NINEVAH PROVINCE, Iraq -- The violence of his past deployments in Iraq still haunts Daniel Clemons, a 32-year-old National Guard staff sergeant who's back for his third tour.
This time, however, Clemons, like a lot of returning U.S. troops, is encountering something new: political and security improvements so dramatic that he can imagine the war ending and his memories of bloodshed dimming.
"I think it's winding down. I think I'll be able to let go of this place," said Clemons, who barely survived a 12-hour firefight in Baghdad's Sadr City district nearly four years ago.
Clemons, who's from Sacramento, is with the 1st Battalion of the Modesto-based 184th Infantry Regiment. The battalion lost 17 of its roughly 700 Baghdad-deployed troops in 2005, its last Iraq tour.
This time, it's stationed at a former Iraqi airfield in a safe corner of northern Iraq. Empty desert surrounds the base for miles, protecting the battalion from surprises.
The troops face dangers that are familiar from past deployments, but they encounter them far less frequently. They drive heavily armored vehicles that give them protection they didn't have from those threats in previous tours.
Their new assignment has them traveling to the volatile cities of Mosul and Kirkuk to guard long supply convoys. The two companies from the battalion have run across a few homemade bombs -- the military calls them "improvised explosive devices," or IEDs -- but none has done any damage.
"The engagements we get out here in a month, we used to get them in two or three days," said Capt. Guillermo Adame, a company commander who was deployed in Baghdad with the same battalion in 2005.
His company lost five soldiers in September and October 2005, when he was a lieutenant. He keeps their photographs and the dates they were killed in his office.
"Hopefully, things will continue and I'll bring all my guys home," said Adame, 37, a chemist from Ontario.
Two commanders lost
The battalion overcame an exceptionally difficult first deployment in 2005. The Army ousted its first commander in Iraq, Lt. Col. Patrick Frey, in the wake of a controversy over abused detainees in one of his companies. A roadside bomb killed his successor, Col. William Wood, in October 2005, three months after he'd taken over.
The battalion persevered and returned home with fanfare in January 2006. Gov. Schwarzenegger dubbed the troops "true action heroes."
Veterans from the first tour describe it as marked by constant roadside attacks and ambiguous results. Some left with mixed feelings about Iraq's future.
"My experience last time wasn't the greatest," Adame said. "When we left, it hadn't gotten any better. It was just as active as when we started. We took hundreds of detainees, hundreds of rockets off the streets, and there were still IEDs."
Other veterans who joined the battalion after that tour said they had similar doubts about Iraq after they finished deployments with other Army and Marine contingents.
"Last time, I was very unsure," said Spc. Jeremy Calgaro, 27, of Patterson, who's on his third tour in Iraq. His past deployments brought him to the country with the Army during the 2003 invasion and in 2005.
He came back wanting to see how Iraq had changed. He sees the differences in flourishing agricultural fields that remind him of home in the San Joaquin Valley and in positive interactions he's had with Iraqis.
He also sees less mail from the United States, another sign to him that the war is going well.
"Here we are, we're doing our jobs and things have gotten much better," he said.
Spc. Ralph Salazar said he was enthusiastic about his mission in Iraq as a Marine in 2003 and 2004. He smoked a cigar with a close friend on the roof of a Baghdad palace to celebrate his 20th birthday in 2004.
His feelings about the war began to shift about 2006, when news reports showed Iraq descending into bloody sectarian violence.
He heard about improvements before he left the United States for his current tour, but the conditions still startled him when he arrived in November.
"I was still expecting to spend some time running for the bunkers," said the 24-year-old from Fresno. "I do have to say I appreciate the calm.
"The fact that we've been here and made all this progress, it validates everything for me. It did matter."
Continued U.S. presence foreseen
The soldiers are in Iraq as the United States is scaling back its presence and giving Iraqi officials more autonomy. A new U.S.-Iraqi security pact took effect Thursday. It calls for all U.S. forces to leave the country by Dec. 31, 2011.
Despite the progress they've seen, some of the soldiers are skeptical that the security plan is realistic. They expect Americans to remain in the country in some capacity past the withdrawal deadline.
"I don't see it happening, but a lot has changed from my first deployment," said Sgt. Noel Huerta, 28, of Livingston, who served in Iraq three years ago. "It just seems too fast."
Adame finds himself a little more optimistic.
"It's going in the right direction," he said. "Within a few years, this will all change. We won't be here, or if we are, it'll be a small footprint."
Bee staff writer Adam Ashton is in Iraq on a two-month assignment for McClatchy Newspapers.