St. Paul, Minn. In the end, Chad Malmberg put his framed Silver Star on the wall and stowed away his helmet, some old uniforms and the dusty combat boots he had worn in the Iraqi desert.
He was a hero, now, and proud of it. Malmberg had quickly entered his last semester of college, blending easily into the anonymity of campus life. Within months, he had his degree.
It took months, too, to break some habits. Such as hugging the center line when he drove and swerving whenever he saw anything on the road, fearing hidden bombs. And ticking off a check list - gun, ammo, food - every time he went outside.
He was home, he was safe, he was whole.
So many others could not say as much: John Kriesel, Josh Hanson, J.R. Salzman, Corey Rystad, Bryan McDonough ... some came back with broken bodies, some came back to eulogies and grieving loved ones and final resting places.
But none of them - none of the 5,000 men and women of the 1st Brigade Combat Team/34th Infantry Division of the Minnesota National Guard - came back unchanged by their 22-month deployment, and their sojourn into the cauldron of Iraq.
Their time at war won a commendation in Congress as "the longest continuous deployment of any United States ground combat military unit during Operation Iraqi Freedom."
And for every man and woman who served, there was someone at home, hoping and waiting for their return.
There was the young wife who scoured the Internet each morning, searching for news stories about the area where her husband was based - trying to gauge the dangers. The little boys who eagerly checked e-mail every night for messages from their soldier-father.
There was the father who wondered how to break it to his soldier-wife that their baby girl had uttered her first words - and she had missed it. The mother who walked to work praying for her soldier-son's safety - telling herself if she arrived without a phone call he was OK.
This was a war where families were sometimes just a mouse-click away from their soldiers, where a mother who had just given birth dispatched cell phone photos of the baby to her soldier-husband, where home front celebrations - graduations, birthdays, even weddings - were shared across the continents, via Web cams and video hookups.
But there also were moments in Iraq, some terrifying, some heartbreaking, that could not be shared with others far away.
The day a doctor pleaded on behalf of a wounded Iraqi boy, knowing his words could mean the difference between life and death for the child. The afternoon a husband grieved his loss by softly muttering his wife's name on a bomb-scarred road. The day troops gathered to remember a buddy at a memorial service that closed with a somber roll call, the soldier's name repeated three times to no reply.
There were many such experiences in nearly 500 days in Iraq.
Over that long haul, the soldiers drove 2.4 million convoy miles, conducted 5,200 patrols, discovered 462 improvised explosive devices, captured more than 400 suspected insurgents.
This is the story of a very long deployment of a very long war - of how members of the 1st Brigade Combat Team/34th Infantry Division lived and died in Iraq, how their families endured while they were gone, and how what happened in a far distant land still resonates today.
Malmberg's mother, Teri Walen, didn't want him to go to Iraq. She didn't support the war, didn't think her only son should be there. She tried to talk him out of it.
"Do you think war is a good thing?" she asked when he called one night.
"No," he replied. "What do you think, I'm crazy?"
But Malmberg was stubborn and determined, and convinced his mother he had good reasons for going. Wiry and intense, a mixed martial arts buff and former Army welterweight boxer, Malmberg had eight years of military training - including a stint as a paratrooper at Fort Bragg, N.C. - but he had never served his country in combat. Now he had the chance.
On July 15, 2006, the official word came down: The 1st Brigade Combat Team - nicknamed the Red Bulls - would be deployed. Some 2,600 folks from Minnesota, bolstered by two Guard units from Iowa and Nebraska and troops from 33 other states, would put their lives on hold to take up arms.
These were not, for the most part, full-time soldiers. They were members of the National Guard, farmers and factory workers, salespeople and mechanics, doctors and students. Among them were fathers and sons, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, pool-playing buddies, former high school football rivals, classmates and neighbors.
Malmberg was just a semester shy of finishing college, but his degree would have to wait. He bought a $400,000 life insurance policy and named his sister, Jessica, as the beneficiary.
But Teri's biggest worry really wasn't that her son would die in Iraq.
Her fear was that he'd be disabled and need care the rest of his life - that he would be unable to pursue a childhood dream and become a police officer, like his father and uncle.
Death or disfigurement were not the things Chad feared; he was afraid only that he might fail the soldiers who depended upon him to lead an infantry squad.
And so he packed his gear and headed south, to Camp Shelby, Miss., where the 1st Brigade Combat Team holed up for six months in barracks that had been flooded by Hurricane Katrina.
There, amid downed trees and buildings that had lost their roofs, they trained, practiced their marksmanship, studied Iraqi culture and learned to work as a team.
As they edged closer to Iraq, some made big changes in their lives.
John Kriesel and his longtime partner, Katie, dashed down to City Hall in St. Paul, Minn., with their two sons, Elijah, 4, and Broden, 3, to wed.
Kriesel - the kind of guy who dressed up in his brother's Army fatigues when he was just 10, the kind of guy who persisted in his relationship with Katie only when she confirmed she had voted for George W. Bush - was all pumped up to go to Iraq.
He asked Katie for permission. It's not a fair question, she said - if she said no, he'd resent her, and if he said yes, she'd blame herself if anything happened to him.
"Will you regret it when you're 30 if you don't go?" she asked.
"Yes," he said.
On a family vacation in Florida, Kriesel talked with his sons about the war. He was going to fight the bad guys, he said, in a faraway place called Iraq so everyone there can be free.
Are you going to die? his boys asked. No, he assured them.
Are you going to come back OK? they asked. Yes, he said, I'll be fine.
Kriesel talked of death only once, with Katie.
Promise me one thing, he said: If I die, don't go on TV and criticize the war, as the mother of one fallen soldier did, famously - "Don't go Cindy Sheehan on me." And don't let my boots be used in one of those anti-war demonstrations.
The granddaughter of two World War II veterans, the sister of a soldier, Katie understands the military. You can depend on me, she told her husband.
J.R. Salzman of Menomonie, Wis., and his fiancee, Josie, also decided to marry before he shipped off to Iraq; if something happened to him, Salzman wanted Josie to receive spousal benefits.
Salzman drew a four-day pass from Camp Shelby, and they eloped to New Orleans. The city was still recovering from Katrina; the courthouse wasn't open, the phones weren't working right, but Josie was undeterred. They married in a brief ceremony at a judge's elegant home.
In Iraq, Salzman would be just another soldier. At home, he was a celebrity of sorts - the five-time world logrolling champion, a title that earned him appearances on ESPN, stunt work in a Steve Martin movie and fan mail from all over.
That was how he met Josie. One day she tuned in to ESPN's "Great Outdoor Games" and there he was, brown-haired, muscular, confident, agile, rolling along. She dropped him an admiring e-mail. A date at a Steak 'n Shake followed, along with the discovery they had common interests (including fishing) and small-town roots (he was from Wisconsin, she was from Michigan). Love blossomed.
When they said goodbye, Josie was just 19, and had been a married woman less than a month.
No easy goodbyes
Dathan Gazelka was at Camp Shelby, along with his younger brother, Daniel. They left behind a proud father, and a nervous mom.
Dathan would be a team leader in Iraq. As a former Guard recruiter, practically every guy under his command would be someone he signed up. He'd played pool and shared beers with them, he knew their families, too. He felt a special sense of responsibility; they were going because of him. There was no way he'd stay behind.
Gazelka wasn't crazy about leaving his wife, Mandy, and his family. Anyone who wasn't scared about heading into a war, he thought, was either lying or crazy.
Dathan left behind for his wife two things: a flashlight and a shotgun, just in case she needed them for protection in the remote, wooded area where they live outside Bemidji, Minn.
Mandy may look delicate with her porcelain features; she's anything but. She's handy with a gun and has hunted deer, grouse and small game since she was 12. She also knows her way around the tool box: She can fix a hot water heater, replace a flat tire and do any task around the house.
She put on a brave face when she said goodbye to her husband in Mississippi. No tears, she told herself. It wasn't until days later, when she was home alone, that she cried.
So many goodbyes, none of them easy.
Janelle Johnson signed up for the Guard as a teenager, but now she was a full-time Guard member and the mother of two little girls. Emily was not even a year old, and Elizabeth was 4. It was her duty to go, but she wondered: Would her girls forget her? And how would her husband, Chad, manage?
She prepared him as best she could. She created a spreadsheet of all their bills. He would have to write the checks now, take the girls to day care and the doctor, make them dinner, and tuck them in every night.
Her mind raced with questions: Would Chad know when to start using solid baby food for Emily? Would he remember all the appointments with the pediatrician? He hadn't read all the baby books. She had. He didn't have a mother's instincts. How could he?
Janelle knew he would need support. She spread the word to her sister, her mother, the day care teacher: "Take care of my babies."
She left her girls reminders, too. She videotaped herself holding her daughters in her lap and reading them stories, so Chad could play them when she was gone. She recorded herself playing with baby Emily, so she could see her mom's face.
Chad works for an environmental drilling firm and he had already told his bosses he couldn't travel anymore. He needed to be home every night.
Before she left for Iraq, the Johnsons took a vacation together in Florida. Emily was a year old, but her mother had missed nearly half her life while training in Mississippi.
She tried to get her baby to take her first steps, but Emily wasn't ready.
And when Emily injured herself in a fall and Janelle tried to scoop her up and comfort her, the little girl screamed and looked at her as if her mother was a stranger.
That night, in bed, Janelle cried: Emily doesn't remember me. Chad tried to reassure her.
A few days later, Janelle kissed her daughters goodbye. You won't see me for a long time, she told Elizabeth, and with that she returned to Mississippi, her stomach aching with emptiness.
The deployment begins
Col. David Elicerio, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team, had visited Iraq in September 2005 to check out what lay in store for his troops.
A warrior with an authoritative voice and a ramrod posture befitting his 25 years in the military, Elicerio had been deployed with the unit before, in Bosnia.
But he knew this deployment would be different.
The heat, for one thing; a blistering 120-degree day was not unusual. And by comparison, Bosnia was friendly terrain. He did not expect an open-arms embrace in Iraq.
For two weeks, Elicerio rode on convoys. He consulted with the Texas National Guard commander he would replace.
And then, a soldier was killed.
Elicerio accompanied the brigade commander to the memorial, watching and listening to how he soothed his grieving soldiers. It was a helpful lesson.
In the months ahead, Elicerio would have to do the same thing, writing letters of condolence, offering words of comfort and rallying his troops to go on.