by KEVIN TAYLOR & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & t was in that long flat stretch, the endless straightaway of Interstate 90's westbound run-up to Ritzville, where an unusual sight hove into view.
A passenger train only three cars long was headed east in the darkness at 4 in the morning. A colleague and I were bombing through the wee hours to get to the Yakima Firing Range by 7, scheduled to spend a day meeting local National Guard soldiers prepping for Iraq.
In the blue dark you couldn't see the train, just all the light shining out of its windows. Squares, rectangles, big, small, low, high.
Captivated, we watched this geometry of spilling light slide past us in the night.
"That looks like a rolling Bob Dylan song."
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & urns out trying to write about the Washington National Guard being sent to Iraq a second time is kind of like that train. The military is a self-contained world. It slides past on its own rails, often at a distance from civilian life, and it's hard to see what's inside.
We've been at war in Iraq long enough that kids born at the start of it will be going to school this fall. What do we know about what's happening over there? What do we know about what's happening to those neighbors among us who have been sent there -- two times, three times, four?
But even the military can't always get you inside the right train.
"What can we show you?" our greeters and escorts asked at the Firing Range. The choices they listed were ones from the same train the media rode on four years ago: Look at the helicopters! See the men and women in their battle rattle! Listen to the sound of the .50-cals!
We want to meet Spokane Guard soldiers.
"Today is a pretty light day," one escort said, sounding disappointed for us. "Can we take you to the convoy simulators? The [newspaper] guys from Tacoma are there. It's just like a video game."
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & S & lt;/span & oldiers, we insisted. We just want to talk to soldiers from Spokane. And we met soldiers -- from Vancouver, from Battle Ground, from Seattle.
Eventually we meet Capt. Clayton Colliton, commander of Hotel Company, 1st Battalion, 161st Infantry -- the Spokane-based unit that served in Baghdad in 2004-05.
He came back changed enough that he quit -- not the military, but his civilian job as a history teacher at Ferris High School.
"I was a teacher for seven years. After I got back from Iraq, I went back to the classroom for a semester and I said no way. You guys really don't get it. You don't realize how good you have it," Colliton says of civilians. "As a company commander, my soldiers do what I say and I don't get phone calls from pissed-off parents. It's kind of nice that way."
He's joking, but not really. Colliton admits to liking the regimented and disciplined military lifestyle.
"In this world where everything's not black and white, at least I have some semblance of black and white, right and wrong."
Colliton says this even as he admits there is not a lot about Iraq that is distinctly black and white. "It's fluid. This is a very fluid war," he says.
Even the enemy comes in shades of gray: "You're talking about 15 different entities, everything from common criminal elements to international weapons smuggling, drugs, prostitution, gambling. Your hard-core religious fanatics, your loosely affiliated wannabe groups, your unemployed groups," he says. It's more policing than war, he says.
It's also uncertain what makes success in Iraq or how his unit's newest mission of running convoy security for U.S. corporate semi-trucks will achieve that success.
But this is his task, he says. "I'm in charge of 131 lives. That's what my focus is going to be on ... to bring them back home. If I am successful doing that, then [H Company's mission] is just another piece of that big picture, our piece of the puzzle."
He's on the train that will take him down the tracks between black and white. "Talk to me again in four months," Colliton says.