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Iraq in the rear-view mirror

An Army convoy passes through a landscape littered with memories.

August 18, 2010|Ned Parker

Their Stryker, hulking in the dark like a dinosaur, is prepped with coolers full of water and Gatorade. The iPod is wired into the communications system. Now all they can do is wait for the ride their commanders have named "the last patrol."

It's just past midnight Monday at Camp Taji on the northern boundary of Baghdad. Staff Sgt. Shawn Sedillo chats with his gunner, Spc. Ben Longoria, and driver, Spc. Joseph LeFevre, who are smoking outside the motor pool. Sedillo's deputy, Sgt. Dennis Hill, naps inside their armored vehicle's box-like interior, grateful to get away from his hyper buddies. A friend brings them Taco Bell burritos and Burger King chicken tenders.

The men belong to the Army's 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, the last formal U.S. military combat detachment to leave Iraq after America's seven-year war. Over the course of three days, 360 military vehicles and 1,800 soldiers are taking the road through Baghdad and the Shiite south to Kuwait.

For these soldiers, the road out is marked with blood and regret for the years spent away from family. Sometimes the Iraqis welcomed them, sometimes they wished them dead. The sides remain unfathomable to each other even today; frustration and anger creep into the soldiers' tone, much as it did when troops first arrived years ago.

At 1 a.m., a dozen sergeants and lieutenants gather in a semicircle for their briefing about the route. "It's just another roll," a lieutenant says as one man packs a wad of tobacco into his mouth. He spits and the musty smell fills the air. "Take everything slow. It's the last mission. There's no reason for anyone to get hurt."

Sedillo, 35, grins. He's the senior scout who will lead the line of 16 Strykers from Arrow Company, with an eye for possible bombs or ambushes. "I'm totally excited," he says. "We'll go right down the street."

It's dark still, but he gets pumped thinking about passing the garbage dump and squatter camp on the western edge of Baghdad they've named District 9, after the horror movie where aliens living in a refugee camp feed on cans of cat food.

He smiles again. "It's going to be awesome."

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Earlier that night, Sedillo sat in front of his trailer. He had arranged his pack, his guitar and M-4 assault rifle to tote them to the motor pool. Soldiers had burned their papers in barbecue grills; stray cereal boxes and Gatorade cans littered the ground.

Sedillo doubted he would miss the place. Since 2003, he had spent more time in Iraq than at his home in Colorado, with four tours under his belt. He has tried quitting the Army, but he always needed money for his family.

On his second night in Iraq, in May 2003, he was introduced to the violence that would define his life for the next seven years. Demonstrators had gathered outside the mayor's compound in the western city of Fallouja. Sedillo stood on the roof and watched the mob of Iraqis shouting in Arabic and throwing rocks.

"This is crazy and insane," he recalls thinking. He remembers a U.S. Army convoy pulling up and the roar of a .50-caliber machine gun firing. A man's head exploding, blood and brain matter spattering the crowd.

That summer, the company commander, Capt. Joshua Byers, and a platoon sergeant were killed while scouting near Fallouja in a Humvee. The captain's vehicle was dragged back to their base coated with blood. "That was reality right there. The first of many. We were taking casualties," he says. "We were pissed off. Mad. Real mad."

He spent the night that Thanksgiving in the pouring rain hunting for buried weapons in a field. In December, Saddam Hussein was captured north of Baghdad and he thought: "Well, let's f------ go home. But we didn't go home. We stayed."

By the time his first deployment was finished in March 2004, his regiment had lost 93 soldiers in action. His unit was rushed back in early 2005, with the news of his redeployment coming on Valentine's Day. He told his wife, Happy Valentine's Day.

This time he promised he would bring all his men home. "But not everyone came home."

They were stationed in Tall Afar in northern Iraq, a nexus for armed groups coming in from Syria. His unit had been assigned to guard a hospital. They were resting between patrols when one of his men walked down the hall to the bathroom. Sgt. Jacob Simpson. A large explosion shook their room and they laughed, thinking it was nothing. A medic walked into the hallway and shouted, "Simpson is dead!"

Afterward, he kept replaying Simpson's death. "It's one of those things. If I had kept him in the room a little longer, he wouldn't have died. It was one of those random one-in-a-million shots."

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