We’d been stalled on the tarmac at Leatherneck for almost an hour. They had scrunched us all to the front of the Osprey’s cargo bay where we now sat rocking in our jump seats, our bags between our legs, the rotors pounding turbulently outside. We were drowning in the stench of diesel fuel, stale and sick-smelling; the very thing that on a previous eight-hour helo ride had sent me hurling chow hall spaghetti into my drop pouch. It was the ultimate boot/pogue mistake, and it could never be repeated.

The crew chief stumbled up from the rear of the aircraft, coiling a leash of headset cable.

“HQ is having a change of command rehearsal,” he shouted to us. “They don’t want any flyover noise disrupting it, so this flight might be canceled.”

Leatherneck is what happens when the Corps has been stagnant for too long. The “camp” was outfitted with pizza parlors, a steak house, salsa nights. Now they were postponing ops for drill rehearsals. Stay there long enough you might think you’re back in garrison. That’s why some call it “Leatherjeune.”

“How do you like that,” said a fat Army sergeant sitting across from me. He and his three PFCs were from the 3rd Infantry Division, probably headed back to their assigned VSP, where they most likely worked as tower guards. They were dusty and tired-looking. If they were part of the FLE convoy, they spent their time ferrying supplies around the battle space and rolling over IEDs.

“Where you headed?” he asked me.

“Watan,” I said.

He snorted. “There’s a place for you. We just had two guys get wounded there from shrapnel. One lost like, twenty feet of intestines.”