Go here for part 1.
It was the waiting, I think, that finally sapped my fear of death. I can't recall much of the crossing or of the days that followed, only glimpses of the dusty, smokey interior of our vehicle and the shouts and gunfire coming from outside the little metal box I shared with twelve or so others. I couldn't hear the radio chatter over my helmet, only the intercom between the driver and crewchief, and so I simply waited.
At first, I waited fearfully; my emotions in lockstep with the other passengers as we stared at each other, straining to hear the whistle of the tank round that had our name on it. Our 'chariot' roared and quieted, stopped and started, throwing us off our seats or into the walls. Gunfire erupted and subdued, the intercom squeaked and hissed and shouted, and quieted. The ping and snap of small rounds rang against the vehicle like tiny hammers against a muffled bell.
Intense emotion tends to wear one down over time, and this is what I suspect happened to me. I don't know precisely when, but at some point during that day I let something go. Some feeling I had held back, some truth or hunch that was hanging over my intellect. In part, I let it go because I didn't want to be surprised; I've never been a fan of surprises. The larger part, however, was that within the confines of that mobile metal box, I came to realize that even if I survived the day I would have to face tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, with the same harrowing trepidation that ate at me. I finally just let go, accepting that, if not today, tomorrow would be my last; the properly aimed rocket, the perfectly timed explosive, or the expertly aimed rifle round would find it's target. No matter what, or when, or where, I would not live with this gnawing fear overshadowing my every moment.
From then on, though I took every precaution required to stay out of trouble, I didn't find the inevitable end to my existence a compelling motivation to further caution. When ambushed, I leaped out of the vehicle as requested and made room for the infantry to follow after. While the chatter of machine gun fire surrounded us, while rounds kicked up the dust at my feet and slapped the metal hatch at my side, I peered curiously back into the dark interior of my vehicle and into the frozen faces of the young men I had just called to follow me. Following their gaze, I glanced over my shoulder at the field across the road just as a humvee roared past. Blinking the sand out of my eyes, I watched mortar rounds making ten foot high teardrops of sand as they slowly walked them towards our position. The second impact was near enough, and the sudden burst of 50cal fire loud enough, that I lost all sense of hearing but for a loud ring. Turning back to the infantry, I punched their squad leader on the knee and held up four fingers. He immediately snapped out of his reverie and into his training, tapping three others and jumping out past me. I turned again to watch the teardrops as they filed out and ran behind me.
Later on, after a sandstorm that had claimed a tank and it's crew which fell off a bridge and into a river, we found ourselves on an extremely muddy stretch of road in the dead of night. Through the top hatch, which had been folded back to allow three of the riflemen in back with me to stand and aim out over the side, I saw tracers streak past and heard the chatter of us returning fire. The details elude me, but we spent some significant portion of that night trading rounds at shadows of one another. So far as I could tell, no one was even wounded.
The next morning I stepped lightly out the back of the vehicle and set up to shave and brush my teeth, wearing my jumpsuit and boots but no protective gear. The infantry on either side of the road, still in full combat gear, urged me to don my flak jacket for fear of another surge from the sand. I ignored them, and went about my hygiene nonplussed. They must have assumed that I knew something they didn't, and, though still keyed up from the previous night, they slowly relaxed. I later discovered that the enemy snipers were poorly trained, and weren't likely to even hit the vehicle from a decent distance, much less a man shaving in it's shadow. Besides, I thought, if they do get lucky, I won't have to shave in cold water any longer, or wear those bloody rubber boots that make your feet sweat so badly. These were the terms of my existence at the time, and they constituted a burden I would have found easy to cast aside.
When, through all sorts of misadventures and dusty, endless days, we finally arrived in Baghdad, I finally had the opportunity to meet Iraqis without guns. They didn't emerge until several hours after we arrived, most likely to confirm that we were not actively engaged in digesting small children (the interpretors, almost en masse, confirmed that this was how many people thought Marines earned the title). Once again surrounded by people, I watched and listened. You know, the strangest realization found it's way into my consciousness: they're just people. The children do childish things, the adults do things adults do. They care for one another, work for their livelihoods, laugh, fear, love, and cry.
I thought back to the episodes on the road in, the molten anger that sought fleshy purchase in our ranks, and contrasted it with this city and it's inhabitants. What, I thought, would I have done in their place? If someone invaded their home, intent upon killing them (as Saddam announced over the state television and radio). Well, I would have...
Oh, that's why I'm here. Huh.