Sept. 3, 2010 -- I've been covering Iraq for seven and a half years, from the pre-war days when everyone insisted they loved Saddam Hussein to the chaotic aftermath of the fall of Baghdad to the peak of the sectarian madness.
Coming back now for the first time in three years, I'm amazed at how calm things are.
The United States ended military combat operations in the country this week, with President Obama declaring the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the start of Operation New Dawn.
About 50,000 U.S. troops will remain in Iraq but they will need Iraqi permission to arrest or kill a suspected terrorist. They will also need an Iraqi escort to drive through any city in the country.
Obama's declaration carries symbolic meaning but the country is still a war zone.
This was evident in the deadly attacks on Iraqi security forces last week, one day after U.S. troop numbers had fallen to less than 50,000.
The recent violence and the unstable political atmosphere have lead to real questions about whether the Iraqi government and security forces will be able to keep the peace.
Iraq War: Was It Worth It?
So, at this crucial moment, I decided to go back to some of the people I've met during the years to ask: "Was it all worth it?"
I first met schoolteacher Hiyam Salim in 2005, when she was volunteering as a poll worker. "This mark means my whole life," she said while holding up an ink-stained finger after voting.
I interviewed her several times as the insurgency got worse and she remained relentlessly upbeat.
"Why are you optimistic? What gives you this hope?" I asked her.
"Because I love my country," she said.
Today, she is a newlywed. Salim is a Shia and her husband is a Sunni businessman named Saleh.
Although her personal life may be good, her view of Iraq's future has changed.
"I see a dark one really. If the Americans leave, it will be a dark future," she said.
Salim said the invasion was 100 percent worth it. "They [the United States] came here and liberate us from the Iraqi regime. You don't live in Iraq so you don't know how he [Saddam] ruled Iraq by force," she said.
"They sacrificed with their people, their troops, with their -- they came here and offer us many things, many good things," Salim said of the United States.
Iraq Invasion: 'Thanks Be to God'
When I first met Stephen Browning in 2003, he was a gung-ho, can-do American who had just arrived to help rebuild Iraq.
"I trust that Saddam never imagined that the coalition forces would be occupying one of his presidential palaces," he said. "But as I say here, 'Thanks be to God.'"
Working for the Coalition Provisional Authority, or transitional government, Browning oversaw the rebuilding of the country's crippled transportation system.
"I personally believe that there is no mission in the world that is more important than the mission that we are doing right here in this country today," he said.
Today, Browning, a father of two, lives outside of Denver and has a different assessment of the war.
"I thought the war in Iraq was both a diversion from the real war, a distraction and as it turned out a huge, huge cost of wealth and treasure so, no, I don't think it was worth it," he said.
He said the initial decision to invade made by President George W. Bush was a mistake. "I certainly don't think the invasion has paid the dividends. I mean we'll see, maybe Iraq will be a shining star of democracy in the Middle East. ... I just don't see it happening."
I asked whether his perspective was a little more nuanced.
"I don't think my perspective was much different at the time that we met but when you're in the fight, that's not the time to sit there and have this kind of conversation," Browning said.
Iraqis Overcoming Struggles Daily
Mortada appeared in an ABC News story in 2005. At the age of 12, he was working in a mechanic's shop.
"I left school," he said, "so I can help my family survive."
Four years later, when I found him, he was still working, and not attending school.
"I am the breadwinner for my family. If I go to school, I cannot feed them. It's very difficult," he said.
Mortada said that he got angry and sad about his situation but that he thanked God for giving him patience to overcome his struggles.
He said the ousting of Saddam was good, though.
Perhaps the most moving reconnection involved the Hussein family that ABC News interviewed in 2008. A U.S. airstrike had destroyed their Baghdad house, killing a 2-year-old boy, Ali.
Ali's mother said at the time that the family had wanted to move but that could not afford it.
"I begged my husband to leave the house when the fighting began, but he said if we die, we will die together," she said.
A viewer bought the Husseins a new house, which they proudly showed off during my visit. They also introduced me to their new son, who looks astonishingly like Ali.