AL-ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq - It's four in the morning and the convoy is staged and ready to roll. Today's run has 70 vehicles — 50 trucks loaded with food, water and supplies and 20 military escorts, guns mounted and turrets manned.
When it hits the road, the convoy will sprawl six miles long.
The course ahead is a 70-mile stretch of desert highway through the oasis hamlet of Baghdadi and out to Haditha Dam, where the Euphrates River meets Lake Qadisiya.
The dam, on the outskirts of a dusty city by the same name of about 78,000, is Iraq's second-largest source of hydroelectricity, and the U.S. Marines' Combat Logistics Battalion 4 — CLB 4 — has been protecting its lifelines for the past seven months.
Supply routes vary, but today's will be primarily along Bronze, which is a relief to everyone. Bronze is smoother, and in the back of the Marines' new armored vehicle, the much-delayed MRAP, that means a lot less bouncing around.
More important, Bronze is calm.
Though they discover caches every few weeks, the battalion, which deployed to Iraq last summer from the Japanese island of Okinawa, has only been "hit" on three convoys.
In one, an improvised explosive device was run over by the first vehicle, a mineroller. The mineroller, which looks something like a thresher, was demolished. Though the driver was unhurt, the gunner in the next vehicle took a burst of shrapnel to his face and throat.
But he was back out on a convoy the next day.
To date, no one in the battalion has been killed by IEDs. The only death on a convoy since CLB 4 got here was a combat photographer who was shooting a fuel tanker that had careered off the road in an accident. It exploded, and the photographer was enveloped in the flames.
"Routine" is how people describe the convoys now.
Anbar province, which stretches to the Saudi Arabian, Jordanian and Syrian borders west of Baghdad, had been the heart of the Sunni insurgency and a bastion of al-Qaida in Iraq. But Sunni tribal leaders who were fighting the Americans began in late 2006 to turn on al-Qaida, fed up with its brutality and austere brand of Islam.
Now the province is one of the safest in Iraq. The troops' mission is to keep it that way.
"We must be doing something right," said Cpl. Colbert Rianda, of Chico, Calif. "You can see the change."
Just getting out of al-Asad, a sprawling airfield built by Saddam Hussein's regime and now known as "Camp Cupcake," seems to take forever.
Lying at the bottom of a canyon and surrounded by a whole lot of nothing, al-Asad Air Base is big enough to support 20,000 troops. It currently holds about 15,000 — including thousands of private contractors, from ponytailed KBR truck drivers to Pakistani cooks to a contingent of Ugandans who handle the on-base security.
Al-Asad is big enough to have its own bus system. It has a Burger King, a Pizza Hut, and round-the-clock Internet access. The base store sells Tic Tacs, souvenir T-shirts, iPods.
To the Marines, who take a sort of masochistic pride in roughing it, the extras are almost embarrassing.
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James T. Conway even singled out al-Asad last summer, warning his Marines not to get soft.
"Marines are getting used to living at fixed bases and with more comforts of life than we really need," he said in a speech at the Naval War College in June. "Marines must guard against complacency and the expectation that tomorrow's fight be marked by equally hospitable operating bases."
Even so, life on Camp Cupcake is hardly cushy.
"Out here, we're working 12 hours a day, seven days a week," Sgt. Jason Smith, of Altoona, Pa., said after loading a helicopter for a run to a combat outpost that the truck convoys can't reach. "We don't get any time off except those 12 hours."
He said off hours are spent sleeping. Or playing games online. Or keeping fit.
There isn't much else to do.
Unless they have good reason to — like convoy duty — the troops don't go outside the wire.
CLB 4 has set something of a precedent.
The battalion was one of the first to be deployed, in full, from Okinawa. It was established specifically to support the fight in Iraq, and its deployment here underscores the extent to which Iraq has become a long-term draw on the U.S. troops' positioning worldwide.
Though the U.S. has about 50,000 troops in Japan with a mandate to secure Washington's prime Pacific ally, those troops are now being called on to fight 5,000 miles away. Along with the Marines in Anbar, Air Force fighters have been deployed from northern Japan to Iraq's Balad Air Base. U.S. troops from Japan serve in Afghanistan too.
But CLB 4's mission is almost complete.
Unlike their Army counterparts, who frequently stay for a year or longer, the Marines come for relatively short stints. For CLB 4, it was seven months.
It has been a concentrated deployment.
Their vehicles have put in 13,173 mission miles — about twice around the moon — escorted 2,297 trucks, provided a million gallons of fuel and 2 million gallons of water throughout Anbar.
At the sandbagged battalion headquarters, officers are preparing for departure, writing up merit citations and doing the spadework to get all the 900 Marines back to their home stations.
Their building was a shambles when they arrived, with wires stripped from walls that are now covered in a fresh — albeit dust-covered — coat of paint.
"We are definitely leaving this place better than it was when we came," said 1st Lt. Alex Derichemont, CLB 4's adjutant officer.
"The change has been dramatic, even just during the time that we have been here." he said. "It's not bullets flying through the air every day. A lot of the time out here, it's just another day at the office."
A normal day at the office means different things to different people, however.
After a brief stop in a dirt-covered parking lot just short of Haditha Dam, today's convoy splits in half and the vehicles that are needed continue on to Combat Outpost Ellis, another couple of hours beyond in a sparsely populated expanse of desert.
Once there, forklift operators swing into action to unload food and other supplies while the drivers and their military escorts gather for lunch.
Surrounded by concrete blast walls and ringed by barbed wire, the chow hall is little more than a shack, dark and drafty.
Around noon, Marines drift in, boots and faces dusty, rifles slung over shoulders. There's no question that these guys are roughing it.
With the wind kicking up outside and whistling through the walls, they line up solemnly in front of the one functioning microwave with their plates of frozen pizza, calzones and Pop Tarts.
If you smoke a particular brand of cigarette, you have to be fast. When the supplies come in, it's first come, first served.
For these troops, going outside the wire is common.
Often with smiling Iraqi children in tow, the Marines frequently patrol the area and liaise with local officials. Their mission is both keep the peace and build up the local infrastructure so that the U.S. can ease out of the region without creating an implosion.
The work is moving ahead, but is far from complete. Signs outside the chow hall remind the troops that the sooner a reliable local justice system is established, the better.
But for 1st Lt. Nicolas Martinez, of Dallas, life is still viewed through the lens of the IEDs.
"You can tell that there are bomb cells," he said. "It's like an artist, you can tell his work. What we see is a very basic, simple kind of IED. There hasn't been much of an evolution."
He adds, however, that he has been seeing them a lot less.
Back on the road, Martinez is getting antsy. As the convoy's senior officer, he has to get it back to base, and luck is starting to work against him.
The sun is low in the sky, and al-Asad is another hour away. Visibility is dropping and the air is turning red, a bad omen.
Convoys can't run during Red Air. If the approaching dust storm catches us, and the helicopters back at al-Asad are grounded, meaning they cannot provide air cover, we may have to turn back and overnight at the dam.
It gets worse.
An Army convoy suddenly appears to take a wrong turn and pulls in front of our lead truck, making all our vehicles slow down sharply. There is confusion — and a collective rush of adrenalin. Did they just mess up for some reason, or are they creating a cordon? Was a cache of bombs found along the road?
In the back of the MRAP, the radio operator furiously tries to get answers.
Then the Army vehicles turn off the road again, vanishing into a cloud of dust.
We cautiously push on.
Martinez notes that one of the most important innovations the Marines have seen over the past few months is a "share the road" policy.
He points out the window.
A string of beat-up civilian sedans is in the oncoming lane, most with their lights on, many with their emergency lights blinking as well. Some pull over as we pass. Others barrel right on by.
Some drivers wave.
"Before, we would have gone right down the middle of the road," Martinez said. "Now, Iraqis are on the road with us. They are considered friendly until proven otherwise. It's a big change of thinking on our part."
Col. Brent Spahn, CLB 4's commanding officer, is paid to take a big-picture view of things.
There has been a lot of talk lately about the Awakening Councils, Sunni groups that have begun a collaboration aimed at driving out al-Qaida and other insurgents. Their efforts have made a big difference in places like Ramadi and Falluja.
Awakening Councils are not all the rage here — most of the Marines have never heard the term — but Anbar has seen a similar progression, with violence diminishing as local cooperation increases.
Spahn said the Marines have used the lull to bolster their efforts to train Iraqis, through small "transition teams," to take more control.
He noted that one corner of the al-Asad base is now used by a small contingent of Iraqi soldiers, who run their own camp. It's still controversial — some of the Americans here complain that it poses a security threat and say the Iraqis tend to fire their weapons in an undisciplined manner — but it would have been unthinkable in the relatively recent past.
Even so, Iraq remains a fluid place.
As he prepares to pull his battalion out, Spahn says he has a sense of accomplishment.
"We are working toward a common goal," he said, flanked by U.S. and Marine Corps flags at his al-Asad office. "I'm optimistic. Very optimistic. The insurgents are on the run. It is very hard for them operate here."
But the mission isn't over — this battalion will be replaced.
And how long do the Marines need to remain? One year? Two?
With the U.S. presidential election looming, no one here wants to step out on that limb.
Still, Spahn is emphatic that the Marines are not here to stay.
"The long-term goal is that we do scale back, and that as we do scale out the Iraqis fill in the voids that we're creating," he said. "We will eventually get out."