Christmas Day arrived - and for two 1st Brigade Combat Team soldiers, there was a gift like no other: their very survival.
Sgt. J.R. Salzman of Menomonie, Wis., had arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center hours earlier, days after being critically injured in a roadside bomb in Iraq.
A few doors down, Sgt. John Kriesel already had settled in as a patient after he, too, was maimed by an explosion.
For both, there would be a long hospital stay and an even longer recovery. The two bombing survivors had much in common but they took different paths in starting over.
Kriesel had to learn to walk again with prosthetic legs.
Salzman would learn to write, feed and dress himself with an artificial arm.
Through their many months of rehabilitation, their wives remained at their sides, standing vigil through surgeries, sharing their triumphs and their setbacks, counting the days until they could return home.
Some of those days were especially memorable.
Just before Christmas, Kriesel had a special visitor - President Bush.
Ever since he had arrived at Walter Reed, when nurses would ask what they could do for him, Kriesel had one reply: "I want to meet my boss. I want to meet the president."
On a visit to the hospital, Bush and his wife, Laura, met with the family. The president called Kriesel a hero. He turned to the soldier's two young sons. Are you proud of your father? he asked. The boys solemnly nodded in unison.
Leaning over Kriesel, who was still unable to sit up, Bush pinned a Purple Heart on his hospital gown.
As Bush prepared to depart, 4-year-old Broden, sensing the momentous occasion, turned to his mother and asked: "Is George Washington leaving now?"
Christmas in the hospital
When Josie Salzman, J.R.'s wife, arrived with her in-laws at Walter Reed on Christmas Day, she didn't know what to expect.
Would she able to hug J.R. without hurting him? Would he have a bunch of tubes stuck in him? Would he even recognize her?
J.R., as it turned out, looked scruffy and exhausted but he seemed OK, thank goodness. After he talked with his parents, Josie stayed behind and gently gave him a sponge bath, head to toe, and brushed his teeth.
It was something she never anticipated she'd be doing for her husband. Certainly, not as a 20-year-old.
As she prepared to pull out a chair in his room to sleep, Josie realized she had barely eaten all day. But it was Christmas night and the cafeteria was closed.
A nurse came to her rescue. He warmed up an untouched meal a patient had passed up. It was just hospital food - steak and potatoes - but it seemed like a holiday feast.
Josie cried. At first, she wasn't sure if it was the meal, her exhaustion or J.R.'s wounds. But then she realized why.
"I had my husband alive and in front of me," she wrote in her blog. "I could see his face and touch his skin, he was real. What more could I possibly ask for?"
A new year
New Year's Day and the turning of the calendar to 2007 meant one thing to the soldiers of the 1st Brigade Combat Team.
They were going home.
They were due back in spring, and couldn't wait. Many simply wanted to resume lives that were in limbo. They had crops to plant, colleges to attend, families to see.
Some had special vacations planned. In his office at Tallil Air Base, the unit's commander, Col. David Elicerio, displayed the postcards of Hawaii that his wife had sent, anticipating their spring trip.
The soldiers had been gone 16 months, including six months training in Mississippi. It was a long time. But soon they would leave for home.
Or would they?
Sgt. 1st Class Janelle Johnson was on the Web cam with her husband, Chad, back home when he said, "You got extended, huh?"
"Don't believe any of the rumors," she said, calmly. "They're not true."
"Well, that's kind of funny," he replied, "because the governor's on TV right now ..."
Janelle ran a mile to the battalion office. As she raced up the stairs, she heard a voice on a speaker phone talking about an extension. She ran to the bathroom to cry, and returned to the office to see an older soldier crying.
Janelle dreaded telling her 5-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. The family would have to put off a trip to Disney World, planned for April.
"The president says Mom and the troops are doing such a good job and we need to stay here a little longer," she told Elizabeth on the phone.
Elizabeth was quiet at first. Then she said: "You're going to miss my birthday again."
"Don't worry," her mother said, searching for words of comfort. "I'm still coming home."
The extension was ordered as part of the surge in troop strength to try to quell violence that had been convulsing Iraq for months. The brigade was extended another 125 days. The soldiers would not return to Minnesota until the summer.
But somehow, news of the new orders reached families before the troops - even before the commander.
"When were you going to tell me?" Elicerio's wife, Leslee, asked.
Reporters in Minnesota took up the question in a satellite news conference where the colonel tried to explain what had happened.
Standing in the darkness at the Tallil Air Base, Elicerio acknowledged the error. "Do I feel bad about apologizing for the Army? Hell no," he said. "Certainly we admit that a mistake was made."
Yes, he said, his soldiers were upset at first, but they'd get over it. They had a mission, and they were performing very well.
He acknowledged this would create hardships - but they'd be back, he promised, before the leaves changed colors in the fall.
That promise was little consolation to Teri Walen. She hadn't wanted her son, Chad Malmberg, to go to Iraq in the first place. She had been awaiting his return, clearing the decks so she could devote herself to him full time.
She had worried from the day he left - and now she'd worry for another four months.
Walen became so depressed she couldn't drag herself out of bed. She felt as if she were walking in quicksand. The pressures mounted at home, too: Her mother was dying, as was her husband's father. Two of their children were getting married. It all became too much to bear.
After talking with the church counselor, she visited a doctor, who prescribed antidepressants. Within weeks, she was better.
On the afternoon of Jan. 26, Teri Walen, mother of a soldier and wife of a Lutheran pastor, spoke to about 100 women at a Christian retreat. She talked about technology that bridges the gap between troops and their families.
As wonderful as it is, she said, maybe it isn't always a good idea for loved ones to expect daily contact with Iraq. It puts too much stress on the troops.
As Walen finished her talk, a new day had dawned in Iraq.
Before that day ended, Chad would lead a convoy into hell.
Trapped in hell
Chad Malmberg saw the white-yellow flash and giant plumes of smoke a mile down the road. Even before the ground shook, he knew what it was.
He had traveled this main supply route south of Baghdad dozens of times and seen the yawning craters left by IEDs that had killed and maimed others.
As the convoy inched forward, Malmberg knew the enemy was somewhere. The left side of the six-lane road was wide open desert; they had to be on the right, somewhere among hilly palm groves, berms, canals and trees.
The soldiers scanned the inky darkness, consulting by radio, trying to pinpoint the enemy's location. Could it be that bomb ahead was all the insurgents had planned?
Within minutes, they got their answer.
The crackle of AK-47s soon filled the night air, along with the whoosh of rocket-propelled grenades.
The American troops responded with machine gun fire, moving their Humvees to get a better view of the enemy.
About 20 enemy muzzle flashes - evenly spaced - lined the route. This was a well-coordinated attack. There was a convoy ahead of them, and others behind.
They were trapped.
"Wolf 5-6," Malmberg radioed. "Troops in contact! Just north of checkpoint 30 on MSR Tampa."
He was the convoy commander, in the lead vehicle among five armored Humvees embedded with 20 civilian flatbed trucks that had just delivered construction materials.
Malmberg was a methodical guy. He liked to draw up lists in his head.
He ticked off possibilities. What do we do if we have a casualty? What do we do if a Humvee blows up?
He instructed one truck to call in air support, one to alert other Army units in the area.
At the rear of the convoy, a gunner in Truck 4 blasted away with a .50-caliber machine gun, but the insurgents kept advancing.
"We need to end this," Malmberg told his driver.
"Truck 4," he barked over the radio. "En route to your location with AT-4."
The AT-4 - an anti-tank shoulder-fired rocket - was the biggest weapon in their arsenal. Malmberg's driver made a U-turn and raced down the pocked highway to the back of the convoy a quarter-mile away.
Malmberg adjusted the sight on the AT-4 for distance, removed the safety pin and released the battle lock on his door. He told his gunner and Truck 4 to keep shooting.
When he jumped out of the passenger door, it sounded like a rifle range. Using the hood of the Humvee as a shield, Malmberg aimed and fired the rocket. It spiraled through the air, then struck the target - a cluster of muzzle flashes.
Malmberg rocked back from the force. His ears, covered by a headset, rang as he dashed back into the truck. He was thrilled he didn't demolish the hood.
He plugged in his headset connected to the internal radio network.
"AT-4 out!" he shouted, so everyone in the convoy knew he had deployed the rocket.
Helicopters had swooped in and out, but had been unable to open fire on the insurgents because rifle and machine gun fire were bouncing around everywhere.
After he launched the rocket, there was a lull. Malmberg gave himself a mental high five, thinking: We've got them. His truck headed back to the front of the convoy.
But minutes later, there was more enemy fire.
It was louder. And faster.
Instead of pop. Pop. Pop. It was poppoppopoppop.
The insurgents still were out there. Lots of them. And they were moving closer.