After coming home from a months-long tour in Iraq (search), Curtis Mills recalls driving his daughter to a recital and panicking when he saw a radio tower's blinking red lights.
"For a second, I almost yelled out 'Tracers at 11 o'clock!"' Mills said sheepishly during a break from shoveling snow from his driveway in Shapleigh, Maine. "Then I realized it was just an antenna."
For soldiers of the Army Reserve's 94th Military Police Company (search), which was mobilized for a grueling 20 months, returning to cozy hometowns across New England has been a struggle with the unexpected.
Everyday sounds such as backfiring cars and slammed doors send them into panicked alert. They react by scanning rooftops for snipers or scouring crowds for anything out of the ordinary.
"You don't get through a day without thinking about it. No matter what I do, there's always something," said Mills, a postal worker who was hospitalized for 11 months after surviving a roadside bomb that detonated beneath his Humvee near Ramadi (search).
The 94th bears the dubious distinction of being one of the longest-mobilized military reserve units since the Korean War, and the MPs are believed to be among the longest-deployed soldiers to Iraq, officials say.
Mobilized in December 2002, about 160 soldiers were sent to Iraq four months later for a planned 365-day tour. Twice the soldiers were ready to leave when their deployment was extended; at Easter, they were hours away from boarding their flight home when the unexpected news they would stay was delivered.
The company of soldiers from Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island returned in August from its deployment, the last months of which were in the dangerous Sunni Triangle north and west of Baghdad.
Richard Stegeman, 35, a cardiovascular specialist from Dayton, Maine, served as a medic for the 94th and cared for Mills when he was injured. When Stegeman returned home, he said he was distracted by cell phones, which insurgents used to detonate roadside bombs.
"I still wake up sometimes thinking 'Am I really home, or is this all a dream?"' Stegeman said. "Even though we've been home for four months, sometimes it doesn't feel that I'm even here at all."
Heightened sensitivity, sleeplessness, and hair-trigger responsiveness to unexpected sounds and sights are all symptoms of combat stress, psychologists say.
"When you're in a war environment for a long period of time, that can affect you," said Capt. Bobby Sidell, a clinical psychologist at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. "And if you're knee-deep in it, it's hard to kind of take that objective step back."
In the 94th's case, the symptoms can be compounded by the length of deployment and frustration that accompanied the extensions, Sidell said.
The military offers psychological services to combat veterans, but Sidell said soldiers often are unaware of their need for them when they return or get lost in the shuffle.
The soldiers are based in Londonderry, N.H., and there's an additional detachment in Saco, Maine. They had been home for about a year after serving in Bosnia when they learned they were going to Iraq.
There, the soldiers ran police academies in Ramadi and worked in hot spots like Fallujah, providing escorts to convoys and security to soldiers conducting offensive maneuvers that included house-to-house searches.
Some in the unit have returned to weekend drills, knowing that they could be deployed again. But they say the process of returning to their lives takes time.
Stephen Whittredge, a network administrator who grew up in New Hampshire but now lives in Gloucester, Mass., was in the active Army in Somalia and has dealt with the nightmares after combat and a fear of crowds before. He re-enlisted with the reserves and served for the duration of the 94th's deployment.
Even now he chooses to spend most of his time alone. He still can't help but flinch and duck at loud noises.
"I prefer to stay in my house and not do anything or see anybody," said Whittredge, 36. "I know soldiers want to go back, but I am definitely not one of those soldiers. I don't want to die this young."