The first time I met Lt. Douglas McGregor was almost the last. He was leading a supply convoy, and I had scammed a ride in his Humvee. We were headed to a military base in Diyala Province, a village northeast of Baghdad. Along the way, soldiers defused two roadside bombs.
Then the convoy entered a deserted industrial area, where a large yellow trash can provided the only bit of color. Once before, it had served as a marker for insurgents, who'd hidden explosives in the ground nearby and detonated them when U.S. military vehicles got close to the target. I heard McGregor report the can in a radio dispatch.
Suddenly, a large explosion rattled the Humvee. Dust and rock shot into the air and showered down on us. Dust filled my lungs, making it hard to breathe. Everyone in the Humvee was coughing. The gunner swore loudly.
No one was hurt. The convoy kept going.
Once we were out of danger, McGregor turned around in his seat and asked me if I'd ever been hit by an IED before. I said no, this was my first improvised explosive device. Though I'd reported in Iraq since 2003, it was only my second day on this assignment.
I got out of Diyala safely that time. But I had to continue going back to report on whether things were improving there or not. But just the idea of doing that made my stomach turn. One of the things that made it easier was checking in with soldiers I'd met there, including McGregor.
Now, on the other side of the world, I was looking forward to seeing him again, this time without the dust and filth and the meager rations. I left Iraq in December 2007. McGregor has been in Fort Hood since December as well.
When I see McGregor last month, it's at his house in a quiet street in Killeen, 10 minutes from Fort Hood. He's in civvies, and he's been planting rose bushes in front of his three-bedroom brick home.
It's suburbia — and very different from the sand-swept barracks of Forward Operating Base Normandy, where he was posted for 15 months.
But, everywhere, there are reminders of Iraq. Hanging in his office is an award from his unit, the Delta Force support company for the 6-9 cavalry. In the kitchen hangs a metal evil eye — a Kurdish good luck charm. There are lockboxes in his garage that still bear the dust of Diyala.
There's also camping gear, fishing rods and a dirt bike. McGregor grew up with his family on a horse farm in Wilsonville, Ore. He'd always told me how much he liked being outside, and when he got back from Iraq, he got himself a brand new motorcycle.
A 15-mile bike ride away is a lake with a hiking trail and a waterfall. McGregor comes here often with his brother, Brian, who lives close by. When I get there, even I start to relax.
We walk along the rickety bridge, pointing out different birds, but but before long our conversation turns to that village in Diyala.
"About 14 months ago, we went into Shakarat and then it was pretty peaceful when we first got there and then it just blew up and you came as it was blowing up," McGregor says.
"For me that was one time in how many months and years of being in Iraq, but for you that happened practically every day," I say.
"Somebody got hit from our squadron just about every day, and my platoon, we did have a lot of IEDs detonate on our vehicle as we went by. Some of them caused damage, some of them were able to just keep on driving," McGregor says.
The first time he felt an IED was probably the worst, with "the sounds, the sight of going from just perfect clear to dust and chaos," McGregor says.
Being in a war zone for 15 months gives you habits that make it difficult to adjust to normal life. A lot of soldiers say driving is the hardest thing. Some freak out about having other cars right next to them. In Iraq, that could only mean a suicide bomber.
Others drive really slowly in case there are wires on the ground. They don't want to set off any remote bombs.
McGregor says certain loud noises still get to him.
He says he sleeps better than when he first came back from Iraq.
"I wake up a lot throughout the night," McGregor says.
He'll only have a little more time to rest. McGregor will soon go into training for Special Forces, an assignment that may take him back to Iraq.
I ask him how he connects what was then and what's going on with him now.
"For me, I can't see the connection. I think it's a completely different reality that they live over there in Iraq, whether it's the Iraqi people or what we were doing or the soldiers that are over there right now," he says.
At home, he says he tries to take advantage of simple pleasures like frequent hikes here near the lake.
"It's just enjoying life," he says.
That's good advice for me, too.