It was the spring of 2004 — a few weeks past the one-year anniversary of Mission Accomplished — when four young men from Pasco County began to follow a commitment.
Telemachus Dimitrakopoulos headed to boot camp and became an automatic rifleman for the Marines.
Erik Anthes went to military school, then the University of South Missouri and became a commissioned officer in the Army.
Jared Smith, after basic, technical and combat training, landed duty as an Air Force battlefield weather forecaster.
Christopher Petrini followed his older brother, Tom, into the Army and is now a section chief targeting a platoon of howitzers.
All have been to Iraq and back, their deployments weaving through a war-torn time line that commenced with shock and awe in March 2003 and ended on Dec. 15, 2011 with an anticlimactic flag-lowering ceremony held in Baghdad when most Americans were still sleeping.
Capt. Eric Anthes, 26, is their common thread, a self-made ambassador who started kindergarten with Dimitrakopoulos at Gulfside Elementary School in Holiday; met Smith at age 7 when he moved to Spring Hill; then became friends with Petrini when he and Dimitrakopoulos were students at River Ridge High in New Port Richey.
Anthes still keeps in touch, their kinship now bonded by where they've been and what they've seen.
"The end of this conflict has defined a lot of us," said Anthes, who encouraged his friends to share their thoughts on the war and its ending. "I wanted to share that a lot of young men and women from our area have contributed to the Iraq campaign. I wanted them to be able to share and preserve the memory of our friends that lost their lives or were injured — the ones that didn't come back whole physically or mentally."
Cpl. Telemachus Dimitrakopoulos, Marine Corps
March 2005-October 2005, Fallujah September 2006-May 2007, Ramadi
On Christmas day 2006, Cpl. Telemachus Dimitrakopoulos was laughing it up over the jolly Santa making the rounds at the company firm base in the most violent place in Iraq.
"It's Christmas, and we're in Ramadi, and it sucks, but you make the best of it," said Dimitrakopoulos, now 26. "You're with your best friends — your brothers — and here we have this big Marine walking around in a Santa costume making you laugh. It made it so it didn't seem as bad."
It was well-needed relief from the daily patrols for the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines who were just a few months into a hellish second tour.
They'd been to Fallujah the first time around. Dimitrakopoulos, who had been inspired by the images of 9/11 to enlist in the Marines, was just 19 when they landed in March 2005 on the heels of Phantom Fury.
Fallujah was about maintaining the calm others had established during one of the hardest-fought urban battles of the war.
"In Fallujah, we were interacting with the people daily. It seemed to me, at least, that the people were happy to have us there," Dimitrakopoulos said.
"Ramadi was a lot different. We had to actually put down the insurgency. We were getting into multiple firefights a week."
It was there the battalion suffered a crushing loss on Oct. 9, 2006, when three of their own — Sgt. Julian Arechega, Lance Cpl. Jon Bowman, Pfc. Shelby Feniello — were killed when an IED that had been paved into the road hit the undercarriage of their Humvee.
More than five years later, Dimitrakopoulos chokes up when he tries to say their names aloud.
"Everybody that went over there lost something," he said. "Me personally, I lost three of my friends."
Dimitrakopoulos, who now lives in Tampa, has found a niche as a part-time firefighter for Polk County. Close friends and family have helped him transition into "the real world."
Even so, it's hard for a Marine to let the fight leave.
"Combat is like feeling every emotion at its highest intensity all rolled into one," he said. "You're in a place where your adrenaline is going 24/7, and then you come back stateside, and everything is more calm and relaxed. I just wasn't used to everything being so quiet."
Was it worth it?
"Of course it was."
"In the grand scheme of things we all are fighting for our people and our way of life. But if you look at the fine strokes of what makes up the big picture, everyone over there is fighting for their own personal reasons. Me, I wanted to do something that was remembered in history."
"Everybody that fought in Iraq, they fought hard. I just hope that our government isn't going to waste their sacrifices," he said. "I hope that when we leave Iraq for good we leave them better than how we found them."
As the troops arrive home, Dimitrakopoulos is hoping others will reach out and also remember, with prayer, his comrades in the 1st Battalion, 6th, who are now stationed in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
"I would like to tell them that if they run into a veteran, a simple handshake and a smile will do wonders for them," he said. "I won't lie to you, when that happened to me it made my day a lot better. It helped me out a lot — just knowing that people appreciated what we do."
Capt. Erik Anthes, Army
November 2007-April 2008, Ramadi, Anbar Province
December 2009-December 2010, Forward Operating Base Falcon, Baghdad Province
In the year since Capt. Erik Anthes has been stateside, the experiences of his two tours in Iraq had settled some.
But as the war waned, memories awakened, swirling like the desert sand that gets into everything when you're over there, "your guns, your food, your body, your life." It still clings to his hands when he rustles through his deployment gear, a dusty artifact brought home with a Bronze Star and a widened world view.
Anthes, 26, spent his wonder years building forts and running through the backwoods of Spring Hill. His dad, Pasco Sheriff's Lt. Erik Anthes Sr., showed him how to handle a gun and schooled him in the delicate sport of archery.
"I was able to transfer some of those skills to what I do now," the younger Anthes said. "I guess you could say I came in with a little grit."
But Ramadi is a long way from Spring Hill. No matter how much your dad or the military trains you, it's a vastly different world you can't comprehend till you're in the desert with the 3rd Infantry Division trying to build a blast wall in god-awful heat while a Turkish crane operator and the Kurd delivering concrete are standing off over a 500-year-old argument.
It's wasn't glamorous work, lining slabs of reinforced concrete around the mahallahs, or neighborhoods, of Ramadi. "More like construction," Anthes said. Under high alert.
But the walls were effective in stemming the mobility of insurgents and the fighting between tribal factions.
"When we got there, Ramadi was boiling over. It was like a cauldron of sectarian violence," he said. "We were able to get that under control with these walls."
"The remarkable thing was that after a while, a shop would reopen, and then another, and after putting up thousands upon thousands of those walls, we were able to remove those walls."
Progress, the kind Anthes also measures by the high turnouts at democratic elections there and defining moments not always captured on the nightly news.
Like getting the Turk and the Kurd to finally move so you could finish that first wall. Or sitting down for a home-cooked Iraqi meal with the civilian crew his men worked with and sharing a pecan pie with the crew's foreman, Wissam, who had told him of his yearning.
"I remember, the melon was great. Fresh vegetables, too. There was chicken and rice and this thing called dolma — meat wrapped in grape leaves. That was awesomeawesome. I can still taste it, you know."
"Having a home-cooked meal was a real break for my men," Anthes said. "And I think it brought a human element to the war. I think it expanded their view — they might not realize it now, but someday they'll see it when they think back and remember how that meal tasted."
Anthes sometimes thinks of Wissam. "Every time I pick up a pecan," he said.
"I wonder what's going to happen to them now. We've been there for almost a decade and invested so much blood and money that I hope that whether it looks the way we want it to or not, I hope the Iraqis have a system that they make work and that they are secure."
Still in the Army, Anthes recently moved to Kansas and hopes to lead a logistics company at Fort Riley — a job he is well prepared for after his experience providing combat service support for 18,000 U.S. personnel throughout Baghdad Province during his second tour.
Unlike many others returning home, Anthes' future is a more certain one. Even so, he feels war's toll.
Between training and 18 months of deployments, he has been away for most of his three-year marriage to his wife, Kelli, who is expecting the couple's first child in April.
"I've missed birthdays, anniversaries, holidays," he said.
"But the thing that pains me every day is knowing that we lost a lot of great men and women. I've lost friends or they've had their lives altered with mental or physical disabilities."
And like the walls he built in Ramadi, war has hardened him.
"I changed a bit. I'm still Erik. I just grew up. I went from an innocent view to seeing the world through more realistic eyes. I don't expect much out of humanity anymore. I'm not surprised when humanity does bad things."
Staff Sgt. Jared Smith, Air Force
August 2010-February 2011, Contingency Operating Base Speicher in northern Iraq
It was midday when Staff Sgt. Jared Smith finally landed after three days of travel and way too much time sitting around in Baltimore, Germany, Italy and Qatar, all to get him and his four bags from Hawaii to Iraq.
"I remember getting off the C-130, and the propeller was still running, and this intense heat was hitting my face," he said. "I was expecting it, but I was still surprised by it. Just knowing that I'd be living in this heat was like, 'Whoa — this is not Hawaii anymore.' "
It was the first taste of Iraq for the battlefield weather forecaster, who was there to help lay groundwork for military operations throughout the region and provide support for pilots and crew members from all branches of the military.
Smith was happy to finally be in Iraq. Basic training in San Antonio, Texas, technical training in Biloxi, Miss., and Shreveport, La., and combat training with the Army's Second Infantry Division at Camp Red Cloud in South Korea had prepared him for this.
"I wanted to do my duty. That was one of the reasons I joined the military," said Smith, 26, who followed in the footsteps of his father and his mother's father when he joined the Air Force after graduating in 2004 from Hudson High. "I had been fighting for a long time to get orders to go to the desert. I didn't think I was making a difference forecasting Hawaiian weather."
In Iraq he would play an essential part in assisting the troops still stationed there.
"Whenever anyone goes in anywhere, weather plays a big part," he said. "Iraq has every kind of weather you can imagine. Most people think of it as just hot and dusty. But there were nights when it was clear and then thunderstorms would open up and it would hail and we'd have 50 mph winds. All sorts of things come into play: icing, turbulence, thunderstorms, sandstorms."
Smith's initiation came early, during his first day working solo — about a week after the United States had declared an end to combat operations in Iraq.
"I remember it was the first day of Operation New Dawn, and I got a request on the radio for a weather brief for a medevac helicopter from (Forward Operating Base) Bernstein — about 8 miles away," he said. "The Army was conducting local firearms training with local Iraqi forces, and one of the trainees just opened fire."
Al Jazeera would later report that two U.S. soldiers had been killed and nine had been wounded near the Iraqi city of Tuz Khurmatu, then bringing to 4,418, the total number of U.S. soldiers who had died in Iraq since the start of the war in 2003.
"I didn't know the full story of what was going on at first. I was just scrambling around trying to make sure I could give them the best data I could," he said. "Later on, the captain from technical operations came in and told me what happened. I remember thinking, 'Wow, my first day on the job. I wonder what the rest of the six months is going to be like.' "
Smith is now in the reserves. He just earned his associate's degree at Pasco-Hernando Community College and plans to enroll at the University of South Florida next fall. His goal is to work with the State Department, perhaps as a consulate for the U.S. Diplomatic Security Service, "helping people throughout the world and in impoverished countries."
"My entire time in the military we've been at war in Iraq, so it's kind of hard to think of what it will be like," he said. "On one hand, I'm really glad people are coming home, that a mother or father might not have to receive that folded flag. But I also have to look at the big picture of what we accomplished over there.
"The No. 1 reason we went into Iraq was to depose Saddam Hussein. With him gone, it stabilized the region in a way. There's still some insurgency going on, but there's a semidemocratic government in place. They've had elections, and they get to enjoy some of the freedoms that we take for granted."
Sgt. Christopher Petrini, Army
November 2009-June 2010, Contingency Operating Base Speicher, Tikrit and Forward Operating Base Sykes, Ninewa Province
It was a brother's emulation that led Sgt. Christopher "C.J." Petrini to seek a life in the military.
"After seeing my brother receive his commission, I wanted to be part of something bigger," Petrini said. "I felt that the Army would give me a better experience on life than going to college would."
The United States was seven years into the war when he got to Iraq, landing with the 1st Battalion, 14th Field Artillery Regiment at Contingency Operating Base Speicher about 10 months after Sovereignty Day had been declared.
The troops were drawing down. Baghdad's Green Zone had been turned over; air space, too. Petrini's job was to provide backup for those who were out in the field training the Iraqi forces and meeting with the locals. His experience was mostly limited to the base. But once in a while he was able to interact with Iraqis on post. They seemed appreciative.
News that the war had officially ended on Dec. 15 came via email to Petrini, 26, who is stationed at Camp Casey in South Korea.
He won't be home for Christmas.
His thoughts are with his older brother, Army Maj. Thomas Petrini, who was among the last troops to leave Iraq, and everyone else back home.
"Just want to wish my brother Mark and my family and friends back home in New Port Richey a very Merry Christmas and let them know that I keep them in my thoughts!" he wrote in an email to the St. Petersburg Times. "Just trying to stay warm in Korea!"
The sacrifices of those who served in Iraq are never far from his mind.
"I don't want my, albeit brief, deployment to define my service to this point," he wrote. "I want the memories of those who didn't come home remembered more than my story. We did our job, and we were blessed to come home to our families, wives and children.
"Yeah, I've been to Iraq, but what I took (from that) was to appreciate the time we have with family and friends. I was only gone for 8 months, and to me that was a lifetime. But I reflect on the families whose son, daughter, brother, father, mother, sister didn't come home.
"The stories worth telling are from those who aren't able to tell it. As long as we never forget, it will not have been in vain."
Michele Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6251.