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Company A Comes Home

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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.

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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 http://www.latimes.com/guardgoes

•  Staff Sgt. Dennis Sarla, 48Santa 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."

Asked if he'd go into combat again, he hesitates and looks at his wife. "I'd like to go back if I can," he says softly, as she shakes her head. "Maybe Sinai or Afghanistan, where it's a little safer."

Dennis explains that he had another reason for reenlisting that Jeanette does understand—a sense of unfinished business. One day in June 2004, his squad was searching for hidden weapons near Camp Anaconda, their home base in a fertile valley dotted with palms and irrigation ditches. Exhausted by the 130-degree heat, Dennis had to lie down. A fellow squad member, Sgt. Patrick McCaffrey, gave him an IV to stave off dehydration. The other soldiers urged him to return to camp.

"Usually I'm argumentative, because I want to show the young guys that I have what it takes," Dennis says. But this time, he agreed to head back.

Two hours later, McCaffrey and another soldier, 2nd Lt. Andre Tyson, were killed, reportedly by Iraqi trainees helping with the weapons patrol. On the Sarlas' living-room wall hangs a large framed photo of McCaffrey, inscribed with a poem by Jeanette titled "To a True Hero." "What is a true hero?" the poem reads. "A man that runs to the aid of a fallen soldier…. A man that is stronger than life itself. A man that no one will ever forget."

"There isn't a day goes by I don't think about him," says Dennis, stopping to clear his throat and rub his eyes. "I told the guys we all came out here together, and we're all going home together," he says. "Unfortunately, it didn't happen that way."

In the months since Dennis' return, as he attends counseling sessions and physical therapy for neck and shoulder injuries, the Sarlas say, they gradually have become closer. "Every day he tells me more stories," Jeanette says.

But she still worries that she'll awake one morning to the news that her husband has been redeployed. One day when the newspaper went missing from their house, she panicked, sure Dennis had hidden it because it contained an article about him shipping out. "It's just a really frightening thing," she says. "I don't know if we could go through that again."—Felicia Mello

•  Spc. Sean Patrick Farley, 20 Durham, Farmer Specialist Sean Farley considers himself fortunate to have returned without a scratch from an assignment in which one in five men in his unit was killed or wounded. He hopes the same good luck will grace his father, Master Sgt. Rick Farley, 54, a Vietnam veteran who left in May to train with his Roseville-based National Guard unit, the 115th Area Support Group.

"It would be easier living in a condominium and being deployed than it is having 10 acres," Rick said before taking off for Ft. Carson, Colo.

His father's departure greatly complicated Sean's transition from Iraq to life on the family's farm 80 miles north of Sacramento. He is helping his mom, Rian, and younger sister, Megan, as much as he can—mowing lawns, fixing fences and feeding horses—but he knows that he can't replace his dad or ease the emotional stress on the family of regaining a son and losing a father a few months later. "It's like we're missing out," Sean says.

In Iraq, Sean drove a Humvee amid gunfire and explosions—and ribbing from his buddies about his bald head. ("I got screwed in the gene pool," he says.) Memories of the chaos there make him appreciate the peaceful drives around the green hills of Northern California in the white Ford F-150 pickup he bought with his National Guard paychecks.

The Farleys credit their neighbors, including close relatives who live within a mile, for helping out during Sean's absence. Three of his childhood friends popped by with a pizza and cookie dough for Rian and Megan on a weekend when Rick was out of town. The same young men pitched in on chores and bought Christmas gifts for the family on Sean's behalf. Rian says she gets countless dinner invitations and unsolicited hugs.

"It's just the kind of community that we live in. It's awesome. Rural Americana, I guess you can say," she says. "Something you see in the Midwest, but don't really know of in California as much. But it's still here today."

They expect the support to continue, with Rick training for an August deployment to Kuwait and Sean settling in his own apartment, with plans to study fire science this fall at Butte College in nearby Oroville. But three years remain on his enlistment contract, so he could be redeployed after two years.

For Sean, the joy of being back among family and friends is tinged with anxiety because of the seesawing between home and overseas. The elder Farley is expected to be gone until September 2006.

"It's kind of a pain, because dad and I are so close. But as soon as he gets back, we'll get back to normal," Sean says. "Hopefully I don't go right back after he gets back."—Durrell Dawson

•  1st Lt. Domingo Cardoza, 33Woodland, Engineer

When Domingo Cardoza received his orders to go to Iraq, he was newly married and just five weeks shy of earning a degree in environmental engineering at Humboldt State. On top of the miserable timing, he had mixed feelings about the war. He believed in toppling Saddam Hussein, but not in using the leader's alleged cache of weapons of mass destruction as justification for the war.

Still, he gritted his teeth and did his duty. "My initial feelings, back in 2003, were that we should have let the [United Nations weapons] inspectors work it out," Domingo explains. "But once you're out there, you've got to walk around like you own the place, like you're in the right."

Domingo enlisted in the Army at 17 to earn money for college. He was deployed to the Persian Gulf for the first showdown with Hussein in 1991, and went again to the region in 1994 before his discharge in 1996.

The first two times, though, he was "just a kid," Domingo says. On the third, he was a National Guard platoon leader in charge of 26 men. Domingo was known among his men as a taskmaster who bristled when his orders were questioned. But he softened when interacting with Iraqi citizens, says Capt. William Turner, Company A's commander.

"Based on his leadership style, maybe you wouldn't expect this, but he's very different in his interactions with Iraqi civilians," Turner says.

Domingo urged his men to be thorough but respectful during a raid on families suspected of harboring insurgents.

"I told my guys, do a good search, but don't freakin' go messing up the houses," he recalls. "Because if we were wrong, we just made enemies."

Domingo had watched tanks rumble through the streets of his native Nicaragua during the '80s conflict between the Sandinista-led government and U.S.-backed Contra rebels. He had witnessed poverty and the effects of brutality before his mother fled with her children to San Francisco.

"He's very worldly," Turner says. "He has a good grasp of humanity." In August 2004, while still in Iraq, Domingo was transferred to the Guard's civil affairs section, where he met with civilian leaders to initiate construction projects such as schools and water systems, and to promote positive relations with the U.S. military. Under his watch, nine projects were completed, with 20 in the pipeline.

Domingo has decided to remain an officer in the National Guard for at least five more years, when he will be eligible for retirement benefits. He has taken a job as an assistant civil engineer with the California National Guard, but there is always a chance that he will be sent back to Iraq.—Sandhya Somashekhar

•  Sgt. Swami Jeetan, 34

Palm Desert,

Correctional Officer

In his first 30 days home, Sgt. Swami Jeetan threw away his Guard uniforms, grew a full black beard and tried to purge from his mind everything he had seen in Iraq. When the time came to return to his civilian job, he shaved, pulled on a different uniform over his thick 5-foot-11-inch frame and drove from his home in Palm Desert to Calipatria State Prison in Imperial.

"Welcome back, Jeetan. Welcome, man," said his fellow correctional officers. "We heard about your losses. We are sorry." But then the hard questions began: "How many people did you kill? How many fights did you get into?" Swami tried to change the subject. "You know what, guys?" he recalls saying. "I'm not ready to discuss that. I'm trying to forget and go on with my life."

With 12 years previous active duty in the Marines, Swami had amassed plenty of overseas experience, including tours in Kuwait, Somalia and Sarajevo, but Iraq proved to be his most difficult assignment, he says, despite the advantage of coming from arid Southern California. "The sandstorms, the heat, it's the same as in Iraq," he says.

On his second day back at the maximum-security prison, Swami went to the rifle range for routine training. As the other guards loaded their weapons, one of them noticed that something was wrong. "Hey, Jeetan, are you all right?" No. He stared blankly, frozen in a flashback. "In my mind we were getting ready for a raid," Swami says. "After shooting live human beings, I was now shooting a paper target. How are you supposed to forget that stuff?"

The range officers worried that Swami might be a liability to himself and others. They pulled him off the range and suggested that he seek counseling. He agreed to get help.

While still in Iraq, Swami had signed with the National Guard for six more years—enough to earn retirement benefits. "I'm a patriot and I love my country," he explains. His sense of duty stems from a desire to pay back America for all it has given his parents, immigrants from the West Indies. But with a wife and three young children to support, the $15,000 tax-free reenlistment bonus was also an incentive.

Swami knows his psychological wounds will heal slowly. "I have a lot of demons now, but you know what? I'm going to get over it. With counseling and whatever they have for me, I'm going to do it. Because if I could go to Iraq and be successful, I know that in any part of my life back here I can be successful."—Shlomi Simhi

•  Spc. Chris Murphy, 23 Chico, Insurance Salesman Chris Murphy did what many young soldiers do upon returning home: "I spent about five days drinking." Then he got down to business.

"I plan on being the youngest millionaire in my company, and retiring my mom in five years," Chris says. "By 28, I want to be driving a Ferrari and have people coming up and asking me how I got that, and I'll tell them. I can help them."

Chris' tenacity, however, sometimes backfires.

Last summer while still in Iraq, he wrote, with his sergeant's permission, an account of an ambush that had resulted in the deaths of two soldiers in Company A, including his friend Sgt. Patrick McCaffrey. After it was published on the op-ed pages of the Sacramento Bee and the website http://www.Truthout.com , Chris says, commanding officers began treating him unfairly.

Chris called a lawyer with military expertise. Later, when asked to sign a statement admitting that he was at fault for writing the story, he refused. He said he had to call his lawyer first.

"That felt really good to have a backup," Chris recalls. "After that, they didn't mess with me as much."

But two weeks before his unit shipped home from Mosul, he received an Article 15—a disciplinary mark on his service record—for what he describes as a "disagreement that blew up."

"Maybe if I hadn't gone to Iraq and had experiences and went through all those hardships, I wouldn't have had the same motivation for this," he says of his new career selling legal insurance. He's returning to school at Cal State Chico in the fall, but for now he sometimes works seven days a week, building for the future.

Standing next to his ice-blue Mazda Protégé after a lunch with co-workers one afternoon, Chris repeats a line from his lieutenant, something that has stuck with him. "You know, you're a leader, you just don't belong here in Iraq," the lieutenant told him.

"You're right," he responded.—Jeff Nachtigal

•  Capt. William C. Turner, 32Mountain View

Mechanical Engineer

In Iraq, the most dangerous missions took place at night. When something went wrong, Capt. William Turner was awakened by a loud knock on his trailer door.

William led the 100 men of Company A during a yearlong tour in Iraq. The combat deaths of Sgt. Patrick McCaffrey, 2nd Lt. Andre Tyson and Sgt. 1st Class Michael Ottolini were devastating knocks.

"No matter how good a leader you may be," William says during an interview this spring in his Santa Clara office, "if you lose soldiers, you are always going to have these thoughts in the back of your mind: 'What if we had done this?' 'What if we had done that?' It took me a long time to turn that around."

Quiet and soft-spoken, William does not fit the stereotype of a charging, steeped-in-machismo combat commander. When he returned to work as a mechanical engineer in April—a job he has since left to move to Washington state—he asked his co-workers not to throw him a welcome-home party.

His shyness comes, perhaps, from his upbringing outside tiny Bonners Ferry in northern Idaho. His family lived in a remote wooded area "literally on the side of a mountain." His fondness for nature found expression even on dangerous patrols in Iraq. "I think I was much more attuned to this new ecosystem than others in the company," William says. "I noticed the different birds and animals, the smells, even how different the soil was from what I knew."

Although he doesn't miss Iraq or his role as commander, he left a mark on both the country and the men who served under him.

"His command attitude was that we would treat everyone we met in the community with respect," says 1st Lt. Domingo Cardoza. "The commander had absolutely no tolerance for abuse."—Melissa Nix

•  Sgt. Conan Nunley, 33Petaluma, Career Soldier

In his imagination Sgt. Conan Nunley sees a blond-haired, blue-eyed soldier standing in front of the senior leadership of the California National Guard. The soldier smiles disarmingly and reads in a calm voice a list of grievances that he has been composing for months. He wants to save lives by telling his superiors how to do things differently, and better, for troops in Iraq.

Conan, who served in the regular Army as a reconnaissance scout before joining the Guard in 2003, came home believing that it might be within his power to improve working conditions and prevent deaths in Iraq. "I have the experience that keeps young men out of body bags," he says at Company A's welcome-home ceremony in March.

His vision of confronting military leaders nagged at him during his transition from the war zone to a quiet street in Petaluma. "When you first get back," Conan says, "your mind is still in Iraq."

The striking contrast helped lead to a major anxiety attack.

"I would be walking down the aisles of the grocery store, looking for shady figures," he recalls, "or be at work thinking, 'Yes, I'm at work, why don't I have a weapon?' "

Conan spends most of his days working at the Petaluma National Guard Armory, attending medical appointments for an injury that brought him home from Iraq three months early and indulging in his hobbies. He plays acoustic guitar and builds remote-controlled hobby trucks that he races at the beach.

In April, as Conan awakened from shoulder surgery at Travis Air Force Base military hospital, he talked to his father, a Navy veteran, about his frustrations with understaffing in Iraq. "Either you were working or you were sleeping," he says. He believes fatigue, along with insufficient training, left the soldiers more vulnerable to injury and death.

Conan, who was promoted to sergeant from specialist during his tour, says he is not afraid of combat. But if he decides to reenlist, he hopes to train as an MRI technician.

As he talks about his future, he stops to consider the families of his dead comrades. He again brings up his vision of a meeting with the top leaders of the Guard. His eyes tearing up and his voice halting, he says, "I know what we're doing is probably for the greater good, hopefully, but the price, at what price?"—Rebecca Ruiz

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