As darkness fell and mortar rounds thudded in the distance, the soldiers of Attack Company's 3rd Platoon fired up a barbecue, mixed some marinade in a cut-off water bottle and slathered it on pork ribs with a paintbrush.
Spc. Brant Fechter leaped on top of a concrete barrier with an acoustic guitar, teetered wildly, steadied himself and belted out, "I'm craaaaa-zy with a capital K!"
His buddies laughed as they cooked by the light of their headlamps.
"That's the second-funniest thing I've seen this deployment," said Sgt. 1st Class Corey Oliver, the platoon sergeant, setting off a spirited debate on what had been the funniest.
As the soldiers of the 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment "Regulars" started dismantling their fighting vehicles and turning in their ammunition after 15 months in Iraq, suddenly there was time to start taking it all in. Thoughts turned to wives and girlfriends, whether to buy a house or a boat, that first cold beer, and friends who wouldn't be there to savor it with them.
"At least we made it alive," Staff Sgt. Mark Grover said quietly into his Dr Pepper.
For months, they were the strike force of the troop buildup, going in where the violence was at its worst, clearing up, moving on. Every place they went, they were told it was the worst, but it never seemed to be that bad when their armored Stryker vehicles lumbered in with their menacing cannons, antitank missiles and heavy machine guns.
Until they reached Baqubah, the city that Sunni Arab insurgents had named the capital of their Islamic caliphate.
On the battalion's first run through the city, it was pounded at every turn with automatic-weapons fire, rocket-propelled grenades and roadside bombs. By the end of the day, one soldier was dead, 12 were wounded and two vehicles had been destroyed.
"That kind of overwhelming show, we had never seen before," Oliver said. "So we pulled back, took a deep breath and realized, yeah, this AO [area of operation] really is that bad."
By the time the Regulars left Iraq in September, 21 of their 300 or so soldiers had been killed. About 50 were so badly injured that they never returned to the fight.
Their 3,700-strong 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, based at Ft. Lewis, Wash., lost 48 soldiers in all, and nearly 650 were injured.
"That's a pretty steep price to pay," Col. Steve Townsend, the brigade commander, said as soldiers packed up his plywood headquarters at a sun-baked base called Warhorse, on the northwest outskirts of Baqubah. "I'd like to think it's been worth it. We'll see. I think the jury's out on that."
Spc. Ryan Muessig sat stiffly in the back of a Stryker, convinced he was about to die.
The vehicle lumbered along darkened country roads before coming to a grinding halt on the edge of a sleeping suburb on the west side of Baqubah. As the back hatch lowered, he adjusted his night-vision goggles, grabbed his rifle and assault pack and followed the squad into the night.
Muessig, a soft-spoken 25-year-old whose persistent pessimism and dark good looks remind his fellow soldiers of the actor John Cusack, comes from what he describes as a long line of bad luck in the military. His great-grandfather fought on the German side in World War I. His grandfather had three ships sink under him in World War II. And his father was wounded repeatedly before he was sent home from Vietnam.
Muessig grew up in Washington, Calif., a small town in the Sierra Nevada, population about 300. He joined the Army straight out of high school, hoping it would help him figure out what he wanted to do in life. But his first tour in Iraq convinced him that he was not cut out for the military.
He quit with no idea of how to make a living and ended up back in the Army in 2006. Within three months, he was on a plane to Iraq.
"I had this romantic vision of going to war that just doesn't exist anymore, not in this kind of war," he said.
In the movies, he said, there was always a "band of brothers" going after the enemy with honor and glory. But in Iraq, it felt like the enemy was always one step ahead, melting away before a major assault, only to strike back with even greater fury.
"I'm getting dizzy chasing the enemy in circles," he said.
Looking back on 15 months, moments of drama stand out: the three-minute gunfight that felt like an hour, the earth-shaking explosions that could flip a 20-ton Stryker, pulling friends from the fiery wreckage.
But it wasn't always like that. There were endless hours spent going up and down stairs, searching apartment after apartment; long meetings with robed officials accompanied by glass after glass of sugary tea; food drops to hungry neighborhoods; and nights spent cooking meals and playing cards while camped out in Iraqi homes.
The brigade touched down in Kuwait in June 2006, as the temperatures started to climb from hot to furnace level. After a few weeks' training, they deployed to Mosul, a provincial capital in northern Iraq where many of them had been based in 2003-04.
Shortly after they had left, the ancient citadel had been overrun by Sunni Arab militants and the entire Iraqi security force had melted away. When they returned, it was still plagued with violence, but Iraqi government officials were back in control, two Iraqi army divisions had been formed and about 18,000 police officers recruited.
For many of the U.S. soldiers, Mosul was the honeymoon period. They lived at a base near the airport, with Internet access and telephones, a good gym and a chow hall that served up stir fries and Baskin-Robbins ice cream with all the toppings.
The base was a short commute from the city, where they spent most of their time working to improve the Iraqi security forces. Before they left, they had the satisfaction of seeing the results of their labors: When militants launched a major attack on a U.S. base, it was the Iraqi policemen and soldiers who repelled them. U.S. forces evacuated the casualties and helped clear the area after the fight.
But the honeymoon was brief. The soldiers of the 3rd Platoon had barely finished building a deck outside their sleeping quarters when the battalion was told to prepare to move.
On Thanksgiving Day, Army Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, then the No. 2 commander in Iraq, dropped by Mosul and chatted with the soldiers. For the young men of Attack Company, sitting on their Strykers eating take-away plates of turkey and pumpkin pie, it was a chance to ask some questions about their next assignment: Baghdad.
What would they be doing, one soldier wanted to know. More or less what they were doing that day, he told them: Being his Quick Response Force, but this time in a city of about 7 million in the throes of civil war.
In which part of Baghdad would they operate, another asked. Chiarelli looked his questioner squarely in the eye and said: All of it.
There was a pause. This was a bigger job than they had anticipated.
As Chiarelli had promised, the Stryker battalions became the firemen of a "mini surge" that began in Baghdad in December, before President Bush ordered five additional brigades and support elements totaling nearly 30,000 troops into Iraq.
For the last two years, the U.S. strategy in Iraq had been to train Iraqi soldiers and police to quickly take over security responsibility, while American soldiers pulled back to their bases as much as possible. But in Baghdad, the Shiite-dominated security forces had become part of the problem, providing cover for and sometimes participating in sectarian death squads targeting the Sunni Arab minority.
By late 2006, it was clear that the U.S. strategy wasn't working. The Stryker battalions were the first wave in a new approach, which commanders called "clear, hold and build."
Their job was to swarm the neighborhoods along Baghdad's sectarian fault lines and clear out the weapons and fighters for the U.S. and Iraqi forces who would come in behind them to maintain security, restore services and encourage small businesses to return.
It was the kind of mission the Stryker brigades were born to do, Townsend said. The eight-wheeled Stryker is quicker and more mobile than tracked vehicles, yet can withstand explosions that would crumple the most heavily armored Humvee. With the vehicles designed to carry 11 infantrymen in addition to their two crew members, Stryker units can also deliver up to a third more soldiers to a fight than any other formation in Iraq, he said.
The Regulars were constantly in demand, rarely spending more than a week at a time at their base in Taji, just north of the capital. Shaab, New Baghdad, Adhamiya, Kadhimiya, Dora -- the neighborhoods soon started to blur.
It was exciting at first, but the luster of the offensive soon started to wear off. Searching homes became its own mind-numbing Groundhog Day. And until the additional brigades started arriving, there often were insufficient forces to hold the areas they had cleared.
"We'd go and clear, nobody would come in behind us, and it would go back to the way it was," said Lt. Col. Bruce Antonia, the battalion commander. "So a week's worth of hard work basically down the drain."
"We thought we were untouchable," Spc. Bryant Holloway said.
The platoon had been hit by roadside bombs, car bombs and suicide bombers. A particularly lethal device, known as an explosively formed penetrator, had pierced Holloway's truck in Baghdad, and he escaped with a fractured foot.
Growing up in Detroit, Holloway used to say he'd rather go to jail than join the Army. After failed attempts at going to college and getting a job, he drifted into the gang world. But seeing a friend killed changed his attitude.
"I wanted my family to at least get a flag if I died, and know it was for something," he said.
Holloway, a 20-year-old gunner with a quick smile and easygoing way, used to worry about keeping up with the latest fashions and being able to buy the best cars, but he says Iraq taught him to appreciate the little things. Showers, for instance.
His friends never thought of him as the marrying type, but he spent his last few weeks in Iraq shopping online for an engagement ring for his girlfriend and working out the perfect proposal.
"I'm pretty sure she is going to say yes . . . and I'm scared as hell," he said, beaming. "I just want her to have everything she wants. I don't want to have to say no to her."
In March, the command decided to dispatch Antonia's battalion to neighboring Diyala province, where U.S. forces had been battling for months to contain a raging Sunni insurgency reinforced by fighters fleeing the crackdown in Baghdad.
It was clear from that first day that this was a bigger problem than what one battalion could fix, Antonia said. But the priority was Baghdad, and one battalion was all that could be spared at the time.
U.S. commanders acknowledge that Diyala's capital, Baqubah, like Baghdad, had suffered the effects of handing too much responsibility to woefully unprepared, Shiite-dominated security forces with sectarian agendas. The result was to drive the largely Sunni population into the arms of insurgents, who promised to protect them.
By the time Antonia's battalion arrived, a collection of Sunni militant groups fighting under the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq was entrenched in much of the city.
Working with the brigade responsible for Diyala, a region dotted with orchards and palm groves stretching between Baghdad and the Iranian border, the battalion decided to tackle the city one neighborhood at a time. They began in Buhriz, on Baqubah's southeastern outskirts, where members of the most notorious insurgent group, Al Qaeda in Iraq, had overrun a police station and hoisted their black flag.
There were fierce clashes. But faced with a battalion-sized assault, most of the insurgents retreated to Baqubah's west side, leaving the soldiers to do the same methodical, house-by-house searches they had done in Baghdad.
Winning the trust of a fearful population that had seen U.S. forces come and go was slow going at first, Antonia said. But when it became clear that the troops weren't leaving this time, some of the residents started pointing out where the bombs and weapons cachets were hidden, he said.
The battalion replicated the strategy in Tahrir, just north of Buhriz. There were pushes into Old Baqubah, the provincial capital's commercial and political hub. But this was strategic ground for the insurgents, and they put up a much tougher fight.
Every day, the soldiers drove through a gauntlet of bombs and automatic-weapons fire. Strykers were destroyed, houses blew up as they were searched, and the casualty toll climbed. But still the 3rd Platoon had no fatalities.
Staff Sgt. Jose Tejada collapsed onto a bare mattress in a trailer at Camp Taji. It was late afternoon on a blistering summer day, and he had gotten up at 4 a.m. for the drive back from Baqubah, the first leg of the winding journey home.
On the other side of the flimsy wall, Staff Sgt. Vincenzo Romeo's room stood empty.
"Romeo was like my brother," said the compact 25-year-old from West New York, N.J. "I don't even want to go into his room now."
The two were close in age and each had been given squads to lead. Together, they thought they were invincible.
"I'm not going to lie to you. I have had times when I just wanted to shoot myself. I just wanted to disappear," Tejada said. "But you always come back to your senses. If anything, I am going to appreciate what I got more -- my wife, my kids."
Tejada married his high school sweetheart and went into basic training three days later. They now have three children together. He wants to take them to Disney World. Then he wants to take his wife on the honeymoon they never had.
"It changed me, this deployment," he said. "It changed me for good, not bad."
On May 6, members of the 3rd Platoon were visiting an Iraqi police station in Old Baqubah when they received word that men had been spotted planting a bomb nearby. The soldiers piled into their Strykers and took off.
Their route took them down a notorious stretch of road, dubbed Trash Alley for the heaping piles of garbage that could easily conceal explosives.
Tejada was standing in one of the top hatches of his truck when a huge bomb exploded in the sewage system and trash rained down on him.
"I thought it was us that was hit," he said.
When Tejada turned around, he couldn't believe what he saw: Romeo's hulking Stryker had flipped over. All that was left was a twisted heap of metal, wrapped in thick smoke. The remains of those inside were scattered in all directions.
"As we dismounted, I saw a leg by the ramp, a whole leg," he said, his voice trailing away.
Seven of the eight men aboard were killed, including a journalist, the largest casualty count inflicted on a Stryker to date. As the soldiers reached the stricken vehicle, they could hear the driver, Spc. Larry Clark, screaming that he was alive.
Just then, gunshots rang out from a mosque across the street and a house on the other side of a field.
Tejada, Staff Sgt. William Rose and the platoon leader, Capt. Eric Williams, and their men fought back from the buildings to provide cover for Oliver and Staff Sgt. David Plush, who were leading the recovery efforts.
"I didn't care if I got shot, I just wanted to fight and fight and fight until I had either killed everybody or got killed," Tejada said. The soldiers later found the bodies of three insurgents wearing flak vests inside the mosque.
Clark was upside down with his hand pinned under the wreckage. Spc. Chris Martin, a medic, crawled in to pry him loose, as Plush ran through a hail of bullets to bring them a fire extinguisher and a jack.
Back at Warhorse, word spread quickly. A small crowd had gathered at the tents when the platoon returned with their friends' remains in body bags.
"They were crying and hugging one another, some just shaking their heads," said Capt. Benjamin Hines, the battalion chaplain. "The atmosphere in the tent was very, very somber because there were now six cots that were empty."
Killed that day were:
* Romeo, 23, the son of Italian immigrants and a charismatic squad leader from Lodi, N.J., who kept his soldiers in stitches with his offbeat sense of humor.
* Cpl. Matthew L. Alexander, 21, from Gretna, Neb., a sometimes quiet, always dependable soldier with a passion for the military. He had married his high school sweetheart while home on leave in February.
* Cpl. Anthony M. Bradshaw, 21, from San Antonio, who was described by friends as the platoon stud. Full of bravado and humor, he wrote on his MySpace Web page that his only regret was: "That I have only one life to give for my country."
* Sgt. Jason R. Harkins, 25, a deeply religious "country boy" from Clarkesville, Ga., with boundless energy. Friends said that when they returned exhausted from a mission, he would be the one doing push-ups.
* Sgt. Joel W. Lewis, 28, from Sandia Park, N.M., a giant of a man with an even bigger smile.
* Cpl. Michael A. Pursel, 19, from Clinton, Utah, who volunteered to go to Iraq to replace wounded comrades and had been there a little more than a month when he was killed.
* Dmitry Chebotayev, 29, a photographer on assignment for the Russian edition of Newsweek magazine.
Martin sat on a camp stool, hunched over and sucking on a cigarette.
For most of the deployment, the 24-year-old medic from Nashville was the court jester of the platoon, always ready with a quick comeback and irreverent aside intended to shock.
But as he tried to pick his way through the jumble of conflicting emotions that built up over 15 months in Iraq, he became deadly serious.
Inspired by the television series "M*A*S*H," Martin joined the Army 3 1/2 years ago hoping to make a difference.
"I came here feeling I could do great things. Not just bring all my guys home . . . but do something for people," he said. "I failed."
His friends call him a hero for leaping onto a wounded soldier to shield him from gunfire. But he can think only about the men he could not save.
He believes, fervently, that his unit made a difference in Baqubah. But he is disillusioned with the political leaders who sent them to Iraq.
"They have made some companies into Fortune 500 companies," he said. "But otherwise, we have just put a lot of flags on coffins for what will inevitably be nothing but a giant mess."
The one person who still inspires him is his girlfriend, who volunteers at an orphanage in Honduras.
"She is one of the last great people on Earth trying to do something to help," he said, softening. "She wants to go to Africa next, and I want to go with her . . . if she'll have me."
After May 6, many in the 3rd Platoon said, they lost faith in everything they were doing except trying to keep one another alive.
They knew they shouldn't blame all Iraqis for what had happened. But it was hard not to be angry at the men they met every day who averted their eyes when masked gunmen took over their neighborhoods and planted bombs in their streets.
Holloway, the one who lost a friend to gang violence, understood better than most the fear that prevents many Iraqis from pointing out the militants living among them.
"They are worried that someone will come and kill them," he said. "I understand how that feels."
After months of pressing his superiors about Baqubah, Townsend was given the order to move most of the rest of his brigade there in June. With the additional units, the Strykers had the combat power to go after the insurgents' stronghold on the west side of the city.
Before dawn on June 19, columns of Strykers rolled out of Warhorse and disgorged thousands of soldiers into three neighborhoods: Khatoon, Muffrek and Mujema. Tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles secured the perimeters as warplanes and attack helicopters unleashed thundering airstrikes.
Unlike previous operations, the soldiers moved in on foot, skirting canals and hauling themselves over garden walls to avoid the roads where bombs and snipers lurked. It was backbreaking work. With their body armor, weapons, ammunition, food and water, each soldier was hauling as much as 150 pounds. Spc. Ralph Willsey, a radio operator, said he didn't weigh much more than that himself.
During the day, the temperature climbed to 120 degrees. The soldiers slept in homes, never staying more than a few days in one place.
"Oh God, wake me up when the war is over," Grover, a jovial squad leader with an ace of hearts tucked into his helmet strap, said one afternoon as he dropped to the floor as a family was being questioned in Khatoon and ripped open his flak vest to get some air.
Later, word came over the radio that the neighborhood's power had been knocked out in an airstrike. There was a collective groan. Another night without air conditioning or a fan.
"If only these people knew how truly, honestly we want them to have power," Grover said, shaking his head.
Capt. Matthew James' pride and joy is a neon pink fountain. It stands in a neatly paved circle in the middle of Old Baqubah, across the street from a blown-up car and a short walk from Trash Alley.
Attack Company's gruff new commander smiles as he thumbs through photographs of children splashing in its water on one of the rare days that there was electricity to power the pump, and of the bustling shops that have opened around it. Hundreds of Sunni militants once allied with Al Qaeda in Iraq now help the U.S. and Iraqi security forces protect the circle and other parts of the city as "Baqubah Guardians."
An experienced commander, James already had led two companies when Antonia tapped him to replace Capt. Hubert Parsons, who was seriously injured in a bombing four days after the six soldiers died. There was no time for ceremony. James was handed the company flag at the rehearsal for an operation he commanded the following day.
Restoring the confidence of the shattered company was his "toughest leadership challenge by far," he said.
Seeing the changes in the city helped his soldiers understand why they were there, he said.
But he wonders whether they will hold. At his last meeting with the Baqubah Guardians, he made a point of collecting e-mail addresses.
"I want to know, from their perspective, how things look a few years down the line," he said. "All those guys that we lost, I want to know if it will be worth it."
Until the men of the 3rd Platoon set foot on American soil, it was hard to believe that it was over. Their tour had been extended once, and Tejada for one was convinced that it would happen again. Others joked bleakly that their plane probably would hit a bomb on the runway as it took off from Iraq.
But when the soldiers finally touched down in Washington state, they were swept up in a whirlwind.
"Everything went very fast," Oliver, the platoon sergeant, wrote in an e-mail. "The news guys took video of us getting off the plane. . . . The return ceremony was at a gym by our barracks. We lined up down the walkway and marched in. Lots of signs and people inside and out. Most of the wounded guys were there. A very quick speech. And we were dismissed. Very loud event."
Before many of them were tough career and family decisions, the challenge of fitting back into domestic routines that no longer felt familiar, and of dealing with the grief and anger they could not afford to confront in Iraq. But for a moment, they could forget all that.
"Also had a very stereotypical girl finding her guy moment, while we were in formation outside," Oliver wrote. "They hugged and kissed and all the guys yelled."