updated 2:54 p.m. PT, Mon., March. 16, 2009
FORT HOOD, Texas - On his first morning home from Iraq, Lt. Rusty Morris woke at dawn, next to his wife, their son tucked between them. Loyal, who was just a baby when Morris deployed 15 months earlier, touched his father's face and ears as he drifted in and out of sleep.
Spc. Nathan Stopps expected to feel liberated once he arrived home safely. He didn't feel any different.
Sgt. Jon Fleenor was pinned with the Purple Heart, a medal he never wanted to earn and never wanted to wear.
Nearly six years after American troops invaded Iraq, the men of "Killer Blue" were coming home — matured, scarred, looking forward to resuming their lives, finding themselves suddenly startled by what used to be routine. Associated Press photojournalists lived with their unit for over four months, chronicling their combat and now their return home.
Men of Killer Blue are not broken
The unit's motto is "Baptized by fire, came out steel," and it fits, because the men of Killer Blue are not broken. They count themselves better soldiers now, and believe they'll be better dads, husbands and sons, masters of their fate.
Yet the struggle to be average Americans again plays out in different ways, some stark, some subtle. Stopps wonders why the sight of a fallen comrade's coffee mug brought a torrent of tears, while the death of another has left him dry-eyed. He can't explain it.
Another sees his fellow citizens back home and instinctively wonders if they can be trusted, simply because they are not in a uniform. "It's like going to the zoo," said Sgt. Cole Weih. "And it's overwhelming."
They offer insights about serving in war:
"War is the fundamental flaw of mankind." — Morris.
"War is the biggest case of denial in human history." — Stopps.
"Just a job to bring everybody home safe." — Fleenor.
And they wonder how life will be now that they've experienced excitement and fear at a higher level than they expect to encounter again. "Now I can say for the rest of my life that I walked across a tightrope," said Stopps, 24, of Deerfield, Ill.
Experience shaped future goals
Not everyone made it home. For those who did, their lives in Iraq and the deaths of men who became family have forever shaped their goals for the future and their sense of the people they want to be.
"I think I've matured and become more aware of how valuable life is and how quickly it can be taken away," said Spc. Derek Griffard, 22, of Santa Maria, Calif. "I just think I'm trying to live my life to the fullest before something else happens."
"I just don't want to waste the great opportunity that I got from Iraq," said Morris, 28, from Sumter, S.C., who served as Blue Platoon's leader with Killer Troop for half of the tour.
"I learned a lot about myself. I learned a lot about what's important."
Killer Blue — a unit of the Fort Hood-based 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment's 3rd Squadron — was one of the last Army units to serve a 15-month combat tour in Iraq, in the most dangerous city in a country ravaged by war and sectarian strife. While the unit was still in Iraq, the Pentagon cut combat tours to 12 months.
It was a time when hearts were broken, blood was spilled, resolve was tested. Two of the two dozen Killer Blue soldiers died.
CONTINUED : Time of deep camaraderie