LOS ANGELES - It's Friday afternoon - four days until Christmas - and the smell of burgers on the grill at the Bob Hope Hollywood USO at Los Angeles International Airport makes you hungry.
Outside the center - really a couple of oversized trailers bolted together between Terminals 1 and 2 - a group of Marines fresh out of Communication-Electronics School (MCCES) at Twentynine Palms grab their duffle bags and climb the ramp to the double glass doors.
They are a step closer to a couple of weeks of leave and the smiles begin to crease their faces.
As the doors open they are greeted by an eight-foot Christmas tree, covered in patriotic ornaments and garnished with red, white and blue ribbons. A sharp turn to the right, and Bob Ciota, a retired soldier wearing a floppy Santa Claus hat, extends a greeting.
"Sign in right there Marine," Chiota says. "Welcome."
And so the journey home for the holidays begins. Many of 20 or so Marines haven't had home cooking in months. The burgers frying up nearby only whet their appetites.
A few swap boot camp stories. Some pull down books from a well-stocked USO lending library and settle down to read. Others take advantage of a row of computers to catch up with their friends and family on Facebook or just read the news.
All but a few are casually dressed, though their haircuts give them away. The lone soldier in the crowd, Army Pfc. Marvin Estabillo, gets some ribbing from the Marines for the way his camouflage trousers are tucked into his tan boots.
He smiles and explains how to do things the Army way. And, why of course, there is no other right way to do things.
The Marines loudly disagree. A group that is fresh out of Camp Pendleton and still wet behind the ears, hasn't been home for months. Many are looking forward to the sort of homestyle, gentle parenting not typically offered by demanding drill sergeants.
But the rules - Marine Corps style - are firmly implanted into their hearts and minds. Always faithful to the Corps, the Marines explain how to use a drawstring so the pants are "bloused."
Eventually the conversation turns to home.
For his part, Estabillo, based in Colorado Springs, is headed to his native Hawaii. Next Christmas he will be in Afghanistan - or Kuwait.
"This will be the last time I get to see my family for a while," said Estabillo, who is attached to a maintenance task force with the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Collins, Colo.
"I can't wait to see my older sister and my younger sister and my nephew too," he said, pointing out that he plans to get some surfing in while back home.
The LAX way station is one of three operated by the USO of Greater Los Angeles. The others are at Ontario International and Palm Springs.
During the first week of December alone, 3,100 Marines passed through Ontario International, either on their way to war or returning from it.
Some like Marine Lance Cpl. Pham of Houston haven't seen home for several years. So getting a warm meal, some downtime away from base and a chance to exchange stories with other Marines at the USO is the next best thing.
"It really helps out a lot," Pham said.
All of these men and women are kids really. Youngsters from Chicago, Austin, San Antonio, Daytona Beach, Virginia Beach, Colorado and Georgia.
Among that last group was Pfc. Kyle Winkler, headed home from Twentynine Palms to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Unlike some of the other Marines, Winkler wore his service dress uniform.
"I'm going to surprise my fiancee," he said. "She doesn't know I'm coming home today."
Before his leave ends, Winkler said he plans to get married and visit his newborn daughter just in time for Christmas.
As he walks back through the glass doors and across LAX to the terminal, Winkler passes a guest book signed by grateful soldiers, Marines and sailors during the holiday season. Some of the signatures come from families who've lost a loved one in combat and were helped by the USO's Families of the Fallen program.
There will be no surprise visits, no leave, no holidays for those families - only a hole in their hearts that can't be filled with all the thanks we give for their sacrifice.
And, yet they are appreciative as well for the help the USO has provided.
"A very grateful thanks to the ones who spend their days to make our days a little better. Thank You."
Frank Girardot is the editor of the Pasadena Star-News. Follow him at Twitter.com/FrankGirardot or at Facebook.com/crimesceneblog.