When Army Maj. Fred Wellman led his men out of Iraq in 2004, the executive officer of the 6th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, searched intently along the side of the desert highway leading south to Kuwait.

Sure enough, sand-covered carcasses of Iraqi vehicles from the Persian Gulf War were still strewn along the highway’s edges.

For Wellman, it was like traveling through time. He had been a first lieutenant in the Gulf War in 1991, leading a platoon of helicopter scouts into battle for the first time along this very road.

He could still taste the thrill of that fight — flying in low enough for the Iraqis to fire on him and his men, his unarmed scout helicopter teasing the enemy fighters from their hiding places under the bridges and overpasses so U.S. Apaches could swoop in and take them out.

Now, 12 years later, Wellman’s wars were colliding. He was struck by memories of a time he thought he had put behind him — the tragedies he’d survived and the scorched earth he’d traversed since his initiation to war. How different he was from the young, fearless pilot he’d once been.

Like the generals he fought under, Wellman’s journey through one war would shape him for the next one, making him a stronger, harder and smarter seasoned leader. But it would also be his burden to bear.

They say there are old pilots and bold pilots. Wellman has been both.

This year marks a quarter century since the U.S. sent 600,000 troops to the Middle East to end Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait. The massive war effort was America’s first major military engagement since Vietnam. It also set in motion 25 years of upheaval and violence that has engulfed the region.