Pain is weakness leaving the body. So says a motto on the wall in the Marines area of Merced's military recruiting center.
With it hangs a Marine's photo as he pulls himself over steel bars, a snarl on his face.
Marine Staff Sgt. Raymundo Perez, 26, relates to that message in more ways than one. And it hung as a constant reminder just to the right of his desk on Monday morning as he solemnly finished packing. "I'll be done in a about 10 to 15 minutes," he said in the same soft-spoken tone he always uses. He took a wooden name plaque bought in Okinawa, Japan, down from a shelf to wrap in newspaper.
He placed it in a cardboard box along with other memorabilia -- a Marine Corps coin presented to him by a two-star general, a recruiting award with a Raiders jersey and a Pepsi can with Arabic writing on it from Iraq. His starched desert-camo uniform fit his lean frame like a tailor-made suit.
The moment was bittersweet. "I'm excited because I'm getting ready to leave," he said. "But I'm sad to leave my guys behind. We did a lot of great things here."
He also did a great thing for himself. To overcome a debilitating injury, he pushed his physical and psychological limits to the edge -- just so he could return to the battlefield. And, with some expert medical help and inspired therapy, he made it. The noncommissioned officer is on his way to Afghanistan.
For the last year he has worked as a recruiting supervisor for the Merced area. To counsel local young men and women, he applied his experiences from 2003 when he was stationed in Baghdad with the 1st Battalion of the 5th Marines.
Those experiences -- including contact with insurgents -- helped him overcome his own injury. His pain, however, didn't come from a combat wound. There was no Purple Heart involved.
Instead, a knee injury from a snowboarding accident a year after he left the war zone became the biggest hurdle in reaching his goal: to be deployed as soon as possible back to a war zone.
As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq enter their seventh and fifth years, repeat deployments have become the rule, not the exception, for Marine and Army units. Some troops are on their fourth tour of duty in Iraq, and many more have completed at least two. Besides those who've already made the journey to the battlefield, thousands remain who, for the first time in their lives, must pack their rucksack at home for what may turn out to be a year or more as a stranger in a stranger land. How they prepare for an unprecedented and hostile phase of their lives can literally save their lives.
Tim O'Brien's novel, "The Things They Carried," lists what some grunts in Vietnam took on patrol -- and it's not that different from what a desert camo-clad trooper would pack for Iraq or Afghanistan: "The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wrist watches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, matches, sewing kits Military Payment Certificates (instead of greenbacks), C rations, and two or three canteens of water. Together, these items weighed between fifteen and twenty pounds."
Perez has had to carry a load much different from either his Vietnam or war-on-terror counterparts. He has had to carry the burden of rebuilding his body.
"When I first got back I thought that it was going to be a quick, easy war -- it's not," he said. "Now I feel like I'm being left out. I've gotta get back there."