This article is part of an ongoing project by the Los Angeles Times and the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism under the supervision of Times California correspondent Rone Tempest. Durrell Dawson, Felicia Mello, Jeff Nachtigal, Melissa Nix, Rebecca Ruiz, Sandhya Somashekhar and Shlomi Simhi were the writers; Jakob Schiller and Tristan Spinski the photographers. Also contributing was Christine Prince, a student in the Goldman School of Public Policy.


After a yearlong deployment, Petaluma-based Company A of the 579th Engineer Battalion (featured in a Jan. 30, 2005, cover story in this magazine) limped back, one of the most bloodied National Guard units in the war, with three dead and 17 wounded among its 100 soldiers. Their assignment: patrolling the dangerous perimeter of the main U.S. military base about 50 miles north of Baghdad.

As they reconnect with their families and resume their civilian careers, they're finding the effects of Iraq hard to shake. Palm Desert Sgt. Swami Jeetan has an emotional breakdown on the firing range at the prison where he works as a correctional officer; Durham farmer Spc. Sean Farley returns to find his father preparing to leave for Kuwait later this month with another Guard unit; Capt. William C. Turner goes home to his job as a mechanical engineer in Mountain View, where he constantly revisits decisions he made in Iraq, wondering "What if we had done this? What if we had done that?"

In a conflict that has asked more of America's "citizen soldiers" than any since the Korean War, more than 10,000 California National Guard soldiers either have served or are currently serving in Iraq. The assignment produced both pride and frustration among the soldiers and families of Company A. Sitting at the bedside of his injured son, Sgt. Conan Nunley, at Travis Air Force Base military hospital, 63-year-old Allen Nunley reacts angrily to the guard's changing role: "They should be over here patrolling riots and stuff. That's why they call them National Guard, not International Guard."

Here are snapshots of seven Company A soldiers in transition. For an expanded version of this story with additional stories and photographs, go to

•  Staff Sgt. Dennis Sarla, 48

Santa Rosa, Construction Worker

Jeanette Sarla had worked for months to prepare for the day her husband, Staff Sgt. Dennis Sarla, would return from Iraq. She and their three children remodeled the first floor of their modest Santa Rosa townhouse as a special surprise. With the help of several nephews and cousins, they stayed up late installing new floors and expanding the tiny kitchen that never seemed quite big enough for the five of them.

When the day finally came, Jeanette proudly led Dennis into the house. Dennis stared at the polished hardwood floors, the laminate counter tops and the gleaming cabinets. He took a deep breath, then delivered a surprise of his own. "Jeanette," he said to his wife of 27 years, "I just reenlisted for six years so you could have a new kitchen."

Jeanette was furious. To this day, she doesn't understand why her construction-worker husband craved the discipline and camaraderie of his old Army life, joined the National Guard or volunteered to fight in Iraq.

Dennis says he has always envied the guys who earned the combat service patch. In his 20s he had served in the regular Army, following his stepfather and brother into the military. "I guess it's a macho thing. My youngest kid was over 18, and I figured this would be my only chance."

But his decision left Jeanette feeling angry and helpless. "Dennis had always been a reliable provider," she says. "He was always there for everyone. This was a very shocking side of him that I didn't know."

Jeanette had to pay the bills and keep the house in repair while Dennis was in Iraq. She took a disability leave from her job at a medical-supply company after developing carpal tunnel syndrome and lower back and neck pain, and she worried that her children would have to support her if Dennis didn't return.

"I felt like I was closing down," she says. "The simplest thing, like writing out a check, would feel huge. I'd put it aside and couldn't deal with it."

After the November presidential election, Jeanette's depression sharpened into rage. She had grown up on anti-Vietnam War protests and marched against the Persian Gulf War in 1991. But this war touched her personally. As she watched President Bush ride in his heavily armored car through the streets of Washington on Inauguration Day, she thought of the soldiers in her husband's unit who had strapped plywood to the roofs of their unfortified Humvees.

She began introducing herself to new neighbors with a simple sentence: "My husband's in Iraq, but we're not for the war."

Dennis sometimes criticized the conditions under which Guard soldiers were fighting. In late-night phone conversations, he complained to his wife about grueling patrols and the miserable heat that, at his age, he thought was too much.

But back in Santa Rosa, sitting on a flowered couch in the immaculate living room, Dennis also characterizes the war as an adventure. He drapes a burly arm across the back of Jeanette's chair as he describes how, as a squad leader, he entertained his comrades with jokes and Jack Nicholson impersonations. "I've worked for the same company for 13 years, and I was only in Iraq for a year," he says. "But I felt more bonded to the guys in Iraq than I ever did here. Only in those [dangerous] situations can you get that kind of bonding."