By Regan Morris,
BBC News, Camp Pendleton, California
Conditions at Camp Pendleton aim to give a flavour of Afghanistan
With 15 miles (25km) of pristine, undeveloped beachfront property in southern California, it is difficult to imagine wanting to live anywhere else.
But for many of the marines at Camp Pendleton, one place beckons above all others.
"Afghanistan," says Lance Cpl Alejandra Esqueda, when asked where she would like to be deployed next.
"I actually look forward to it. I'm hopefully going to Afghanistan to finish what we got to do there
I've already been to Iraq. Afghanistan is the new place to be."
Thirst for action
Lance Cpl Esqueda is one of hundreds of marines on the beach preparing for a mass training exercise dubbed "Pacific Horizon".
As the troops set up tents and fill sandbags in the hills above the Pacific Ocean and the traffic-clogged Highway 5, many echoed Lance Cpl Esqueda's view, saying they wouldn't be marines if they didn't want to be in the middle of the action.
Southern California's rugged hills and rough, craggy landscape give a flavour of the landlocked country where some of these men and women could soon fight.
Morale among the marines seems high. But then, marines on active duty rarely complain publicly - especially to journalists with marine press officers in tow.
They all politely declined to discuss the political debate about troop levels, but they did overwhelmingly voice their desire to fight in Afghanistan.
"Seeing that I've been to Iraq already, I'd like to go to Afghanistan and see what that's about and get some experience there," said Cpl Daniel Lashmudt, barely out of breath after leading about two dozen marines on an energetic workout as military helicopters circled above.
"California is my home so it's always good to be home, but we do train for it - so if it comes around it comes around, we do it and we're always ready."
For Sgt Casey Overholser the troop level debate is bitter sweet.
The Marine Corps has taken him to Japan, Spain, Thailand, the Philippines, Australia, Germany and dozens of other exotic locations - but not to Iraq or Afghanistan.
And he does not intend to re-enlist, which means he will spend the next year working at a Marine Corps gym in Camp Pendleton because he does not have enough time left on his contract to deploy.
"It's frustrating to have been on three deployments, to enlist at a time of war - you've got two wars going on," Sgt Overholser says, while manning a checkpoint at the edge of the camp.
"I joined the infantry and tried to make it over there and don't really get the opportunity so it's frustrating. I've tried to get over there. I've volunteered
But nothing's worked out yet."
Talking while holding a freshly caught tarantula and a giant beetle trapped inside a plastic bottle, Sgt Overholser says his family and friends think he is lucky to have avoided Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The problem is I've got so many friends that are over there or going over there or have been over there and I'd rather be there with them than sitting idle in a safe country not really contributing.
"But I don't plan to re-enlist. I have a wife. I can only do so much," he says.
During the training exercise, the marines and sailors sleep in tents and are on duty 24 hours a day, cut off from their families just a few miles away.
Some do not tell their children where they are, to avoid having them park across the highway eagerly to wave to them.
"Right now we are constantly preparing for deployments. We don't know exactly when we're going to be called upon, but when we are called we're ready to go," said 2nd Lt Joshua Benson.
"Beachfront property is very nice. But marines sign up to be marines to deploy, and a marine knows the risks that they're taking when they put on this uniform.
"And marines are willing to go when called upon, no matter where it is in the world."