Six months in training, and 16 straight months at war in Iraq: No unit, according to a congressional commendation, had a longer continuous deployment on the ground there than the 1st Brigade Combat Team/34th Infantry Division of the Minnesota National Guard. Their loved ones back home endured the same long separation.
With soldiers from 36 states, the unit drove 2.4 million convoy miles and conducted 5,200 patrols. But the statistics don't reflect the moment when a Guard doctor intervened to save the life of a wounded Iraqi boy. Or when soldiers at a memorial service for a fallen buddy closed with a somber Roll Call, repeating his name three times to no reply.
Nor do they account for the overlooked home front campaign, waged by those left behind: The father who wondered how to break it to his soldier-wife that their baby girl uttered her first words, the wives who joked that their weekly barbecues were "group therapy," even the mother who stood in for her deployed son at his proxy wedding.
The story of this hard deployment - and of the relationships that held fast across thousands of miles - is the subject of "The Long Haul," a serial narrative in seven parts by AP National Writer Sharon Cohen.
As we follow the families and the troops from departure to return home, we get to know a special cast of real-life characters, seeing them through tragedy and triumph, tears and laughter, deaths and births. We experience this war - battle zones and homefront - from ground level, the fear and the courage still raw.
Every day this week starting today, read a new story in the series at LJWorld.com:
PART I: Meet some of the citizen-soldiers of the 1st Brigade Combat Team. John Kriesel is a gung-ho believer in the war effort who tells his wife that if he dies, "Don't go Cindy Sheehan on me." Then there's Sgt. Janelle Johnson, mother of two daughters, one just six months old, who she fears may forget her. There are couples who race to marry before the deployment. Final training, final heart-to-hearts - and they're gone.
PART II:"Where are you?" Katie Kriesel asks when her husband John's voice comes over the phone. "I am where I need to be," he answers cryptically. In fact, he's settling in near Fallujah, synonymous with atrocities and death. Others in the 1st Brigade Combat Team scatter across Iraq, quickly facing dangers while staying in touch with those back home. Too soon, they face death in their own ranks.
PART III: A funeral that fills the high school gym in a small Minnesota town brings the war starkly home. Soldiers come back on two-week leaves, too: Janelle Johnson scheduled hers for her daughter's first day at kindergarten. Many other milestones are missed: graduations, anniversaries. But not all: The 1st Brigade Combat Team's commander, Col. David Elicerio, gets a birthday surprise from a sheik: a camelback hunt in the Iraqi desert.
PART IV: In that dreadful December, every day brings bloodshed. After a roadside bomb, John Kriesel is instantly aware he's lost both legs. "Tell Katie I love her," he implores, as comrades apply tourniquets and administer morphine. Back in Minnesota, Katie Kriesel, gently breaks the staggering news to their young sons. "Are Dad's legs going to grow back?" her 5-year-old asks. And theirs was far from the only family getting bad news this month.
PART V: Christmas Day - and for two soldiers, a gift like no other: their very survival. Sgt. J.R. Salzman arrives at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, critically injured in a blast that took his lower right arm. Nearby, John Kriesel is settling in. New Year's Day means one thing to those still in Iraq: Going home in the spring. Then word trickles out: A four-month extension! Bitter tears flow - even as, for some, the fighting reaches a crescendo.
PART VI: Through Staff Sgt. Chad Malmberg's night-vision goggles, it looks like a video game come to life: Waves of insurgents who ambushed his outnumbered convoy are moving closer, even as others fall to U.S. fire. When it's over, many lie dead - but all in Malmberg's unit are safe. He'll receive a medal for valor. Elsewhere, Dr. Joe Burns has his hands full after a sectarian explosion ravages a civilian crowd. One Iraqi boy is so badly wounded others say: Let him go, move on. But Burns won't give up.
PART VII: Finally, homecoming. John Kriesel meets his comrades at the tarmac on prosthetic legs. Nursed by his wife, J.R. Salzman is learning to use a new arm and to cope with a brain injury. Janelle Johnson is back with her daughters, Dr. Burns is back to his ER, Chad Malmberg, hailed as a hero, finishes college and plans a police career. The commander, who carries dog tags of those the 1st Brigade Combat Team lost, takes up state-side duty, training others waiting to deploy.