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Out of the Army and into school. That was the simple two-step plan that many of us adopted before we deployed in the summer of 2006. Nearly half of my platoon would be getting out if and when we made it back home from Iraq. We focused the best we could when it came to preparing for the mission, but there is no helping the excitement in the prospect of starting a new chapter of life on the government's dime.

In the run-up to the deployment, a lot of guys were buying their own equipment to take with them. It is generally accepted that government-issued equipment is inferior to what you can go out and buy yourself. The assault pack was one of those things. It's just like a backpack except with a sweetass name. The only problem was the zipper sucked something fierce and it held no more than what a high school backpack could carry. I'm the kind of person to carry backups of everything. Extra knives, batteries, carabiners, socks. I needed to haul a lot more than what the issue assault pack could carry.

Jesse hooked our whole squad up with aftermarket equipment. His dad's company sponsored us with thousands of dollars to buy magazine and utility pouches, vests and other luxuries. Jesse budgeted himself enough to buy a new civilian assault pack. He didn't need his old one, so he gave it to me.

"You can use it for the deployment, but you have to give it back to me," he said. "But if you decide to re-enlist, you can keep it."

"You'll definitely be getting it back," I replied.

I made the secondhand assault pack my own. It was worn out after one deployment but still held together fairly well. The bottom corner was tearing. Jesse had written his Hawaiian name, Keawe, in thick, black lettering on the front. I sewed on a name tape to cover it up. I wrote in small print 24 Nov 2007, the day I was getting out of the Army. It was below a message Jesse had written - For those who would NOT serve.

In Baghdad, I carried my assault pack everywhere we went. It was becoming a routine to leave our base in Taji and spend up to a week in smaller bases in the heart of the city. We began to live out of our assault packs, bringing whatever we could stuff in there. Mp3 players, books, movies, chess sets, snacks. I carried all of Lauren's letters with me so I could read them over and over. The rain had stained the notebook paper blue and red.

Jesse was always asking me when I was going to get a girlfriend. On the day I was going on leave, Josh told him I had a girl writing to me in Seattle. While my platoon went out to check out insurgents loading weapons into a car, I stayed behind and told Jesse the unlikely story of our relationship. "Damn dude, good luck with that s---," he said.

Two weeks later, Jesse would be cut down by small-arms fire in Baqubah. He would survive some time before passing away. I could not possibly avenge him; I was two thousand miles away. I heard about his death in the most undignified way: a MySpace bulletin read in an Internet cafe in Rome.

Coming back to Iraq after leave, I looked at Jesse's assault pack a lot differently. I still carried it with me everywhere, but I treated it a lot better. I no longer tossed it off the Stryker into the dust. I didn't shove it into small spaces on top of the vehicle. In the outposts where we lived, I used it as a pillow.

The assault pack is not an assault pack anymore. It's a backpack. I no longer stuff it with extra grenades, ammunition magazines or packages of Kool- Aid. It now carries textbooks, calculators and pencils. I started my first classes a few months ago to fulfill the plan two years in the making. I imagined it to be a seamless transition into civilian life. Boy, I was f------ naive, even when I came home. I saw some guys falling apart from PTSD, getting drunk or doing drugs to drown it out. I thought I made it out okay, relatively.

With my unassuming tan backpack at my feet, I break out in a sweat if I even think about mentioning Iraq in the classroom. I let it slide nearly every time, yielding the topic to daftly opinionated classmates. I feel like a foreign exchange student, confused about the motivation of my peers. I literally carry the burden of readjustment on my back, not wanting to let go my past but anxious to get to the future. Fractured into part war veteran and part journalism student, who I am speaking to determines which part of me is actually there in the room. To many, my past is my best kept secret. For all they know, my parents pay my tuition and do my laundry. I can be honest here. It's terrifying to be honest out there. Perhaps it's best that way.

For those who would NOT serve - it's faded now, not easily read unless you look closely. I secretly wish that another veteran will read it, see the dangling 550 cord hanging from one of the buckles and ask, "what unit were you in?" At least then I could be myself with someone that carries the same load on their shoulders.

When Alex Horton joined the Army, he was a shaggy-haired kid from Frisco, Texas, who read military histories and who had failed English twice. To avoid the endless e-mails to mom, dad, grandma and the cousins, he started a blog, called Army of Dude.

Spc. Horton of the 3rd Stryker Brigade blogged from Kuwait City, Mosul, Baghdad and Baqubah, through 15 months in Iraq. He blogged about seeing his first dead body, his quick realization that the Army was not for him, and his countdown of days until he made it home.

He returned to Texas almost a year ago and enrolled at Austin Community College. Now 23, he blogs about the bewildering transition to fresh air, and the strange disconnect between his Gen Y classmates and the life he left in the desert.

"There's not too much reporting from Iraq, just body counts and hard numbers," Horton said recently. "I can't look into the faces of the kids at school and see that there's a war going on. They have no idea what's going on."

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