updated 3/16/2009 5:54:34 PM ET 2009-03-16T21:54:34

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.

Time of deep camaraderie
But it was also a time of deep camaraderie and loyalty, of adventure, of growth.

"Most of the time we got attacked nothing really happened," Stopps said. "So it felt like you walked on a tightrope walk for the first time and you're on the other side and you're like, wow, I made it.

"It was really dangerous and I was scared at first and it was probably a really stupid thing to do — but I'm on the other side and I survived it and it is pretty cool."

Situated at the intersection of two of the most dangerous roads in the northern city of Mosul, Killer Blue staked its claim in the rubble of a former municipal yard that served as a joint U.S.-Iraqi base. Crafted in plywood, Combat Outpost Rabiy (Arabic for "Spring") was like a fire station.

As part of the U.S. military plan to quell violence in Iraqi cities, troops moved off of large bases and into combat outposts, living among the Iraqi people and providing security.

Some nights, they slept with their boots on when the radio calls kept coming. They could be on the scene of a bombing within seven minutes. They were hit by roadside bombs, small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades countless times, earning the platoon 13 Purple Hearts.

"There wasn't a mission we were scared to do," Morris said. "We were used to working with each other so we were very confident, I think."

Bond forged over rations and cigarettes
A plywood table outside the big room the Killer Blue men shared became their gathering place. Around that table, they forged a bond over military rations and cigarettes. They played cards and talked about the lives they left behind in America. They told war stories and hatched plans for what to do next.

"That was our chance, that was our moment to know each other," said Weih, 28, the platoon medic, from Dubuque, Iowa. "I think from that point forward we were family."

On April 30, 2008, the family started to break up. First, it was Staff Sgt. Chad Caldwell, killed by a roadside bomb. The dismount squad leader and a two-time Iraq veteran from Spokane, Wash., 24-year-old Caldwell had an iTunes playlist that ran the gamut from bubblegum pop to heavy metal. With a small, wiry build and a two-pack-a-day habit, Caldwell had the names of his two young sons, Trevor and Coen, tattooed on his forearms.

Sgt. Jose Regalado, 23, of El Sereno, Calif., was next. The two-tour Iraq veteran's first child was born while he was deployed, but he made it home on leave to meet the little girl. His wife, Sharri, wrote him a letter every day. Shortly after his return to Mosul, he was killed Nov. 12, 2008, by an Iraqi soldier who opened fire on U.S. soldiers visiting an Iraqi Army base.

"Before Sgt. Caldwell died, there was a lot of laughter," Weih said. "A lot of jokes, a lot of people having fun. After he died, it was very serious. Music wasn't played out loud much anymore. I think the seriousness of the situation came home and it never left."

Joined the Army at 25
Morris, the platoon leader, was a fixture at the table as much as any of the enlisted soldiers. He joined the Army at 25 — later than most lieutenants — after leaving a job at a credit union.

Caldwell's death shaped the rest of Morris' deployment and his resolve to come home and be a better man.

"Anyone that you've fought with or bled with, you don't want to disgrace their memory," Morris said. "So I don't want to be a bad father or husband or be financially irresponsible or drink too much. For people that won't ever get to see their kids again, I'm trying to treat my kids a little better than I ever did and take care of them as best as I can."

Stopps was new to the Army. A college graduate with a degree in English Literature, he chose to be an enlisted man and talks as much of the privilege of serving in war as he does of the power of denial.

Kept a detailed journal
He kept a detailed journal of the deployment and wrote raps about his experiences. Stopps was wounded on Oct. 15, 2008, along with several other soldiers — hit in the neck by shrapnel, some of which still remains because doctors deemed that safer than trying to get all of it.

As he adjusts to life at home, Stopps is also adjusting to the idea that being a soldier might not be the only thing that defines him.

"Strangers are never going to write to me again and tell him how great I am, elementary schools aren't going to send me big packages again with stick figure drawings with big handwriting saying how I'm a hero and stuff like that," he said.

"I think I need to feel satisfied with what I've done and not trying to tell people that I met that I'm some big veteran, not being the defining thing about me."

Army was life he knew
Fleenor, 25, from Sacramento, Calif., a two-time Iraq veteran, was in Iraq when his wife gave birth to a baby girl, Alexis, in May 2008. In his last deployment to Iraq, Fleenor had seen some of the war's heaviest fighting in Tal Afar in 2004. He left the Army in 2005 in to start a tattoo studio, but eventually decided to return to the life he knew so well.

In October, Fleenor and five other soldiers were injured by a roadside bomb. The damage to his right leg was extensive and he was sent home to recover. Fleenor is facing his sixth surgery and more physical therapy.

"I'm not one for ceremonies, especially a Purple Heart," he said. "I told my unit to just mail it to me because it's not the first one. Just a regular ceremony for something you don't want."

He adds: "I'm still the same."

Griffard was also wounded on the same day Fleenor was sent home. He hopes to leave the Army next fall, and worries about the possibility of post-traumatic stress that could affect his future. The best way of handling the stress, he says, is to talk about it rather than bottling up the memories.

Surviving the blast brought Griffard out of his shell.

"I try to keep in touch with my family and friends as much as possible," he said. "Because one day you might not have your family and friends anymore."

Eventually, he plans to teach
Weih often kept to himself or carved figures out of wood. "Doc," as all medics are called, carried his grandfather's dog tags from World War II. Before joining the Army, he studied sociology.

For Weih, the deaths crystallized his goals for the future. He'll serve more time in the Army, but eventually he plans to teach.

"You have to do them honor by moving forward," he said. "Part of that process is re-evaluation of what you have to offer to yourself and to the people around you. You owe it to the person you lost, people around you, and yourself to move forward.

"With that sort of evaluation, it's impossible to not come out of it changed, to become more aware. To become more directed."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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