By JESSE HAMILTON,
Courant Staff Writer  

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. -- Long before dawn,
the Marines gather in a parking lot beside their tall
hill of identical sea bags.

At the start of the last day of deployment on
Wednesday, Plainville's Charlie Company waits.
Sometimes it seems to them as if a Marine exists to
wait, as if waiting is his own special burden, even
beyond Iraq's insurgent firefights and midnight
raids.

Whether it's waiting seven months in the
maelstrom of downtown Fallujah, waiting seven
days in the drab nowhere barracks of Camp
Pendleton or waiting seven hours to get on a
chartered jet toward New England, it's all the same
endless wait for these reservist Marines to get back
to what they once were.

So they stand in the cool dark of a Southern
California night, which feels bitter cold in their
desert-baked bones. The remnants of the unit,
about 170 Marines, arrived here days ago at the
end of their long journey home from Fallujah -
home to Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 25th
Marines, for about seven months. California has
been a purgatory for those anxious to get home, but
it's all according to military design.

U.S. base for days, getting medical screens, turning
in weapons and learning about veterans benefits.
It's also a buffer of time between war and home
front, a moment for each to twist his lens from
wide angle back to his own tight focus. Another
wait.

The infinite "When I get home ..." game had filled
their scant downtime in Iraq, but now that they
wait for buses to an airfield, not all know how
they'll fit into their old lives, and for some, fitting
back in isn't an option.

Divorce. Reconciliation. Infidelity. Careers gone
missing-in-action. New starts. Fighting for the
custody of children. Or meeting their own babies
for the first time. Their worlds have turned while
they fought in the war.

Lance Cpl. Lino Torres is coming home to
Bridgeport. He's hours away from meeting his first
son, Lino Jr., and he knows there will be a lot to
get used to. "I really don't know what to think," he
says. "I just want to see my son."

Cpl. Parke Stearns from Lebanon, one of the 91
Connecticut residents at the start of the
deployment, has his own uncertainty.

"How different am I going to be when I go home?"
He thinks the easy violence of Fallujah has changed
him, made him realize how narrow a line it is
between living and dying. "It just happens," he
said. "Like rain." Death isn't a big production.
People just cease to exist in an instant. "It's just
that simple."

He was there on Oct. 1 when Lance Cpl.
Christopher B. Cosgrove III from New Jersey was
consumed in the blast of a car bomb. Cosgrove was
one of four from Charlie Company killed in Iraq:
Capt. Brian S. Letendre, who lived in New Britain,
was first on May 3.

Then Lance. Cpl. Kurt E. Dechen from Vermont
and Cpl. Jordan C. Pierson from Milford both
killed in August. Cosgrove fell at the beginning of
this month, in the final days of Charlie Company's
time in Fallujah.

"The buses are here!" somebody shouts. Loaded
with tired Marines, the convoy of buses drive
through the misty dawn fog to the airfield, just in
time to wait several hours for their flights. Even the
commanders aren't sure why they had to leave so
early. It's just the way the Marine Corps works,
one says.

As the sun rises over the airport on their
homecoming day, spirits rise with it. The Marines
in the all-male infantry unit talk about being ready
to get away from all the others, finally being alone
and responsible only for themselves again. But 1st
Sgt. Ben Grainger from Enfield, the chief
non-commissioned officer of Charlie Company, has
been through all this before. He knows the
moments his Marines will have when they get
home.

"Your room is empty all of a sudden," he says.
"It's quiet. Deafeningly quiet."

The Marines start loading their bags on the wrong
airplane and then the head count isn't coming out
right, which adds minutes of delay. Each minute is
starting to become a test of strength. The boarding
of the airplane makes the coming reunion seem
more real.

"I'm a civilian again!" one Marine yells as he gets to
the plane.

As the charter plane takes off and flies east, flight
attendants distribute hot towels to the Marines,
and the in-flight movie starts: "The Devil Wears
Prada," the tale of a young woman's misadventures
in the fashion biz, which most of the Marines sleep
through.

The pilot announces the plane will land soon at
Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts.

He says, "The temperature has cooled to about 44
degrees."

Loud groans fill the passenger cabin. But when it
lands, the Marines cheer and whistle. One more
step taken. Just a last bus ride to go.

"We made it, brother," says Cpl. Devin Anderson
from Southington, hugging another Marine. "God,
it feels good."

It's on that final ride through a New England night
that the Marines' spirits erupt. They've got a state
police escort, and a Marine starts playing music
through an iPod with speakers. "Mama, I'm
Coming Home," by Ozzy Osbourne is first.

The bus caravan runs red lights. Sgt. Jason
Hermenau, a Winsted cop, points out a Dunkin'
Donuts - the first he's seen in most of a year.

Through Massachusetts and down I-91, there are
banners hung on the overpasses, welcoming Charlie
Company home. One reads: "Thank You,
Grainger's Grunts."

The police escort is joined by American Legion
motorcycles and trucks flying flags. "This is how
we do it in Connecticut!" a Marine yells.

The young men are talking over each other now,
joking and singing. They see the lights of Hartford,
where their families and friends are gathered at the
state armory.

They pull into the city, past more signs and
banners and flashing lights. They are pointing and
grinning like children. And there's the armory,
besieged by parked cars.

The wait of their lives is over.

The buses line up. The doors open, and the
Marines no longer mind the cold.
.