As thousands of area residents have returned from Iraq, four talk about their experiences, their outlook and where life goes from here.

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Each is in a time of transition: A Seattle firefighter, easing out of his military persona. A Navy lieutenant enjoying bike rides and studying for her master’s degree. A career soldier, spending time with his family. A police officer working the graveyard shift. As thousands of area residents have returned from Iraq, four talk about their experiences, their outlook and where life goes from here.

Getting back to “normal”

The “Support our Troops” sign in the front window of his Everett house, the small flags in the planter boxes, even the American-flag scarf worn by his pet, Charlie the Wonder Dog, leave no doubt about the loyalty of Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Matt Runte.

But after eight years in the regular Army and reserves, Runte is ready for a change.

“It’s going to be really nice to integrate back into normal life, and be a person again instead of a soldier,” said Runte, 26, who went into the Army shortly after graduating from Bothell High School in 1995.

Yesterday, he started “refresher training” at his job as a Seattle firefighter. Over the next year, he wants to help his wife and high-school sweetheart, Shannon, 26, explore her dream of opening an antique store. And emotionally, he wants to relax.

“In the military, there are things that you have to get done, there’s an order, there’s a discipline. So there’s a certain attitude you have to hold.”

For Runte, that meant projecting a more stern, tougher identity than he does in civilian life. During the war, he went from being a squad leader in charge of 15 soldiers to a platoon sergeant, assisting his platoon leader in supervising 49.

Runte crossed into Iraq in the first days of the invasion last year, his 671st Engineer Company charged with installing temporary bridges across the Euphrates River to help coalition forces advance. Mortar fire from Iraqis was common, but almost always off the mark, he said.

Later, his unit ferried troops up and down the Tigris River and repaired or installed 13 bridges, for use by U.S. military and Baghdad residents, giving Runte a sense that his efforts were helping put the city back together.

“There were really pro-American parts of Baghdad; in fact, most of it was,” he said. “But there were some rough areas bordering the river that just did not like us. They were more than happy to shoot at us.”

Based on what he heard from Iraqis, Runte says, “The bottom line is we helped the people of Iraq, and they’re in a better situation now than they were before. What they do with that, that’s up to them.”

Although he was gone for about a year, Runte was able to come home for two weeks in October, partly because while he was away, Shannon’s mother died and he and Shannon each lost a grandfather.

In Iraq, he had a chance meeting with his brother, Nick, 22, an Army sergeant. Nick Runte was with a tank column that stopped in the desert west of Baghdad when a tank caught on fire.

Nick, driving a Humvee, noticed a soldier wearing a patch for the 671st Engineers and asked if the man knew Matt. “Basically, word got back to me,” Matt Runte said, “so I hijacked a deuce-and-a-half (a large truck), went down and hung out with him for a while.”

The meeting gave Runte a precious sense of home. Later, the two rendezvoused for three days near Baghdad International Airport.

Runte said he grew in confidence and leadership ability during his time in Iraq, but isn’t sure how that will play out in the years ahead. “I don’t know what combat experience does for you in the civilian world,” he said. “I guess I’ll find out.”

A new job, and a new baby

While Lt. Col. Greg Allen was flying toward McChord Air Force Base last May, his wife, Heidi, was 20 minutes away at Madigan Army Medical Center, conducting a welcoming party of another sort — delivering the couple’s second child, Kelli.

For Greg Allen, being back home means a new job with the National Guard — and spending time with daughter Lexi, 3, wife Heidi and baby Kelli, who was born the day Allen got home last May.

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“I got there about 90 minutes after the baby,” said Allen, 38, of Auburn. The timing was fitting; Heidi, 37, had learned of the pregnancy just a few days after her husband left for the Persian Gulf.

This was the first combat experience for Allen, who has been an active-duty serviceman for 16 years, all in the Army except his last two years with the National Guard.

“I never thought I would stay this long in the military. I thought I would do my five years and get out,” said Allen, a Tacoma native and 1988 West Point graduate.

But his attitude changed two years in, after he became an Army Ranger, part of an elite force of experienced soldiers, an assignment that took him to Uzbekistan, New Guinea, Korea and Thailand.

In Iraq, as a major, Allen commanded Alpha Company 1-19th, a Special Forces unit of 83 “Green Berets” from Washington state and 29 support workers from Utah. Highly trained for urban-warfare situations, Special Forces teams often conduct covert work behind enemy lines and sensitive liaison between U.S. and foreign military forces.

Allen’s soldiers helped train Kuwaiti troops before the war, then entered Iraq and split into teams. They provided close coordination between Special Forces groups and Marines to minimize the chance of casualties from “friendly fire.”

He also supervised teams clearing guns and ammunition Iraqis had piled in schools and mosques, presumably because those buildings were generally spared from U.S. bombing runs.

“Going into schools every day and finding weapons and ammunition … after a while it gets so depressing.”

For a family man such as Allen, getting through combat situations means holding your loved ones in your heart, but not in your immediate attention.

“Your main goal is to get home, and to get all your people back home. But to do that, you have to set those thoughts aside and focus on the work at hand.”

Allen has a new job as the Guard’s state mobilization and readiness officer, coordinating the deployment of all Washington Army National Guard forces. He can’t guess what he might be doing in a decade, but he expects to spend several more years in the Guard, which he knows could mean another combat deployment.

That’s a concept Heidi Allen would rather put off for now. “I just can’t even think about it. I certainly hope he isn’t (deployed), but if he is … ” her voice trails off for a moment. “Well, we have a lot of family and friends, and it will all work out fine.”

Enjoying terra firma — for now

The simple joys of taking a long bicycle ride, hanging out at a neighborhood cafe and having family and friends to dinner at her Capitol Hill condo — these are among things Navy Lt. Emily Klauser, 26, most appreciates about being back on dry land.

Emily Klauser stands in front of a kite she bought while on tour overseas. “I’m taking the opportunities as they come,” she says of her career in the Navy, where she is a lieutenant.

But she’s also busy studying for a master’s degree in engineering management and preparing for increased responsibility aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.

The Lincoln returned to Everett last May after 10 months, the longest deployment for a U.S. aircraft carrier in 30 years. Klauser was aboard for the last six of those months. Flight crews from the Lincoln flew bombing missions over Iraq.

As an officer, she helped sailors deal with the extra-long absence from home, “But I couldn’t give them any sense if we were going to turn around tomorrow, three months from now or seven months.”

Such experiences, she said, helped give her a growing sense of leadership. She fostered a sense of teamwork by organizing Cranium or Pictionary sessions once or twice a week, complete with cappuccinos made on a machine she ordered.

About a third of the Lincoln’s sailors were women, and Klauser said she found the atmosphere collegial. As a propulsion-plant watch officer, she shared responsibility for one of the ship’s two nuclear reactors. She expects to continue that work at a higher position, and received a promotion from lieutenant junior-grade after the ship got home.

Klauser’s interest in the military dates back to her senior year at Seattle’s Holy Names Academy.

“At that point, in my theology classes we were doing a lot of discussion of the first Gulf War and what was the definition of a ‘just war,’ ” Klauser said. “And I thought, how could I ever understand this if I didn’t use this opportunity to serve my country in this way? I thought worst-case scenario: I’ll be four years older, and if I hate it, I can just get out.”

An ROTC scholarship provided four years’ tuition, and she accepted Boston University’s offer to toss in free room and board. College summers were spent training on Navy ships in Japan, Indonesia, San Diego and Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Klauser says she has thrived in the Navy, and recently committed to another five years. She was able to negotiate an agreement to get most of her sea time in early, so in her later years she will be shore-based, making it easier to start a family.

“I’m taking the opportunities as they come and trying to make them work.”

Finally, some time to relax

Even in civilian life, Joe Kolp has a stressful job. He’s a Pierce County sheriff’s deputy, working the graveyard shift as a police officer for the city of Lakewood.

Joe Kolp returned from the Special Forces to local police work.

“I work 10 hours as day, and when I’m driving around with my partner, we’re pretty focused,” said Kolp, 39, who lives in Lakewood. “But once my shift is over, I go home, turn off my police radio and I’m done.”

As a sergeant first class in the National Guard, Kolp never got that sense of being “off duty” in the Persian Gulf. As a Special Forces soldier trained at close-in urban warfare, “You have to have eyes in the back of your head 24 hours a day.”

Kolp, one of the soldiers supervised by Lt. Col. Allen, said even when he wasn’t out on a patrol, he couldn’t let up, because there were always meticulous plans to be made for the next operation.

One of his key jobs in Iraq was helping guard Brig. Gen. Gary Harrell, commander of all coalition Special Forces units.

Downtown Baghdad was “eerie” as U.S. troops arrived, Kolp said. “I remember seeing buildings 10 to 15 stories tall, with thousands of windows, and you’re just watching for one gun out of any those windows … but what was weird about it was they all were vacant … it was like a movie. You’re in a major urban area, and you don’t see one soul moving in the daytime.”

Kolp, who grew up in Detroit, came to Fort Lewis in 1984 with a paratrooper unit. He and wife Nathaly have a son, Zachary, 7 and a daughter, Emily, 2.

Kolp was in the Army full time from 1983 to 1998, then left and got his job with the sheriff’s office. But after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he rejoined the military. “I felt obligated to. I felt sort of helpless just watching everything.”

His work in Iraq, he says, was “just another life experience I can reach back on for future use,” but he doesn’t mind admitting, “It wore me out a little bit. … I’ve seen reports of 19-year-old kids coming back and they feel like they’re about 40 years old.”

Jack Broom: 206-464-2220 or