Sedillo and his men crawl into the maw of their Stryker shortly after 1:30 a.m. LeFevre, 24, scoots to the front of the vehicle, to the steering wheel. Longoria pops his head up by his machine gun in the middle of the vehicle, shrouded with brown camo netting. Sedillo and Hill get in their turrets in the rear. Their feet dangle on benches inside the Stryker, their heads like rabbits surfacing from their burrows.
Sedillo writes the convoy's passenger count on his turret's thick bulletproof glass. He reads off a count of 71 passengers and five interpreters on the radio. They start to drive. Another officer comes on the headset, saying to take route Vernon. The Stryker moves at a crawl as the 15 other vehicles join in line.
Longoria, 24, blurts in a mock announcer voice:
"In a world where only soldiers do long drives to Kuwait, one truck is avoiding the zombie menace in 'Zombie Menace Ate My Iraqi Neighbors.'"
The three laugh on the radio. Hill, 32, stays quiet.
"Let's go," one of them moans. To calm everyone, Longoria plays a satirical song from "Team America," a puppet movie about a secret government assassination team that goes around the world fighting Osama bin Laden and North Korea's Kim Jong Il.
America, F--- YEAH!
The Stryker chugs along, past trees and barracks, all of the guys laughing and singing.
Freedom is the only way, yeah,
Terrorists, your game is through, cause now you have to answer to
America, F--- YEAH!
Sedillo says: "You cannot put me in a bad mood right now." Longoria chimes in: "We're going faster than the speed of love."
"I'm going to Afghanistan," Hill interjects in a rare comment, speculating on his likely next deployment.
LeFevre cracks: "Yeah, you are going to Afghanistan and then Iran."
The convoy waits by the gate just before 2. Bored, the guys talk about how Sandra Bullock has aged like a fine wine. Hill is quiet, like he's in another world.
"Let's do this," one of them says, frustrated.
"Let's do this naked," Longoria says.
At 2:06, finally, they pull past the gate, drive past the barriers and checkpoints.
LeFevre announces on the cabin radio:
"Smoke 'em if you got 'em."
Longoria knows his years in Iraq have changed him. "If I survive the next two years, I want to do something else," he says.
He's been writing a novel since he was a teenager. "It's epic. It's huge. I want to rival Tolkien," he says. He calls it "A Death Solar," the story of a man who doesn't know he is the devil's son, and is tricked into conquering the universe for his father.
He and LeFevre have written heavy-metal songs based on the book and have formed a band, A Death Solar. Their songs have names like "The Allure of Death."
In April, Longoria's wife told him via Yahoo messenger that she wanted a divorce.
She said he had changed too much and she wanted her independence. He knew things had been tense but it stunned him. They have a little girl and boy and had been high school sweethearts. "I was a really nice and happy kid before the Army," he says.
In 2007, he shipped out to Mosul in northern Iraq for 18 months. It wasn't as crazy as he thought it would be from the news, but he got into several firefights. One time, his Stryker team was driving on a road they didn't know had been declared black, or off limits, when a bomb exploded.
"The force sucked me back. Smashed me against the door. My Kevlar [helmet] stopped me from busting my head open, and I bled in my mouth," he remembers.
And he struggled when he went home. He didn't like crowds. "I could pick up on everything people were talking about. It was so insignificant after what we went through. 'Oh, my coffee machine doesn't work,'" he says. He would swerve his car when he saw potholes, as if he were back in Mosul.
With his boyish face, buzz cut and constant jokes, Longoria comes off as a clown, but he does it to ward off his dark moods. "War turns you into an ugly person if you don't control it," he says. "I am more cynical now and I laugh all the time because I don't want it to get to me."
The convoy picks up speed. The Strykers are paced anywhere 30 to 60 feet apart, lumbering along like a pack of huge armadillos. They pass the plains surrounding Baghdad's northern edge, move past the shuttered metal shops, butcher shops and factories from the Hussein era that have been left like carcasses on the road.
They skirt the edge of Baghdad's Shoula slum, home to Shiite militias who regularly lay powerful bombs for U.S. troops. This is the place Sedillo calls District 9. No bombs explode and the crew is visibly relieved.
To celebrate their escape from District 9, Longoria booms Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" on the speakers. Everyone but Hill sings.
Mama, just killed a man
Put a gun against his head
Pulled my trigger, now he's dead
Mama, life had just begun
But now I've gone and thrown it all away.
They carry on in call and response, with falsettos and deep baritones, for the entire song. All the time they scan the road for the rare truck swinging by.