The ramrod-straight Marines stood as a single unit, but they really were an amalgam of veterans and newcomers preparing to head to Iraq.
Sgt. Adam Freeman recalled the colonel's voice echoing through the hangar on the base in Hawaii: Anyone who was with us in Iraq, stand over there. About half of the more than 150 Marines moved to their left.
If you went one time before, separate yourself, the colonel ordered. A smaller group took a step. Three times, he barked, and a handful moved.
Freeman stood alone.
"You've got to be kidding me,'' the colonel said.
Later, Freeman said, a sergeant major offered to move him to another unit. You won't have to deploy again, she said. Don't you have a wife? Family? A girlfriend? It's got to be taking a toll on them.
"I haven't had a relationship in eight years,'' Freeman said. "Besides, I lost my right to complain when I enlisted.''
How rare is it to have served five deployments? The Marine Corps reports that more than 141,000 Marines have been deployed since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.
Only 22 have served five deployments. No Marine has been deployed six times.
• • •
Freeman was adrift in 2001 while attending Springstead High School in Hernando County.
His mother, Janet Freeman, described a smart but bored teen, one clever enough to use the same term paper repeatedly during his years in high school by simply tweaking it slightly. A student who figured out in middle school that if he got A's for half the year and D's the rest, it would balance out to a tolerable grade.
When asked why he did it, he told her, "Who ever asks for your middle school transcript?''
Both mother and son said Freeman wasn't ready for college and needed the discipline the military could provide. "It's a good place to get your head straight,'' he said recently at his family's Spring Hill home, adorned with a Welcome Home Sgt. Adam banner.
Poor eyesight prevented him from trying to become an Air Force pilot, the Army looked like drudgery, and he didn't want to be on a Navy ship for six months. The Marines, they decided, were the elite, and that's where he belonged.
While still in school, Freeman chose the delayed-entry option, signing an eight-year contract calling for four years of active duty and four in reserves. In the summer of 2001, at age 18, he left for basic training.
One day, news from the outside penetrated the cloistered world of boot camp: The World Trade Center had fallen and the Pentagon had been attacked. America was at war.
Freeman's career choice suddenly got more complicated, but he says he took it in stride. "I knew what I was in for when I signed up,'' he said.
He graduated from basic training on Sept. 29, 2001, and joined a helicopter squadron, loading bullets and bombs onto the Marines' helicopters and jets.
After months of training, Freeman left for Iraq aboard the USS Kearsarge. It was Jan. 13, 2003, his birthday.
• • •
Freeman doesn't fit the profile of the hard-charging, door-kicking Marine like square-jawed, broad-shouldered John Wayne in the Flying Leathernecks.
Bespectacled and soft-spoken, with average height and build and a receding hairline, he looks more like an insurance actuary than a grizzled veteran.
"People underestimate me,'' he said with a smile. "I enjoy that fact.''
Everyone is held to a physical standard in the Marines, he said, and there is no slack in a warrior culture. "Everyone's an alpha male. Even the females are alpha males, so there's friction, but it's healthy competition.''
Besides, he said, training, not size, prepares you for war.
He remembers the first time he heard gunfire coming from weapons that were not American.
"No matter who you are, even if you have brain damage, you still know what fear is,'' he said. "It's a fleeting moment. But that's why they have basic training; you learn to collect yourself.''
Another time, he was on a ship loading bombs onto a Marine aircraft in the dark of night when he nearly stepped off the rolling flight deck. "You don't reflect on it till later when you say, 'Geez, I could've just bought it.' ''
Though he came through all five tours unscathed, some of his friends were not so fortunate.
A couple of his buddies came under mortar and rocket attack, he recalled. Shrapnel ripped into one man's face and into the other's leg, which "snapped like a matchstick,'' he said.
He still mourns the loss of two close friends, Sgt. Donnie Levens and Cpl. Matt Marcellus. They were among 10 Marines killed on Feb. 17, 2006, when two helicopters collided off the coast of Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.
Levens was Freeman's best friend; more like a brother, Freeman's mother said. The loss knocked her Marine to his knees.
The Marines had sent Freeman on another assignment just weeks before the accident. If not, he almost assuredly would have been with his friends on that flight.
• • •
September 2003 found Freeman in Djibouti with a multinational task force targeting terrorist supply lines in Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and the Gulf of Aden.
This mission was about more than just warfare; the young Marine was beginning to see there was a wider world outside small-town Spring Hill.
"I never noticed what a bubble we live in in America,'' he said. "These people have been in their locations for thousands of years. We don't know what it's like to have our families in the same spot for a millennium.''
Freeman re-enlisted for active duty in 2005, in part because he could choose his next base. He picked Hawaii, but before long, he was back in Iraq. As the tours piled up, Freeman also was paying attention to the changing nature of the war and the people fighting it.
Deployment No. 4 in 2006 was to the chaotic western Al Anbar province. The enemy's roadside bombs were a coldly efficient, devastating menace and the Marines soon figured out that the best way to avoid them was to stay above the roads. Helicopters became the transportation of choice.
But they presented juicy targets to the enemy, who filled the sky with deadly accurate rocket-propelled grenades. "More copters in the air means more targets,'' he said. "We adapted; they adapted.''
When Freeman returned to Iraq in July 2008, his fifth overseas deployment, he found a changed, calmer Al Anbar province.
"We weren't flying all the time like we used to,'' he said. "There was not the constant pressure; we actually got some down time.''
Marines in Iraq for the first time may have been disappointed by the relative calm. "They like to run around and shoot things,'' Freeman said. "Me, whatever the job wants me to do, that's what I'll do. I've had my time in the sun.''
Iraqis were now filling roles that Marines had been performing.
"From day one, whatever the motivation was to be (in Iraq), it doesn't matter because we're here,'' he said. "We have to leave the place in good order. It's good manners.''
• • •
Determined to get an education, Freeman earned an associate's degree in liberal arts from Chaminade University in Honolulu, while stationed in Hawaii.
By now he was wearing sergeant stripes, which to some Marines is just about the ultimate badge of honor. He also is an ordnance chief.
"I had been a slacker in high school,'' he said. "Now I was talking to majors, pilots. My opinion really mattered.''
Freeman left Iraq for the last time in February. Three months later, he was home in Hernando County.
When he goes off active duty next month, he will have spent almost a third of his life in the Marines. And much of those eight years were spent in Iraq or some other war zone.
Did he ever do the math?
"Yeah,'' he said. "Then I threw out that piece of paper. Look, I'm only 26, so eight years is a high percentage. I have a whole life ahead of me. It only weighs as much as the paper it's printed on.''
"It's time for a new challenge,'' he said.
Freeman is considering his options for college, determined to make the most of the GI Bill benefits he has earned. He wants to major in physics and minor in astronomy and go all the way to a doctorate.
On a recent afternoon, he was preparing to drive to the east coast to check out some campus apartments.
His old unit?
They're gearing up for another deployment. This time to Afghanistan.
Greg Hamilton can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 754-6113.