AHOSKIE — Sgt. 1st Class Chad Stephens lay in the Iraqi sand, gritting his teeth and kicking a jammed piece of steel on a Bradley fighting vehicle.
Another soldier, manning the video camera that recorded the scene in 2004, focused on Stephens and intoned:
"Everybody wishes they could be him," the soldier said. "Y'all forget: He built the Army. We just work in it."
That was the desert, when the daily patrol missions often seemed simple.
Back home, life grows murky. Away from the enemy's guns, there are worried wives and nightmares to remind fighters that they faced the possibility of death nearly every day in Iraq. Battle memories evolve into soundless warnings: Get out; leave the military.
Some of the men who fought with Stephens in the desert remain in the N.C. National Guard. Some still work for him. Some re-enlisted with his encouragement. Many honor their dead friend, Spc. Daniel A. Desens Jr., with tears. They suffer their own torment but shun counselors because they are tough. They call their sarge instead.
The soldiers know their turn at war will likely come around again. They also know they would return to Iraq under a sergeant who has proved once that if one of them gets into trouble, he will come get them.
"These guys'll do anything for me," Stephens said one day this fall. "And I'd do anything for them."
And yet, Stephens has his two decades with the Army. Even though he re-enlisted last winter, he could retire. He could train his soldiers as best as he could, wish them well and go home to his 11-year-old son and the wife who longs for him.
Or, he fears, he could be forced out without a choice. He worries the Army will tell him he's too crazy to lead his men, that he couldn't recover from a possible traumatic brain injury, the result of a skull-rattling explosion in the desert.
Last spring, almost three years after he had shielded Desens, his bloodied and dying gunner, from insurgents in the Iraqi desert, Stephens sat in a National Guard armory in Eastern North Carolina and tried again to distill his combat experiences into words.
A military mental-health counselor sat across from him, taking notes for an official assessment. He wanted to know: Had he seen any bodies? Did he get rattled by any blasts?
Yes and yes.
The counselor advised him to get his brain checked at the Durham VA Medical Center. Traumatic brain injury, the counselor said, could explain why the sergeant's hands go numb. Some researchers think it could explain the skittishness, the sudden anger, the hypersensitivity that come with post-traumatic stress disorder as well.
Stephens didn't go. The doctors might find something, he feared, and kick him out of the Army.
Then what? Who would take care of his men if not for him?
His soldiers find solace in sharing the burden of that frightful night. Among them: the man who still screams in the night, the man whose girlfriend tries to understand his mood swings, the man who has learned from the random fate of combat that when it's your time to die it's just your time to die.
Who would Stephens be if he wasn't their sarge?
The night of the N.C. National Guard's battle in Baqubah, Iraq, in 2004, Rosalie Stephens watched news of the firefight from her living room. She felt sure her husband was involved.
Two days later, the phone rang. She heard the weeping and knew for sure.
She has seldom heard her husband cry since.
Her husband does not show feelings well. He comes from a culture where soldiers tough it out, shout hoo-ah! and come back for more. Other soldiers are like him, and so it is tough, she thinks, for civilians to understand what fighters have gone through in war.
"We can sit here and try to figure out how it was," she said. "But really, we don't know."
Only other soldiers, men who have experienced similar traumas, understand. They gather over a pool table, raise shots of whiskey to the fallen and feel the alcohol's sting in their throats. They may call a buddy about the nightmares, but the military has learned in the past four years that often the soldiers consider themselves too hardy for mental-health services.
They don't need help. They're fine. Or if they aren't fine, and they admit it, many fear the Army won't see them as tough anymore. The Army says it won't stigmatize soldiers who seek help, but the men aren't convinced.
And Stephens, the platoon sergeant, figures that he's the one whom three dozen other soldiers turn to for help.
"They know they got problems, but they don't want to deal with it," Stephens said. "Sometimes, I'm dealing with stuff myself. I want to say, 'Look man, I got problems of my own.'
"But I listen."
It's the code of the noncommissioned officer: Take care of your men.
His wife watches him on the sofa and wonders what goes on in his mind. Stephens doesn't yell as much as he did when he first got back from Iraq, she said. He doesn't drink as much. But since his time there, he's a changed man.
"How do you get this out of his mind?" Rosalie asked. "As long as he can think, it's always going to be there."
Stephens doesn't think most civilians understand what soldiers go through in Iraq.
"You know what? I killed a lot of people, man. Just because I was ordered to do it," he said one afternoon, several beers gone. "We think we're doing the right thing. These people we're fighting, they think they're doing the right thing. And who's to say who's right?"
He described the sight of children caught in the crossfire, the screams of men on fire.
One day, his psychiatrist told him: You won't ever adapt to civilian life.
"He's probably right," Stephens said. "If I'm out in the open, I'm always thinking: What if this happens?"
"I don't think civilians do that."
Memories came back again on June 24 this year. It had been three years since the battle that made history for the N.C. National Guard.
Soldiers from Stephens' platoon drove into Jacksonville, listening on the radio as the news guys talked about President Bush's surge, about another push in Baqubah to take control of the desert city. Half a dozen troops killed.
In Jacksonville, more than a hundred bikers and friends of Desens gathered at the Harley Davidson shop for a motorcycle ride in his honor.
Here were other Guardsmen: Andrew Cross, Danny's best friend, who can't sleep at night but doesn't believe in post-traumatic stress disorder. And Nick Walton, who turned his head out of the way just as the grenade blasted through the Bradley. And Jerry "Catfish" Moorhouse, the 48-year-old Bradley driver who cries because, he insisted, he drove Danny to his death.
Here was Alan Payne, who heard Danny's last words. And Ralph "Doc Izzy" Isabella, the medic who breathed life -- twice -- back in to Danny. Here was Stephens' injured gunner, Thomas Rivera, and here was Antonio Fraser, who has phoned Stephens in turmoil.
They rumbled past cornfields and old tobacco barns to the shade of the Moores Creek National Battlefield in Pender County, where they listened to names of fallen soldiers being read aloud. Stephens knelt on the ground, one foot trembling, biting his lip.
A bugler played taps. Stephens and the other soldiers stood sharply at attention. The notes lifted over the trees, and the men tried not to flinch when Danny's older sister doubled over and began to shriek.
Then the notes faded, and the woods were quiet but for the sounds of bear hugs and muffled tears. One by one, the men gripped Dan Desens, Danny's father. Dan cried, and so did they.
Stephens hugged Dan but said nothing, shed no tears.
"I wanted to tell him I did everything I could to save his son," Stephens said later. "But I couldn't."
Some of the soldiers also held Patty Desens, Danny's mother.
"I'm afraid if I go to hug her, I'm just going to break down."
Stephens, back home in Ahoskie, is listening.
He hears his wife explain why he needs to get out of this Army. He hears himself talking his soldiers into re-enlisting.
"I've got so much going through my head right now," he said this fall. "I don't know what to do. I want to go, but I don't want to go."
He listens as his cell phone rings.
It's a soldier in tears. It's Patty Desens, chatting about her son. It's CNN, making him a hero again.
He listens as his psychiatrist tells him, again, to slow down.
He listens as a counselor tells him, again, to go get his head checked for traumatic brain injury.
He sits in National Guard meetings with superior officers and listens to words that tell him his group likely will return to Iraq soon.
The Pentagon sent its alert order four weeks ago: The 30th Brigade Combat Team is returning to war. It could mobilize in January 2009 -- first to training, then to Iraq.
That gives Stephens another year of indecision: Go back into combat, or retire and get out of the Army.
He doesn't want to go back, he said, because he worries he might not return home.
He wants to go back, he said, because he wants to take care of his men.
If he does return to Iraq, Stephens may find himself standing again in a room full of families. He'll have to search again for words of comfort as he leads soldiers into war.
He said he'll make a promise: not that he'll bring everyone back but that he'll try never to leave anyone behind.
The mother of one blue-eyed gunner thinks he'll keep it.
"Sergeant Stephens didn't lie to me," Patty Desens said. "He brought Danny. He didn't lie to me. Danny came home."
Stephens fears he'll never find such peace.
"I think about it every day," he said. "Every day. I think what if this happened, what if this happened."
At night in his home along the swamps and cotton fields north of Ahoskie, he puts down his last drink and goes to bed. There, in his nightmares, he finds redemption.
To protect his soldiers under fire, Stephens rises alone to face the enemy's guns.
This time, they take him instead.