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One soldier returns to Iraq for his family -- and a comrade who never made it home

By Chelsea J. Carter, CNN
updated 1:41 PM EST, Wed December 14, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • First Sgt. Marc Campuzano makes his third and final deployment to Iraq
  • He is part of the mission to turn off the lights ahead of the U.S. withdrawal
  • He could have sought a medical out after being wounded in Iraq
  • After 18 years in the Army, he faces a decision to stay in or get out

Editor's note: This is the last of four stories profiling soldiers and their families whose lives were defined by the Iraq war. The first, second and third parts were published earlier this week.

Al Asad Air Base, Iraq (CNN) -- First Sgt. Marc Campuzano braced against a cold November wind as he walked across a parking lot at a U.S. airbase in Iraq's Anbar province.

There at the sprawling complex that once served as Saddam Hussein's premiere airfield, Marc surveyed the few remaining armored vehicles that would carry him and his company out of Iraq.

It would be an historic journey. They would be among the very last U.S. soldiers to leave the country before the January 1, 2012, deadline to withdraw.

CNN Photos: Looking back at 8 years of war in Iraq

Their exit from Iraq would take them along some of the same routes the U.S. military used during the invasion more than eight years ago, and it would take Marc near some of the very places where he nearly lost his life -- and then, in a way, gained it back.

Seeing those places would be meaningful. But Marc carries reminders with him every day.

There's the black metal bracelet that bears the inscription of a fallen comrade. There are the scars on his leg and shoulder from bullets that nearly ended his life. There are the photos he carries of his wife, son and daughter, the family for whom he has sacrificed so much.

Marc, 38, began wearing the bracelet during his second tour in Iraq. Now, he was wearing it through his third -- and, possibly final -- deployment of his military career.

First Sgt. Marc Campuzano has served three tours in Iraq. The last time \
First Sgt. Marc Campuzano has served three tours in Iraq. The last time "was about coming back and facing fears," he says.

"I've worn it every day I've been here," he said, running his fingers across the bracelet. "I'm going to give it to the family. I want them to know that he finished what he started."

And in a way, so had Marc.

Going back again, for family

The narrative of the Iraq war -- the invasion, the rise of the insurgency, the surge of troops that helped quell the violence and now the withdrawal -- is woven through the lives of thousands upon thousands of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.

Repeated deployments have served as chapters in their lives -- each marked by a moment that altered their personal journey. Moments that changed the course of a life, the nature of relationships.

Such is the story of the Iraq war for Marc and his family.

The first time Marc deployed to Iraq, it was for his country. He was part of then-President George W. Bush's troop surge aimed at breaking the insurgency's stranglehold of violence.

His second tour in Iraq, he says, was about "getting his head right." It also coincided with a shift in U.S. military policy in Iraq, with American soldiers no longer patrolling the streets but rather advising and assisting Iraqi security forces.

He didn't have to go a third time. His injuries could have been his out. But he was offered the position of first sergeant of the 123rd Support Battalion, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, after somebody else turned it down.

This third and final deployment to Iraq was about his job, his soldiers and, ultimately, his family.

"It's always been about them," he said. "No offense to the Army. But do you think I'd be doing this if it wasn't for something more? It's about my family."

'I don't remember hearing the shot'

The Iraq war has its roots for Marc and Lanita Campuzano -- as it does for most military families -- with the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

But for them, there was a twist.

It was their wedding anniversary, and they were a young couple with two small children. Marc was stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado, where he was a mechanic "wrenching" on Bradley Fighting Vehicles.

Campuzano is on hand with his wife, Lanita, left, son Anthony and daughter Taylor at Anthony\'s high school graduation.
Campuzano is on hand with his wife, Lanita, left, son Anthony and daughter Taylor at Anthony's high school graduation.

The couple married after Marc graduated high school in Marysville, California. The Army followed shortly after, offering a solution for the young couple walking a financial tightrope that included work, college and a new baby boy.

In those early years after the terrorist attacks, everything Marc did -- first as a mechanic, then later as a drill instructor and then finally working as part of a support unit that fixed and maintained vehicles -- was in support of the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But it was always done at a distance. That changed in October 2006 when Marc first deployed to Iraq.

Marc, Lanita and the children had been through separations before. But this was different. This was seeing Marc off to the war zone.

The headlines were terrifying, filled with reports of sectarian fighting between Shiites and Sunnis and a rising American military body count.

A few months into the deployment, he and thousands of other troops learned their 12-month assignment was being extended by at least three months as part of the surge of an additional 20,000 into Iraq.

In March 2007, Marc found himself at Joint Security Station Thrasher, a small outpost named for a U.S. soldier killed in a sniper attack. He and his soldiers were moving giant concrete blast walls along the outer perimeter of the outpost in the heart of one of Baghdad's most violent neighborhoods.

He was leaning against a wall for cover, knowing there were snipers in the area, when he saw a soldier lying out in the open and bleeding badly.

"I don't remember hearing the shot," Marc said later.

He grabbed his weapon, ran toward the soldier and began dragging him toward safety. He heard the bullets as they passed him, striking concrete and dirt. He heard his soldiers firing back.

Then Marc felt it: The painful, excruciating burn of a bullet ripping into his body.

Today, the events of March 17, 2007, play out for Marc as a series of interrupted images.

Campuzano, 38, has scars on his leg and shoulder from bullets that nearly ended his life in a 2007 firefight in Iraq.
Campuzano, 38, has scars on his leg and shoulder from bullets that nearly ended his life in a 2007 firefight in Iraq.

There's the soldier on the ground. There's the medic who grabbed Marc and staunched the flow of blood from the gunshot wounds in his leg and upper torso. There's the ride to a military hospital.

Gaps in the story have been filled in by those who witnessed the attack and by those at home in El Paso, Texas, who heard the news of his shooting -- and waited to learn his fate.

In those conversations Marc learned that four soldiers, among them a good friend, were killed by a roadside bomb while coming to his aid.

That his son Anthony, then 14, after hearing the news that his father had been badly wounded, punched the wall and walked out of the house.

And that his daughter Taylor, then 8, cried herself to sleep for nights.

"Don't worry, baby," he later whispered as he hugged her from a hospital bed. "They aren't going to make me go back."

'Please God, take care of my family'

The bullet had blown holes in his leg and shoulder. Another soldier grabbed the fallen comrade, and dragged him the last few feet to safety. He survived.

The firefight was in full swing as Marc pulled himself behind the concrete wall and opened fire. He only stopped when he ran out of ammunition.

"I remember grabbing for my leg. I was like 'Man, that hurts,'' he recalled.

He looked down at his pant leg, soaked through with blood that was now pooling around his foot.

Marc was going into shock.

Marc and Lanita Campuzano married after Marc graduated from high school. Their anniversary is September 11.
Marc and Lanita Campuzano married after Marc graduated from high school. Their anniversary is September 11.

"Please God, take care of my family," he prayed as medics worked on him.

He heard an explosion after he was loaded into the back of a Bradley for the 20-minute drive to the hospital at Camp Victory.

A few hours later, at the Baghdad hospital, he saw his fellow soldiers. "Why are you crying? I'm ok," he told them.

"You didn't hear? Doc Allen was killed."

The explosion Marc had heard in the Bradley was a massive roadside bomb. It killed his good friend Doc Allen, as Sgt. John E. Allen of Palmdale, California, was known, and three others: Sgt. Ed Santini of Toa Baja, Puerto Rico; Pfc. William N. Davis of Adrian, Michigan; and Pfc. John F. Landry of Lowell, Massachusetts.

"I can't forget that," Marc says now. "They were coming to get me."

'Why does dad hate me?'

While Marc's body healed, psychological wounds were slower to repair. Sometimes he dreamed about Doc Allen. Sometimes he awoke angry about being wounded, about being taken away from his soldiers who needed him.

He even attempted to get his doctor to release him back to duty months before he was ready.

"Every little thing seemed to make him mad," Taylor said, recalling the early days after her father returned home from the hospital. "He would just get angry really fast."

He was hardest on his son.

By any standard, Anthony was a parent's dream. He got good grades. He did what his folks asked of him. He was the starting quarterback on his high school team. There was talk he might get an offer to play ball for a top university.

After Marc's return, he was harder on the teen. He demanded more of him. He was less tolerant of mistakes.

"Why does Dad hate me?" Anthony asked his mother.

Lanita has been awaiting her husband\'s return from Iraq. Marc must decide whether to stay in or get out of the military.
Lanita has been awaiting her husband's return from Iraq. Marc must decide whether to stay in or get out of the military.

Lanita never judged her husband, standing by him through the hardest phases in his recovery and rehabilitation.

"The first six months were probably the worst," she said later. "Certain things would set him off."

But she believed her husband needed to know what his behavior was doing to their son.

That news was like a punch in the gut.

"I didn't know I was having a problem until my wife told me what my son said. I love my son. And here he thinks I hate him."

Going back

The road back for Marc was slow. Each day was better than the last, and by the time his soldiers returned to Fort Bliss he was walking and on hand to meet them.

His company lost seven soldiers, and the division lost dozens more.

While he was home, Marc got word that Pfc. Raymond N. Spencer Jr., a 23-year-old from Carmichael, California, had been killed in Baghdad when insurgents targeted his convoy with an EFP, a type of explosive that melts through armor.

Marc had an easy relationship with the soldier. They shared the same sense of humor, and they hailed from the same part of the country. Both had lived in Northern California.

Marc volunteered to act as a military liaison to Spencer's family, providing whatever aid and comfort the family needed as they grieved and made preparations to bury their son.

After Spencer's mother told Marc that it was hard knowing her son hadn't finished what he started, Marc got the memorial bracelet. He didn't put it on until he returned to Iraq in 2009.

"I knew he would go," said Lanita, now 36. "It's his job. It's his duty. What am I going to do?"

Anthony, like his mother, accepted the news with stoicism. Taylor, though, took the deployment hard.

She told her father she hated the military. She hated it for making him go back.

Before her dad was wounded, Taylor had taken comfort in knowing he worked at "the motor pool."

Now she understood what that meant. Her father worked for a brigade support battalion whose mission was to go "outside the wire" to fix and maintain vehicles and reinforce outposts. His job was dangerous.

Taylor, 14, and her brother, Anthony, 18, both have been affected by their father\'s frequent deployments.
Taylor, 14, and her brother, Anthony, 18, both have been affected by their father's frequent deployments.

Again? A daughter struggles

Marc arrived in Iraq's Maysan province, an area in the southern Shiite heartland that sits near the Iranian border, in the summer of 2009 with a bit of apprehension.

He knew he was returning to a different Iraq, one where violence had fallen off dramatically thanks in large part to the surging of troops a few years earlier.

Still, the threat remained.

He was initially assigned to Contingency Operating Base Adder, then transferred to a much smaller base known as Garry Owen. It was a favorite target of Iranian-backed Shiite militias, the U.S. military has said. It was routinely hit with mortar and rocket attacks.

Marc's job was different this time. He wouldn't have to go "outside the wire" as much.

His first trip came within a month after his arrival when an armored vehicle broke down while on patrol, and he and his soldiers had to go get it.

"I was a little concerned about it," he said. "The last time I went outside the wire I didn't come back. "

This time he made it back to the base. And he would finish the deployment with his soldiers, walking -- off the plane at Fort Bliss.

Marc was home less than 30 days when he learned the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, at Fort Bliss was scheduled to return to Iraq the summer of 2011.

Their assignment: Help close down U.S. military operations ahead of an end of the year deadline to withdraw from Iraq.

Initially, Marc was told he was not being sent with the brigade. Then he was named the company's first sergeant. Not only was he going -- he was in charge of overseeing the company.

In mid-September, with her father already gone, Taylor struggled to explain her feelings. She was upset. She wanted her dad to see her successes and coach her through her struggles.

Now 14, Taylor has followed in her brother's footsteps. She's on the high school honor roll and has become a star volleyball and softball player. Her parents wonder if she, too, will earn an athletic scholarship.

Before this Iraq deployment, Marc and Lanita coached her teams. Before this tour, he cheered her on at games.

"I want to do better when he's there. He makes me want to try harder," she said recently, wiping away tears as she struggled to find the right words to describe what can only be called "a hole" in her heart.

Lanita puts the finishing touches on homecoming mums in the Campuzano home in El Paso, Texas.
Lanita puts the finishing touches on homecoming mums in the Campuzano home in El Paso, Texas.

"I just want him here."

Life after the war

At the motor pool at Al Asad Air Base, Marc joined his soldiers stacking boxes of prepackaged meals, known as MREs, and cases of snacks and beverages into storage units.

"See all of this?" he said, pointing the boxed food and beverages. "That's to feed everybody during the road march" out of Iraq.

Sitting in a plywood-lined makeshift office at the motor pool, Marc reflected on his sacrifices -- and those of his family during more than eight years of war.

"The last deployment was because I had to get my head right. It was about coming back and facing fears," he said.

This time, it was about the job, his soldiers. He wanted to keep everyone safe.

But Iraq has been more difficult this time. Not because of the job, but because of the time away from family.

His son, who is 18 now, began his freshmen year on a football scholarship at Wayland Baptist University in Plainview, Texas. His daughter had a date to homecoming, and has been learning to drive.

This time, there was no "what if" conversation between Marc and his wife. This time, the conversation has been "what about after?"

With 18 years of military service under his belt, Marc is facing a tough decision -- whether to stay in or get out at the 20-year mark.

Even with the specter of a deployment to Afghanistan on the horizon, he is considering staying in. Much of it will depend on whether Marc accepts a promotion (He learned he made the list on the road out of Iraq, Lanita said.)

It would mean three more years of duty. But the military has been a good provider for his family -- and that's his focus.

There's plenty of time to weigh the options, he said. To talk it through with Lanita, Anthony and Taylor.

There will be time for lots of conversations when he is home and the war is over.

Postscript

Marc returned on Tuesday, earlier than Lanita anticipated. Now they can decorate for the holidays as a family -- and celebrate.

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