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Watching reports of the last American troops leaving Iraq was a bittersweet experience for Steve Countouriotis of Petaluma, a former Army helicopter pilot who served two tours during the nine-year war.

"I was happy that our mission was complete," said Countouriotis, a retired lieutenant colonel who says the military did its job in Iraq by "freeing 25 million people from tyranny."

But Countouriotis, sitting alone before a TV late at night, was dismayed by the low-keyed nature of the event, with other soldiers — and no dignitaries — waiting at the Kuwaiti border for the last military convoy to cross out of Iraq at daybreak Dec. 18.

"We really only have each other," said Countouriotis, 60, who retired in 2009 after 23 years of active duty and four combat tours, including two in Afghanistan, since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Counting his three children — Nick and Demetrius Countouriotis and Alethea Bordwell — the family has served seven tours in Iraq, with two more tours by his son-in-law, Jared Bordwell.

The end of the war that claimed 4,487 American lives, injured 32,226 and cost an estimated $800 billion stirred emotions for other Sonoma County residents who fought or lost a loved one in Iraq.

They are relieved the conflict is over but struggle with the question of whether the nation's sacrifice — and their own incalculable loss — was worthwhile.

"No one else has to lose their children over there," said Herb Williams of Santa Rosa, whose son, Army Staff Sgt. Jesse Williams, 25, was killed in Iraq in 2007.

But Williams, 75, an Army veteran, also recalls his son's observation, just before returning to Iraq for his second tour in 2006, that the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds had been fighting in Iraq for 1,000 years and weren't likely to stop due to America's brief presence.

"He raised good questions," said Williams, a political consultant. "Questions that weren't dissimilar from my own."

Jesse Williams left behind his wife, Sonya, and their daughter, Amaya, 5.

Jay Ottolini of Santa Rosa also watched the last troop convoy roll out of Iraq. "It was emotional for me because I'll never see my brother again," he said. "I wish he was one of those coming across the border."

Sgt. 1st Class Michael Ottolini, 45, of Sebastopol was killed in Iraq in 2004, leaving behind his wife and high school sweetheart, Sharon, and two grown children.

December always brought up raw feelings, Jay Ottolini said, recalling that Michael used to play Santa Claus at the National Guard's local Christmas party for children.

"I'm glad for those who came home safe," said Ottolini, a Vietnam-era Air Force veteran.

Sarah Kynoch of Santa Rosa, a 30-year-old war widow, said she is proud of America's role in liberating Iraq, but thinks U.S. troops stayed longer than necessary.

"We did as much as we could there," she said. "We helped it become a better place."

Army Cpl. Joshua Kynoch, 23, was killed in Iraq in 2005. Sarah is raising their daughter, Savannah, 6, and her daughter with fiancee Jose Mendez, Alexis, 3.

"I think it was time to leave a while ago," Sarah Kynoch said. She said she voted for George W. Bush, but changed political ranks to vote for Barack Obama in 2008.

Matthew Jensen of Santa Rosa, a former Marine who served three tours in Iraq and came home with post traumatic stress disorder, said he was peeved because the U.S. left Iraq with no plan in place, much like the hasty departure from Vietnam in 1975.

"I feel that we'll be back there sooner than we think," said Jensen, 29, predicting a collapse of the current Iraqi government.

The U.S. invasion in 2003 deposed a brutal dictator, said Jensen, who was part of the first assault wave into Baghdad, where he saw cruel instruments in one of Saddam Hussein's torture chambers.

But America should have built more schools and restored more of Iraq's electric, water and communications facilities before leaving, Jensen said.

"Things are a little rocky over there," said Joe Piasta, a Santa Rosa attorney whose children, Theresa and Edward, both served in Iraq.

But Piasta, a retired Army lawyer, said he is "guardedly optimistic" Iraq will emerge as an independent, democratic nation and America's effort will have "generally made the world a better place."

"We will see," Piasta said. "History will tell us."

Another of his seven children, Frank Piasta, was just commissioned as an Army second lieutenant and is bound for Ranger training. His first mission will likely be in Afghanistan, a prospect that "scares the hell out of me," Joe Piasta said.

For Steve Countouriotis, the war's end had a surprisingly personal connection. The last soldiers to drive into Kuwait in armored trucks two weeks ago were from the 3rd Brigade of the Army's 1st Cavalry Division, the same unit that Countouriotis flew helicopter support for on his final tour.

And the day Countouriotis left Mosul in May 2009, Spc. Jake Velloza, 22, of Inverness in Marin County was killed there while serving with the 3rd Brigade.

"Just coincidence, I guess," Countouriotis said. The Inverness post office is named for Velloza.

America's sacrifice of blood and money gave the Iraqi people a chance at freedom, Countouriotis said. "The future is up to them."

Jay Ottolini said he struggles with a judgment on the war, which began on the false premise that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

And he's not convinced that the Iraqis are better off today, with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, seemingly intent on settling old scores with the Sunnis, who ruled the country during Saddam's regime, and with bombs exploding regularly since the U.S. departure.

"Was the war worth it?" Ottolini asked. "It's hard to tell."

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