arm around a spouse, and any other children tucked in close to the legs and waist.

Also present are some solo Marines, milling about or gathering in small groups to jaw about something unimportant, trying to pass the time. They are a study in unsteady bravado, not really sure what to expect this time in-country; all of them are wary, excited, exhausted, and (whether admittedly or not) scared. A few exist who revel in the prospect of true combat and stand out among their tentative brethren; usually those who know what it is — alternately boring, exhilarating, frightening — don’t pretend to enjoy the experience. Most are also unsure of their individual role in this new war, with conflicting reports about improved security, anemic terrorist groups, and a creeping, deadly brand of military complacency.

Last, there are the couples who, without families or children to distract them, are easily recognizable. An almost unnatural intimacy surrounds them as they prepare for the reality of what has been the topic of every conversation for weeks, whether either of them has spoken a word about it or not. Barely visible in the predawn light, they resemble a single person, powerfully braced against the winter wind. The more comfortable and familiar they are with one another, the less is said; many couples just hold each other closely or stand side by side, watching the busy scene before them. Reassurance is gained through eye contact, a hand squeeze, or a soft, lingering kiss. Despite all the activity around, it’s obvious how far away these pairs are, thinking back to a shared moment or trying to absorb every aspect of the other, holding tight to each image, memorizing the features of their loved one’s face. For the more mature and thoughtful, this impending separation is as fully comprehended as humanly possible, and plans are in place for every thinkable eventuality; others are younger or not as strong and haven’t faced the bleak reality confronting them everywhere they turn.

Regardless of how prepared they are, the time has come: all heavy gear is already gone and each Marine has only what he or she can carry. After roll call, the word goes out for them to get on the buses to leave. Slowly, momentum builds toward the long line of idling buses as the exodus begins. The solo ones are the first to go, loading up alone or with a buddy, maybe taking a last look at the Pacific coast from the open air. A mass of Marines forms outside each bus door as the main group gets on; a few wives break down and drop any pretense of stoic calm they promised to maintain while little children can be heard sobbing gently as they are led away. All that remains are the senior Marines and a few stubborn couples, drawing out the sweetly painful moment, linked together by a hug, a hand, a finger, and finally just the eyes. When the last man is loaded up by the weary leaders, a final count is taken to ensure no one is left behind. The doors shut and the convoy pulls out of the parking lot past the tearful prayers of those left behind.

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