VALDOSTA -- At 5 a.m. the alarm sounds, a harsh awakening after fitful spurts of sleep staggered by tremulous premonitions and visions of loved ones half a world away.
A U.S. soldier in Iraq rises early to pile into gear adding around 60 pounds to an already tired and famished frame and load into an armored vehicle, venturing out beyond the protected boundary.
Lt. Jason Royal, platoon leader with the 48th Brigade's Bravo Company, left the Middle East, 14-hour workdays and 120-degree heat to return to Georgia for two weeks, just days after the first of two roadside bombs killed four soldiers from the Alpha Company stationed at Camp Striker, a short drive from Royal's camp.
The night of the attacks, Royal prayed with fellow soldiers, grieving for the men who died and asking guidance for those who remained.
He understood the devastation their platoon leader felt.
Their jobs, which require adapting quickly to circumstances, allow little room for doubt and fear.
When a bomb explodes near his vehicle, Royal said the first thing he does is look down and make sure he's in one piece. He turns toward fellow soldiers making sure they haven't been injured, then the platoon continues, sweat-soaked, down the road.
The heavy equipment and clothing cause a case of prickly heat you can't get rid of, and at moments Royal said he wants to scream for the need to itch.
Trained eyes scan roads for signs of explosive devises, which Iraqi insurgents cleverly disguise in concrete-filled boxes, old tires and empty tree trunks.
"What you're trained to do is scarier in reality," Royal said.
He joined the Army National Guard at age 27 because he couldn't go through his adult years without serving his country.
"I don't attach myself to the word 'hero,'" Royal said, stressing he is a normal guy who felt a sense of duty.
Royal joined the 2,700 soldiers of Georgia's 48th Brigade who left in May for the one-year Iraq deployment, the largest abroad initiative since World War II.
Royal drove to Wal-Mart the other day and couldn't stop looking for rooftop snipers and hidden artillery shells buried in the middle of the road.
He said troops train to look for suspicious activity, including roads without pedestrians and freshly filled holes, all signs an explosive device may be present.
Insurgents will use children to gather information on American soldiers, often when the soldier gets close to give candy or shake a hand.
Royal, who has a wife and three sons, said he doesn't understand Iraqi values and said detecting insurgents is difficult.
"The adults are friendly to Americans, but just as friendly to the terrorists," Royal said.
Streets are filled with garbage, and sewage runs into canals where animals and people bathe and swim.
"You never get over the smell," Royal said.
He stepped off the plane in the United States and looked with fresh eyes at green grass and clean public streets.
Next week, he'll enjoy playing with his 1-year-old son and spending precious time with family before boarding another plane to head back to the desert.
In Iraq, Royal said he's seen men not stand up for their homes and visibly mistreat their wives.
"Pregnant women will lug water from canals while their men yell at them," Royal said.
Royal said he and other soldiers hope their actions will change the political dynamic, no matter the cost.
There are moments, Royal said, when quiet Iraqi palm groves feel like a peaceful holiday resort, but he constantly yearns for the comforts of home.
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