HATTIESBURG, Miss. – They are returning home with a sense of accomplishment, but also with feelings of anger and frustration, even despair.
They speak proudly about building up the Iraqi security force, restoring electricity and watching Iraqis walk miles to vote.
But they wonder whether it will be enough to secure Iraq's future, and at times, express bitterness toward the people they wanted to help.
"They're using our good will, our good-nature policy against us," says Sgt. Bobby Walls, a 38-year-old Pennsylvania National Guard member. "The fact that we fight as the good guys sometimes turns around and kicks us in the can, you know?"
Such are the swirling emotions for troops returning home from Iraq. Among the most recent of those returnees are members of the largest contingent of Pennsylvania National Guard troops deployed to a combat zone since World War II.
Fifteen from their ranks of about 2,000 were killed during the nearly yearlong deployment in Iraq's Anbar province, a huge swath of land that's a stronghold of insurgency. Two others are being investigated in connection with the shooting death of an Iraqi civilian earlier this year.
For the rest of these part-time soldiers, it can be a struggle as they return home this summer to regain the sort of normalcy they knew before spending a year with their lives in danger wherever they went. During stopovers at Camp Shelby in Mississippi on their way home, some talked about their experiences.
Walls felt helpless and furious as he stood at ground zero on Sept. 11, 2001, one of several Philadelphia police officers who on their own drove New York City to help. He vowed to become an infantryman and get even, so the father of three went off inactive status in the Navy Reserves and joined the Army National Guard.
At boot camp, the other recruits — many just 18 — called him grandpa. He lost 45 pounds in basic training and scout school that followed. Then his unit was sent to Ramadi, which he nicknamed the "meat grinder." He worked as a sniper, usually with just one partner.
At night, they'd sneak into rural villages and urban areas, tracking suspected terrorists for hours at a time. Sometimes, they'd kill them.
Back at the base camp, Walls became hyper-vigilant. He'd fear if he went to sleep, he would die.
"You start realizing how vulnerable you really are all the time," Walls says. "You're not safe anywhere in that damn place, and that's a bad feeling. Too many guys got hurt or killed just walking to chow ... or running to the bathroom, and they don't come back."
Walls is proud of the work he did as a sniper. He said he killed "upper-tier insurgents" who would have likely killed or injured other American soldiers if they had tried to capture them.
He wonders, though, about the future of the Anbar region. The people "will not be pacified, they will not work with us. I don't ever see it happening," he says.
Walls says insurgents wear civilian clothes and use women and children as shields.
"If you're going to fight the enemy, there are two ways to look at it. You either become just like them, fight them on their own terms or you take the heavy burden like we're doing it right now and it's going to cost American lives. It's a hell of a price to pay but if you fight them on their terms, you're no better than them.
"That's the true dilemma of the soldier right now, to get his sanity and keep his morals, keep his integrity. And it's hard. It's a ... minute-by-minute struggle ... over in Iraq."
Children looking for handouts of candy would often approach 1st Lt. Anselm T.W. Richards and the men in his platoon. The soldiers would oblige them, then ask for information.
Sometimes, the children would tell them who made bombs and dealt in weapons. Everybody in town seemed to know the answer.
One day, Richards says, the parents of a 12-year-old boy told him their son had been beheaded by insurgents because he accepted a soccer ball as a gift from soldiers.
"We said to the parents, 'You tell us who did it and we will get them.' They said if we talk to you, they'll kill us as well,'" says Richards, a hedge fund broker from Philadelphia.
"That's the fear in which these people live. That's probably the biggest hindrance to them moving forward."
Like Walls, Richards believes no one should be too quick to judge the small group of Marines being investigated in the Nov. 19 deaths of 24 Iraqi civilians, including unarmed women and children, following a roadside bomb that killed a fellow Marine.
"My question is why are people so curious and so eager to find fault with the Marines or soldiers whose lives are on the line," he says. "Why is it their behavior that's being questioned, not the behavior of the guy placing the IED, or the bomb."
He adds: "If it's because children were killed or women, it's understandable, but you know what, those Marines who are killed are children of someone as well."
Among the difficulties: Richards says Iraqi insurgents know the U.S. troops wouldn't fire at a school — "so they will set up on a school or put a sniper on the roof of a school."
Richards says the region is safer than it was a year ago, though five of his men were injured by a roadside bomb just a few weeks before the end of their deployment. Among other accomplishments, he says his brigade helped expand the hours of available electricity each day and trained Iraqi police and security officers.
"I'm optimistic in that I feel like I've done everything that I can do and we as a group could possibly do," he says.
"Is it enough? I don't know because that area, again this is Ramadi ... it's just such a grip, the insurgency. For them to think or to see anything else is so foreign to them."
As much as he hates to admit it, 1st Lt. Michael Green, a Pennsylvania state employee from Hershey, says he found it hard at times to like the Iraqis.
He was furious to learn some Iraqis blamed the Americans for a suicide bomb attack that claimed the life of Lt. Col. Michael McLaughlin, the first Pennsylvania Army National Guard officer to die in combat since World War II.
After a year in Iraq, "It's not that I feel so different about the war," he says. "I feel different about the Iraqi people because I saw the bad sides along with the good sides, and before all I saw was potential."
He was so angry that he wanted to shoot some construction workers who had pretended, he says, not to have seen a vehicle driven by the kidnappers of a small boy.
He says he wanted to help catch people responsible for bombings and other violence but that townspeople often didn't want to get involved.
To be successful in Iraq, he says, Americans "need to learn the culture well enough to get inside it" and convince the people that terrorism is dishonorable and brings shame on their family.
"They have all the materials they need to be a strong country. What they probably lack the most is the democratized individuals making decisions collectively ... It's more of a 'Why should I get involved?'"
Sgt. Thomas Farley turned 58 in Iraq during what he calls his "last military adventure." His first was in Vietnam, where he was an Army combat photographer and reporter.
Farley, a father of four, spent 14 years in the active Army before joining the National Guard in Philadelphia as an enlisted infantryman.
In Iraq, he spent part of his time taking photos for a newsletter.
One shows a smiling Sgt. Michael Egan, 36, with his arm around another soldier, at Camp Shelby before the unit's deployment. Egan was killed in Iraq by a roadside bomb.
"Some guys can't even look at the picture," Farley says.
Farley says soldiers live with the fear that if they don't stay alert at all times, they could get hurt or killed. The Iraqi insurgents, he says, cannot be underestimated.
"They're very patient. They watch us constantly," Farley says. "They are not the knuckleheads that some people think they must be."
Farley says the sectarian violence must be resolved in the Sunni Triangle or Iraq will never been a working country.
"I'm sure it can be done," he says, "but I'm not sure anybody really knows how to do it yet."