When Chris Somera's neighbor tossed something in a trash bin at their apartment complex the other night, it wasn't anything out of the ordinary.
But Somera jumped at the metallic clang. For a split second he was back in Iraq, where he said improvised explosive devices sound like a Dumpster being dropped from several floors in the air. After all, he and some of Lodi's California National Guard soldiers have only been home since last Saturday.
Even when he's wearing a T-shirt and jeans while sitting with a fellow soldier in his new favorite haunt, Panera Bread, the 29-year-old sergeant first class is still in full military mode.
"We're always people watching - and they sometimes give us funny looks," he said Thursday. "We're watching hands, looking at waistbands. I hate having people behind me."
More than 800 Guard troops from California headed off to Iraq last spring - their largest deployment since the Korean War. Among them were about 20 soldiers based in Lodi, and some came home May 3. More Lodi-based soldiers arrived home Friday.
The homecomings have been fairly quiet, partly because it would have taken more time to coordinate chartered flights with organized welcoming parties at airports. Instead, the soldiers were sent from Fort Dix in New Jersey directly to the airport closest to home.
And that's how the soldiers wanted it. They embraced family members at airports and simply wanted to go home. After all, they'd been gone for a long time.
Some of the Lodi troops, Somera included, previously went to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, but that wasn't quite like going overseas to a desert where temperatures reached 120 degrees and they wore 50 pounds of armor.
Somera, who has 12 years of military experience, had an idea of what he'd be facing.
But Spc. Steve Lake, who marked his 21st birthday in Iraq, didn't have any experience. The Lodi native, who spent part of high school with his mom in the Bay Area, had all of five days at home between basic training and his departure for Iraq.
The experience wasn't bad, he said, though he did find himself craving Kool-Aid.
After another couple months in New Jersey, the solders flew to Kuwait and then to Iraq.
Once in Iraq, their main task was running night patrols, providing security while civilian contractors moved supplies to the troops. Traveling in Humvees, they navigated along roads, bypassing holes that could hold improvised explosive devices.
Toward the end of their time in Iraq, they began placing large concrete barriers along the roads for added protection.
Sources: Lodi soldiers Sgt. 1st Class Chris Somera and Spc. Steve Lake
A number of organizations send countless boxes of supplies and goodies overseas, and those are well-received, the soldiers said. Though some of the recommended items such as socks and eye drops seem odd, they come in handy.
Lake discovered that he missed Kool-Aid and gratefully drank the supply a friend sent him. Someone else sent him a golf club and some balls, which Lake said were a nice diversion.
During their time off, the troops watched a lot of movies to pass time and looked forward to new titles, though Somera said war movies aren't exactly favorites. He hadn't even thought about missing TV shows, but found himself enjoying DVDs of old "Saturday Night Live" and "Mad TV" episodes.
Candy, pencils and paper are often given to Iraqi schoolchildren, who will actually fight for the rare treasures, Somera said. One platoon adopted a school and gave them school supplies that were sent from home.
For a list of organizations that send supplies overseas and are recognized by the military, go to www.americasupportsyou.mil.
- News-Sentinel staff
For Somera, the things he missed simply couldn't be found or sent by loving relatives.
"Milk - real milk, not the powered stuff. And everything green - grass," Somera said.
Lake noted that even San Joaquin Valley air is much better than that in Iraq, and that there was no smell of burning trash.
At one point, Lake was the lowest-ranking soldier in his platoon, but the grinning young man often made his fellow troops laugh with his jokes. Now he's roommates with Somera and is glad he has some familiar faces around town.
"These guys are like family; we've been living together for a year," Lake said, as Somera noted with a laugh that they all know everything about one another. "We were building relationships with people who could save our lives."
The whole group came home intact, something for which Somera is grateful.
Unlike several years ago, it has gotten easier to call and e-mail home, several soldiers said. For those with children at home, such as Sgt. Joshua Van Dyke, that helped make the yearlong absence a bit easier.
Van Dyke, who graduated from Lodi High School in 1998, has three sons, ages 5, 6 and 7. On his first trip to Iraq, he was stationed in a more remote area where phones were harder to come by and food was sent in plastic bins.
Like his fellow Guard members, Van Dyke is waiting to hear if he'll be sent overseas yet again. Rumors have it that they might go to Kosovo, several soldiers said, but there's no guarantee that they won't be sent back to Iraq. Until they find out, Van Dyke is working for his uncle in the construction and electrical field.
Both Van Dyke and Somera were previously on active duty, and both then joined the Guard because it wouldn't send them as far from home. It wasn't that they didn't want to be in the military, and Van Dyke remembers the exact instant he wanted to be part of it.
"I was in 6th grade and a good friend of mine brought in a clip of his brother in the first (Gulf) war on TV, running through the desert with an M-16. I wanted to do that," he said Friday.
Van Dyke and his sister both joined the Marine Corps. at the same time, following their brother's footsteps. After four years, Van Dyke came home and then joined the Guard. Now he's spending time with his children, waiting to see what happens next.
Somera, who will soon go back to his construction job that was kept for him, is also waiting.
Iraq is still with him, and he said it's comfortable to be around fellow soldiers who were there, even if they're not talking about it. That's also why he didn't call home a lot while overseas.
"What you're doing over there, they don't want to hear about it," Somera said of worried family members. "For us, small arms fire - someone shooting an assault rifle at us - that's nothing, but that would freak my mom out."
The soldiers are gradually adjusting to life back in California and figuring out how to let their guard down a bit, but some things frustrate them. For Somera, the numbers of deaths don't do justice.
"People see numbers of casualties on TV," Somera said. "But when you're out there and you see a guy dead on the road - he'd just died an hour ago - that's not a number."
Somera has three names tattooed on his back to remember friends who have died. Although it could mean yet another deployment at some point, Somera doesn't want troops to leave Iraq because he doesn't want his friends to have died in vain.
He said he saw progress even during the time he was there, watching Iraqi children go to school and adults voting for the first time.
But he's also a protective older brother, not so sure about his younger brother who's in the U.S. Army and wants to go to Iraq.
"I don't want him to go," Somera said. "There's no safe place there."