The room was filled with gunfire in an instant.

The night three of Mat Felch’s buddy’s fingers got blown off by Iraqi gunfire, they’d been on what had to be something like their 500th raid. By then, it was old hat: burst through the door, secure the room, move to the next place, smoke plenty of cigarettes, call it a night.

But under the Iraqi sky at the end of this particular night in the Sunni triangle, one comrade lay dead, three fingers were gone forever and Felch had killed a man before he even had time to aim.

“It was very scary,” Felch, 22, says, probably the understatement of the year. “You’re in a room and there’s gunfire all around. I did it without thinking. It was automatic.”

Felch, who’s lived in Ventura since he was 7, joined the Army and shipped off to basic in November of 2002. The war in Iraq began a month before he graduated from boot camp. “I spent time here for hometown recruiting and then I was sent to Germany, where I was stationed in Schweinfurt as a scout … You pretend that you’re at war and that’s where you learn the bread and butter of your job.”

As he speaks, Felch lights a Camel Wide with a shiny Zippo lighter. A pair of tattoos, one in memory of his grandmother, curls around each of his round biceps. With short, dark hair, a neatly trimmed beard and eyes unguarded, Felch is handsome and very much alive, animated and quick to smile. He loves Pink Floyd, his truck and his wife. There’s nothing about him that suggests anger lies in wait beneath the surface. He doesn’t mince words. He doesn’t even choose them carefully.

“You don’t want it, but there is an underlying hatred,” Felch says of living in constant fear of dying at the hands of Iraqis. “I’ve been shot at and people have tried to blow me up. I’m not a racist person, but it’s part of the trade.”

Felch, who graduated from Buena High School in 2001, opted to enlist because he was in a dead-end job. “I was working to keep my truck running, and the work I was doing was destroying my truck,” he says. “A friend of mine joined and it was really cool. He said, ‘They give you all these big guns’ — and I fell for it,” he says with a laugh.

Felch became a specialist and learned to be a jack-of-all-trades. “Typically, we hide in the trees,” Felch says. “We’re the sneaky, sneaky ones who do the reconnaissance.”

In February of 2004, he was sent to Iraq, and that’s where he remained until March of 2005, when he was shipped back to Germany. He returned to Ventura in November.

“I’m actually really glad I joined the Army because I grew up a lot and the people I met I never would have met in Ventura,” he says.

And, as might be expected, Iraq turned out to be a place he’d never forget. Felch was stationed in Ad Daluliah, a spot about 32 kilometers west of Samara. “I was a little freaked out because I didn’t know what I was getting into,” he says, taking a drag off a cigarette. “All I kept hearing was that things were exploding all over the place. We were more scared than we had to be — but it was good because I think it saved a lot of lives.”

It turned out that fear was indeed a very good companion. The company that replaced Felch’s troop when it left lost more men in one month than the previous company had lost in 13 months. “They were overconfident and they stuck to what they had been trained in,” he says, adding that his troop taught the new company what it had learned in the 13 months it had been there, but that the company relied on its eight months of initial training and suffered because of it. “We got one three-day course on how to do raids and urban combat — and the rest we improvised. We got into an urban combat situation where we didn’t know who our enemies were. We were fighting ghosts.”

Felch readily admits he doesn’t believe the Army adequately prepared the troops for the road ahead. “We knew we were going to get jobs we wouldn’t know how to handle and that we would have to run with it,” he says.

Felch’s daily life was split into rotations of missions on Bradleys, or medium tank vehicles, used for patrol and pretty much everything else under the sun. For each eight-hour mission, there were about seven hours of down time, but that down time included vehicle maintenance and other chores, as well as sleeping and keeping in touch with loved ones. “I would have to go [try to e-mail friends and family] at three o’clock in the morning because, the way the missions worked, I was awake at that time. The hardest thing was finding a time to do anything.”

After seven hours, he was back on a Bradley. Each Bradley had a name and, because Felch was in Alpha Troop, all the names started with an A. Felch’s favorite was “Ass-kicker.”

The heat often crept up past 120 degrees. They ate MRE’s, or meals ready to eat — or meals in a bag — and low-grade rations. “We would go on risky missions so we could get to another FOB [forward operating base] to eat,” he says. “The most annoying part is, the guys there would be complaining because they had to eat fake syrup. Boo-hoo.”

There were tight bonds with fellow troops, as well as plenty of cigarettes — in Iraq, Felch could buy them for $5 a carton, but they were usually Class B smokes — and coffee. His sister, who works at Starbucks, sent him 25 pounds of coffee, which he, of course, shared with his buddies. He smoked two packs a day and drank coffee whenever he got the chance.

Dealing with the Iraqi people was an exercise in contradictions and confusion. “They’re really friendly to your face, but you can’t trust them,” he says. “They’ll give you tea and chicken, but they won’t tell you if a bomb is about to go off.”

Felch believes the distrust is mostly a product of Desert Storm. “In Desert Storm, we snuffed out the army and then marched out. They don’t trust us. That’s when Saddam did his gassings.”

Repeating the past by leaving Iraq now, he says, would be a colossal mistake. “The way that society’s based, unless we’re willing to sit there for 80 years and put up camp like we did in Germany, as soon as we leave, civil war will start and it will be a different dictator with a different name doing the same thing,” he says. “We have to be there for a long, long time. They’ve made a lot of progress, but I don’t think they’ll be able to hold their own for very long … I think if we left in the next two years it would be a stupid waste — but right now we’re making a good difference.”

Both the Iraqi National Guard and the Iraqi police, he says, are in no shape to be left to their own devices.

As far as weapons of mass destruction go, Felch believes they would have been a good reason for war had we found any. “I think it was just an excuse to go,” he says. But now that we’re there, we need to stay.

“I think it’s funny because you really have a lot of people who don’t know what’s going on,” he says. “They watch FOX News and CNN and take it as fact. There is such sugar-coated news. There’s only one side of the story being shown to the masses — and that story is why we shouldn’t be there.”

Living in Iraq has also given Felch some insight on the luxuries of American life. “I’m much more appreciative of what I’ve got,” he says. “In Iraq, you kick in someone’s door and they have a hut with mud floors. They have TVs and DVD players, but they go to the bathroom in holes in the ground. I’ve burst in and stepped in streams of shit almost all the way up my leg.”

But every now and then, he still jumps at the sound of a loud noise and it’s a reminder that he’s taken a piece of Iraq home with him.

In either case, it’s plain to see that Felch will bounce back from whatever comes his way. The man with the disarming smile takes it all in stride. “I’m just a very accepting person,” he says. “I think, for the most part, we all dealt with the death rather well. I think most of us just accepted it.”