Part 18 of TIME's Return to Baghdad series.
Shortly after sunrise on our final day, we began the odyssey of entering Baghdad International Airport. After being patted down, sniffed by dogs three times and sent through airport scanners (with our shoes on), Bobby and I reached the terminal.
On the drive in, two Chinook helicopters took off from the south helipad where the Americans come and go, and as I saw the twin rotors beating against the orange sky, my stomach churned one last time.
In late December 2005, 22 hours after landing at the Baghdad airport complex, I shuffled with my men to the back ramp of a Chinook for a 10-minute flight to a base south of the city. We piled our duffel bags in the center and flopped into seats; as the last man to board, I took the end seat by the ramp next to Specialist Mike Peugh, a onetime mixed-martial-arts fighter from Tampa. I groped in the darkness for my seat belt when I felt the familiar dip of the helo's nose as we lifted slowly off the tarmac.
As the helicopter leveled out, the pilot banked hard to the left and the mountain of duffel bags crumbled. One smacked my face, knocking me out of my seat. I slid toward the ramp and the 100-ft. drop to the concrete below. In my memories I tell myself I could have grabbed the crew chief, who was tethered to the ramp, but I never had a chance to consider my options.
Peugh snagged the shoulder of my body armor vest and heaved me into his lap, wrapping his legs around me and screaming above the rotor wash: "I got you, sir. You're not going anywhere!" We clung to each other like lovers for the entire flight, and he wouldn't let me go until the wheels touched the ground.
I thought about Peugh often this week, about the powerful connection when someone has saved your life. I have three such debts from my time there that I can never repay. My chief concern was accomplishing my missions and getting those men home, as it should have been. I focused so much on this goal, it wasn't until this trip that I really understood the ramifications of war when the battlefield is someone's home.
More than once this week, from two different groups of foreigners, I heard the word empathy in discussions about Iraq. Empathy is crucial, one journalist told me, to truly understanding Baghdad, and I realized that was missing from our presence there for a long time. Armies don't empathize well; they seize and occupy territory, killing what they think is necessary to destroy and hopefully sparing what is not. But the task of rebuilding a broken country and there is no argument we broke this one is not something armies inherently do well.
Yet over the course of seven years we learned to do it competently. Colonel Rick Welch, who was featured in a TIME story back in February 2005, saw an opening caused by timing and circumstances and found a way to talk with the enemy, taking an estimated 50,000 fighters away from the insurgency. He did it by listening more than by talking, until he understood what they needed and how they could accomplish it without violence.
Yet as hard as we tried, empathy was often in short supply during periods of bloodshed, such as the month in the fall of 2006 when we lost 11 members of my unit in five weeks. We were far from home, frustrated and seeing our friends killed one by one, wishing only that no one else would die before Christmas. We would lose two more before boarding the flight home.
Empathy, by definition, is harder than sympathy, because the former requires an exhaustive understanding of another's pain. I found that this week in the stories of loss and anguish that far exceeded my own. I began judging Baghdad's improvements, not only against my own suffering but also in a kind of joint sunk cost as I ticked off the metrics, one by one, and found a Baghdad as close to repaired as I've ever known even if it has a long way to go.
After we finally surmounted the airport security, the city gave me one final sign. Another pair of Chinooks lifted above the haze and into the steadily bluing sky. During my entire combat tour in Baghdad, Chinooks were only allowed to fly at night. They are our largest and fastest helicopters, but they lumber slowly on the takeoff and landing, like Dumbo before he found his form. Seeing Chinooks flying over Baghdad several hours after sunrise assured me this is a different place. With Peugh now working as a policeman in Florida, I can only hope that everyone inside is strapped in.