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Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News
Elaine and Christopher Kirsch hold photo of their son Nicholas, who has served three tours in Iraq.

On Tuesday, it will have been four years since the United States invaded Iraq, and Marine Lance Cpl. Nicholas Kirsch has been deployed there three times.

The government now hopes he'll sign on for what could turn into an almost- unheard-of fourth tour in Iraq.

"I don't think I'm going to go," Kirsch said. "I'm going to school now."

Kirsch, 23, who is single and a student at Utah Valley State College, is taking classes in art and writing. But he recently received a letter from Marine Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, encouraging him to re-enlist.

Kirsch finished his four-year enlistment last year. But for another four years, he's considered a member of the Marine version of Individual Ready Reserve, a component of the military that the government can use to recall service members back into active duty. Even if he doesn't re-enlist, he could end up going anyway — involuntarily.

During his first two deployments to Baghdad for the 2003 invasion and then Fallujah near the end of 2004, Kirsch shot his weapon at Iraqis who were trying to kill him. To this day, he is still sensitive to loud noises and has trouble being in crowds, instinctively checking who is around him as he walks the halls of UVSC.

"I don't want to go to Iraq again," he said in an interview. "I didn't like it there — no one likes it over there. I still did my duty, but you'd be lying if you said you liked it over there. It's not a vacation."

Yet he recalls his third tour as being "almost enjoyable." It was better than his earlier ones — better living conditions, showers, real food.

Still, he isn't gung-ho about the possibility of a fourth tour.

Conway's letter is worded to remind Kirsch that his fellow Marines need experienced leadership, that this nation is at war and that the war on terrorism is long. "You are elite among the nation's warriors," Conway writes. "The job you started is not yet finished."

Conway's letter arrived at the home of Kirsch's parents, and his mother, Elaine Kirsch, an elementary-school teacher, remembers how carefully her son read it several times.

"For me, it would be a no-brainer," she said. She doesn't want her son to go back.

His parents only watched as their son read and reread the letter. "We didn't say a word," the mother said.

She said that outwardly, her son's decision after reading the letter was to say, "I don't think so."

The letter mentions a re-enlistment bonus — although he'd have to pick up a phone to find out how much.

"I haven't talked to anyone," he said.

It's still fresh in his mind how in Baghdad and Fallujah the enemy attacked from crowds of people or from buildings occupied by what he described as innocent civilians.

"There were Marines there killing innocent people by accident," he said. "It's war — it happens."

It's still fresh in his mind how he saw dead bodies and at least once witnessed dogs gnawing on corpses. He took part in tearing the city of Fallujah to "shreds," as he puts it.

Last year, Kirsch helped escort a regimental commander around Iraq while serving with the 5th Marine Regiment, and on a few occasions, improvised explosive devices went off near his vehicle. "I was IED'd five or six times," he said.

Two of his friends died from IED blasts in Iraq. And that's still fresh in his mind.

"It's hard — you feel it in your heart," he said about losing his friends. "I think about them every day, pretty much. I think about them all the time.

"And maybe it was a good way to die," Kirsch added. "Maybe dying while fighting is a good way to die."

Go back to Iraq?

His father, Christopher Kirsch, is trying not to meddle in his son's business. Yet he knows the toll that three tours have taken on his son.

"I don't think we ought to be occupying the area," the father said.

He and his son share similar opinions on the politics behind the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Once a Marine, always a Marine, Conway reminds the younger Kirsch in the letter. Even so, the young man questions whether a troop surge isn't creating more of an insurgency rather than quelling it.

With everything Christopher Kirsch's son has been through, asking him to serve a fourth tour is "too much," said the father, who is an adjunct professor of geography and history at UVSC.

He wants his son, a Mountain View High School graduate, to tell people what he's seen and what he's been through, how he slept in ditches and didn't change clothes for a three-month stretch during the 2003 invasion.

"We were always on the move," Kirsch said about being in Baghdad.

In combat situations, "You're always on your toes," he said. "It's a different world. You're out there to survive. You're on patrol every day. You've got the mind set, 'Any one of these guys is going to shoot me.'

"It takes a lot out of you," he added.

Kirsch is trying to deal with his own version of post-traumatic stress disorder, which can plunge military veterans into depression and an inability to cope in civilian life. He works out, rides his bike, writes and learns how to create art with oil paints.

Random people who notice his Marine Corps tattoo on his arm ask him, "How was it?" It's too broad of a question, he said. "I don't know where to begin."

Sometimes veterans from World War II or Vietnam want to hear how it was. "It's a little easier to talk with someone who has had the same experience," Kirsch said.

For now, he's trying to move on. He intentionally avoids reading newspapers or watching the television for news of Iraq.

"I'm just trying to live my own life now," he said. "I don't even know what's going on over there right now."

His hope is that the United States can somehow help build up the country it has torn down, to put Iraq on the path toward prosperity. Kirsch and his father believe that the United States shouldn't pull out now. The son hopes that might allow him to make a different kind of visit to Iraq in the future.

"Maybe 30 years down the road," Kirsch said, "I'll take a tour in Iraq and walk the streets, and not worry about getting shot at."

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