MAMARONECK, N.Y. -- Aaron Cepero's phone rings off the hook daily in his Mamaroneck Avenue apartment, where he is the building superintendent.
But, for the better part of the last decade, the Mamaroneck resident was a mechanic with the U.S. military and served two tours in Iraq: one from April 2003 to April 2004 and another from Sept. 2006 to Sept. 2007. He completed his service in 2009, when the Mt. Vernon native moved to Mamaroneck to be closer to his family.
"The transition was hard, to this day it's hard," he said.
Like Cepero, thousands of American soldiers are, or soon will be, making that transition back to civilian life following the Dec. 31 withdrawal from Iraq, a topic he is torn on.
"I'm glad guys are coming home, but should we pull out," he asked. "I don't think so."
Cepero joined the army at the age of 22 to learn a trade that he could turn into a job.
"At first I did it because I needed a job, but then after the time went by, it turned out to be something I enjoyed quite a bit," he said. "It was doing something for my country."
The light-weight mechanic for 63 Bravo doesn't object to the withdrawal for political reasons, but because he wants the Iraqi people to have a better quality of life.
"You go through bad parts of America - bad towns and projects and low income housing - and think people have it bad," he said. "But you get over there and, the minute we passed the border, I just couldn't believe how people were living. It was harsh. These are people we're at war with, but you still got to have some compassion for humans."
From the day his unit crossed the border from Kuwait to southern Iraq in 2003, to the day he ran his last mission in 2007, Cepero was regularly under small-arms fire. Returning from his last mission in 2007, his truck was the target of a road-side bomb. He and his troop narrowly escaped the truck, which was heavily damaged and that he would later have to repair.
Despite the constant threat of danger and sleepless nights, and even the sand in his coffee, Cepero said he wouldn't trade the experience for anything.
"If I could do it again I would, because I made a lot of great friends, people that I, in fact, still talk to from time to time," he said.
Although the transition back to civilian life has been difficult, Cepero hit the ground running in 2009, enrolling in Berkley College on the GI Bill, where he is an accounting major. His ex-wife and two daughters live in Oklahoma, where he was stationed before being deployed in 2003. In 2010, he married his high school sweetheart, who is now pregnant.
Looking back on his service, and the war in Iraq, Cepero said he is proud to have served his country and is hopeful for a more stable Iraq.
"I hope that the Iraqi nationals, the civilians, are able to pick up all the pieces and carry on from where we left off and secure themselves," he said.
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