Reporting from Bala Balouk, Afghanistan -- The last in an occasional series on three high school friends from Southern California and their wartime enlistment in the Marine Corps.
Here's the last part:
Sitting outside a coffee shop in Santa Clarita the morning after he returned home, Crookston marveled at how placid and ordinary things seemed. The people around him likely knew nothing of the war, he said, and probably rarely thought about it.
They certainly wouldn't understand what it was like to plunge into combat and emerge unharmed, he said. He will never tell his family what happened in Afghanistan. "Not only do I not want them to hear about it, but I don't need to put that on them," he said.
He wears a bracelet inscribed with the name of a friend, Lance Cpl. Andrew F. Whitacre, 21, who was killed in action during one of Crookston's patrols. His battalion lost 20 men, and 150 more were wounded. Crookston knows he could easily have been one of them.
"We all knew what we were getting ourselves into," he said. "We knew this was going to happen."
He came home with a combat action ribbon. He's proud of it but keeps it tucked away; it gives him no pleasure to see it.
"Anyone you ask, it's the ribbon they hate the most," Crookston said, "because of what it cost to get it."
The bill for that cost has not fully emerged for the rest of us. It will, and we will be paying it for decades to come.