Kevin Hughes, a Wall Street investment banker and Marine reservist tank commander, was among the first U.S. troops to enter Iraq at the start of the war.
On the night of March 20, 2003, Hughes rolled into Iraq on board an Abrams M1A1 tank with the Marines' 1st Division.
"That night was a very overwhelming experience," Hughes recalls. "It was the fear of the unknown now that the rounds were finally going down range. It hit everybody in the unit that this was the real deal — we are now in war and lives have changed significantly."
Now, one year later, Hughes is back home in Nutley, N.J., and readjusting to civilian life. Like other "weekend warriors" who put their jobs and families on hold — and their lives on the line — he is now dealing with the effects of combat in his daily life.
The National Guard and reserves have suffered 15 percent of the fatalities in Iraq. Hughes' unit lost someone the second day of the war — a devastating loss that reminded them of the risks inherent in their commitments. "People have the understanding now that when they join up and sign on the dotted line, it's not just for the college monthly paycheck," he says. "It's more or less that they may need to be called upon to put their lives in danger."
Hughes left home in January 2003 to join his company, the Second Tank Battalion, as they completed their desert training in Jacksonville, N.C. After following his unit and Fox 2/5 company's progress as they shipped out and went to war a year ago, ABCNEWS' Nightline revisited Hughes and other members of the group to see how they are adjusting.
Life Moves On
Hughes returned home that June and went back to work in July. He and his wife Lisa had their first child this month. They're hoping the birth of their daughter at the end of their unforgettable year will be more of an indelible anniversary for them than March 20, the terrifying night a year earlier when Kevin and his unit rolled into Iraq.
Back at Deutsche Bank in New York, Hughes is in charge of an operations team of 30 people that manages billions of dollars of trades each day. His colleagues know he's not the same person he was before going off to war. "They would tell me that, you know, before I would yell at this person or I would expect this to be done in a few minutes," he says. "I learned how to deal with people better. I deal with situations better."
At the same time, he feels different from his colleagues. "I feel separate in knowing that I've taken part in a life-changing experience," he says. "I've done something that many other people around me have not, but they are supportive in what I've done."
A Tough Adjustment
Sgt. Ryan Smith, a squad leader with Fox 2/5, learned the good news of his college acceptance after three straight days of heavy combat on the company's final approach to Baghdad. That dichotomy seems to have set the tone for his freshman experience.
Smith had originally planned to get out of the Marines and start college a year ago. But the war in Iraq changed that.
Now a 23-year-old freshman majoring in history at Boston College, he has a much different perspective than his mostly 18-year-old classmates on the history lesson he lived last year.
"It was the defining moment in my life, and for them it was a non-entity," he explains. "It's something they don't even think about, and it's hard to relate — they are more concerned about what they're going to do Saturday night than what happened a year ago."
Going from soldier to student has been an adjustment. While his classmates were sweating out their college applications, Smith was sweating out a war he never thought he would have to fight and one that he still can't get out of his head.
"I had a lot of trouble sleeping when I came home," he says. "It wasn't like nightmare images running through my head, but it was just that I would lay down and think about the war, think about my friends and a lot of times think about what happened over there."
When three vehicles refused to stop at a Fox 2/5 road block, Smith's squad opened fire. Nine civilians were killed, including three children. "The weight of the decision only came when we had to look inside of the buses and see who was inside," he says. "Up until that day, I had never seen anyone die. I had never killed anyone, and, you know, doing it that day and under the circumstances was just a life-changing experience, and I'm not the same person I was before that."
As Smith makes the transition from war to peace, he can particularly relate to a philosophy class he's taking, which talks about how difficult it is to know what's worth living for in life — until you know what's worth dying for.
"The main focus of the course is the best way to live your life, and that's what I'm trying to figure out now," Smith says. "I've had the life-changing experience of Iraq. Now, I'm kind of floating, you know — I don't know what I want out of life, and that's what I'm trying to figure out."
In addition, he hopes to regain some of the lightness in his life that has been missing since he went to war.
"A lot of college kids are carefree, giddy, giggly — you know, life is great," he said. "But I can't just let go like that, and I just feel like there is some sort of weight. I hope at some point in my life to be carefree again."
Fox 2/5 company will redeploy to Iraq later this year. Less than half of the original group will be with the unit due to reassignments, retirements and the traditionally high attrition rates for young infantrymen.
For those who are going, it's a different experience from the first time around. "I'm more scared now than before," says Cpl. Chris Gibson. "I was actually more scared after the war than before it. At least during the war, you knew who was shooting at you."
Cpl. Michael Elliot, who is getting out in April, says the anniversary of the war's start will affect all who served in Iraq, and especially those returning. "I'm not going to say each Marine has his own demons," he says. "I want to say each Marine has his own reflections as the days draw nearer to them going back over there and as the anniversary of significant events of when we were first there."
For those who have gone home, the adjustment continues. "I'd be lying to you if I didn't tell you I think about it all the time," says Maj. Terry Johnson, who, along with other married men in his unit, attended counseling sessions to help them re-adjust to their family lives.
But there's still a transition. Gunnery Sgt. Dan Ferguson found his adjustment put a strain on his family life. "You've got to remember that when I got back, I was pretty much used to being the man, doing everything, and what I said a lot of the time seemed like gospel, people reacted off of it," he says. "You're used to moving quickly, and when you come home and they're not on the same sheet of music, you get frustrated and sometimes your temper [flares]."
He has chosen to retire after 20 years rather than redeploy to Iraq in order to be with his family.
But others were not fortunate enough to have the choice.
First Sgt. Edward Smith planned to join the Anaheim Police Department after leaving the military, but his retirement papers were frozen until after the war. He died just a few days before the Marines toppled Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad.
Any thoughts on getting closure for our Fox2/5 series by revisiting some of the principals one year later were lost while catching up with the Smith family and others for whom the memories and the impact of last year will never end.
"I think when your family is affected by something like this, it definitely gives you pause to think about everything," says Edward Smith's wife, Sandy. "It just impacts you every day, really."
This report aired on Nightline on March 18.