AL KUT, Iraq -- As the sun sinks into the sand-crested horizon here, it turns the baked, earthen abodes a brilliant burnt orange. It's a familiar site for 22-year-old Lance Cpl. Craig Long, a Native American who hails from Arizona's Navajo Reservation.
"Some of these buildings look like pueblos and hogans. It reminds me of home," says Long as he rides shotgun for a convoy traveling northward to Al Kut. Long and two fellow Native American Marines volunteered to provide convoy security to get the chance to see the Iraqi countryside.
"We're called 'The Tribe'," says Lance Cpl. Kayzehn Enas, a 22-year-old Pima Indian from the Salt River Pima Reservation in Arizona. It's a name given good-naturedly to the roughly half dozen Native American Marine reservists serving with Phoenix-based Bulk Fuel Charlie, 6th Engineer Support Battalion. As the reserve bulk liquids-designated battalion, 6th ESB provided fuel and water to coalition forces. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, bulk fuel Marines like Long and Enas kept busy assembling and operating the Corps' longest expeditionary fuel line ever deployed in combat.
Now, as the Marines pass the post-war fueling mission off to Army units, bulk fuelers have an opportunity to leave the desolate desert confines of their fuel line booster stations to perform other duties.
Other than the sand and structures, Iraq holds few other similarities to Arizona. But for 19-year-old bulk fueler Lance Cpl. Leroy Sekaquaptewa, the images before him are reminders of his grandfather's words as he departed for war. "He said I would see some strange things, some funny things and some sad things," says Sekaquaptewa, who lives on the San Carlos Apache Reservation.
The truth in those words becomes apparent as the convoy travels past humble mud huts and marble-adorned palaces. The obvious oppression of the Iraqi people in such an oil-rich nation is one of the sadder things Sekaquaptewa has witnessed, he says.
"The leaders of this nation are living in palaces while the people are living like they did a thousand years ago," he said.
His grandfather's service in Vietnam as a combat tracker partly influenced the Hopi-Apache youth to enlist for military duty.
"I wanted to do something to make my grandparents and parents proud," he says. When he graduated Marine Corps boot camp, he earned his family's pride. "Especially my grandfather, he was very proud," says Sekaquaptewa.
In his tight-knit reservation community, Enas says people are also expressing pride for his part in the war. "People are coming up to my family and telling them how proud they are of me. It brings pride to my family name," he says. A distant relative of famed Iwo Jima flag-raiser Ira Hayes, Enas says his experiences in Iraq have sparked an interest in learning more about his own Pima "language and history."
Joining the Corps, says Enas, helped him avoid the pitfalls of gangs and drugs, which he says others his age and younger too often fall into. Tribal elders now look upon Enas as a "role model" for other youths facing the same perils, he says. "I help teach little kids how to play basketball and let them know that I'm a Marine," he says. "I try to steer the youth towards it."
Dressed in colorful, tattered clothes, the Iraqi children lining the convoy route have also caught Enas' attention. "I'll always remember all the kids rushing out to us as we go by," he says. Perhaps the children are one more distant reminder of home.