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Iraq in the rear-view mirror

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.

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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.”

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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.”

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.

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America ...

America ...

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.

One of them looks at the landscape and jokes, “Saddam really hid those WMD well.” Everyone laughs.

The convoy enters the farmlands south of Baghdad. It’s after dawn. Men are out herding cattle on overpasses and donkeys are sniffing each other’s rears in a meadow.

Children start to jump when the Strykers pass by. Some cars whiz next to the Stryker and Longoria waves a black staff at them. They call it the wizard staff, after the wizard Gandalf from “The Lord of the Rings.”

“U shall not pass,” Longoria bellows. A car swerves.

Black Apaches fly overhead. The Strykers whisk by salt ponds with men wading knee deep and scooping up deposits and bagging them. The land changes from green pastures and small ponds to brown plains and, then, hard yellow desert.

They see poles in the road for guardrails that were never completed, either destroyed in fighting or simply neglected during Hussein’s time and now.

“I have no faith in people whatsoever,” says LeFevre, who is quitting the Army after this tour. “Put two people in a room with a hammer and one of them will wind up dead.”

The convoy arrives at Camp Adder in the desert near Nasiriya to sleep in tents until nightfall.

It is 120 degrees, and guards search the bottom of their Strykers for bombs. Their hair is thick with sweat, their skin blotted. Their heads pound from the heat.

A plump crescent moon hangs over the motor pool as the exhausted soldiers prepare for the final ride. LeFevre whispers to his Stryker, “Come on, Lucy, one more journey to the promised land.”

They head off at 3:20 a.m. There is nothing but desert, waves of yellow gullies where Shiite militants could hide and set off explosives. Sedillo peers around and thumbs his stacks of maps.

He savors the thick night breeze and wishes that the moon and their vehicles’ lights didn’t drown out the sky.

“The only good thing about Iraq was I was able to see the stars way back in 2003,” he says. “So many shooting stars.”

As sunlight creeps up, power lines stand in the distance. “I feel like I’m on Tatooine,” Longoria says, and the three men start humming the theme to “Star Wars.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, composer John Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra,” LeFevre announces.

The group can sense they’re closing in on the crossing into Kuwait. K Crossing. They reach a simple gate with concrete barriers and fences. Two officers salute them and a sport utility vehicle leads them inside the border area. No one whoops or hollers. All focus on the task of cleaning up their vehicles.

Sedillo fishes for a canvas bag of bullets and sits in the mouth of the Stryker clearing magazines and gathering trash.

All of them are tired but they can’t resist playing “Bohemian Rhapsody” a final time. Longoria leans back in his turret, his feet kicked up. Sedillo taps his fingers. They strain for the high notes.

Just gotta get out, just gotta get right outta here.

Nothing really matters. Anyone can see.

Nothing really matters. Nothing really matters to me.

ned.parker@latimes.com


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