The chartered plane loaded with soldiers descended slowly in the summer sky as Sgt. John Kriesel watched eagerly on the tarmac, clutching a walking cane. He had been waiting for this reunion for more than seven months.
Kriesel hadn't seen his "guys" since he lost his legs in a roadside bombing in Iraq. Now, finally, on this bright July day at Volk Field in Wisconsin, the soldiers who served with him - several of whom he had known since high school - were home after a 22-month tour of duty, including 16 months in Iraq.
And he was there to welcome them.
Wearing shorts, sunglasses and bright yellow running shoes and standing firmly with his prosthetic legs, Kriesel beamed as a long line of soldiers formed, snaking from the plane's steps across the tarmac.
One by one, Kriesel greeted them with hugs, hand shakes, smiles and jokes.
One soldier carried his battered M-4 weapon that survived the IED attack. "Is that my rifle?" Kriesel exclaimed, touching it again.
"You look good!" another friend said. "You look better than me."
"No, I don't," Kriesel replied. "YOU look good. You got legs, bro."
Staff Sgt. Tim Nelson, who was Kriesel's roommate in Iraq and squad leader, jumped ahead in line and the two men embraced, holding each other tightly. Nelson was in the Humvee seat behind him when it ran over an IED.
Nelson flew with Kriesel to the military hospital in Balad, Iraq, and held his hand when Kriesel's survival was in doubt.
"Good to see you, dude," Kriesel said to Nelson. "I heard you yelling and I wasn't going to let go."
Staff Sgt. Todd Everson was also there. He was one of Kriesel's rescuers, binding his left leg in a tourniquet.
"I'd be dead without you," Kriesel said.
The next day, as Kriesel watched the soldiers' formation at Fort McCoy, they surprised him by shouting, whistling, waving - and pointing to the place he had always stood.
Kriesel walked over and took his regular spot at the formation, and his battalion commander pinned the Combat Infantryman Badge and the Bronze Star on his chest.
For Kriesel and others who were part of the 1st Brigade Combat Team/34th Infantry Division, the summer of 2007 was a time of reunions and readjustment. Most had been gone nearly two years; their children had grown, their parents had aged, the world they left behind was different - and so were they.
When Janelle Johnson ran off the bus at Camp Ripley in Little Falls, Minn., she was amazed to see how big her two daughters looked. Emily, who'd been just 6 months old when she left, didn't want to come to her mother or pose for a family photo and when the little girl relented, she clung to her father.
A general watching the scene put a comforting hand on Janelle's shoulder.
"It'll get better," he whispered. "It's going to be a long haul."
And it has gotten better. Over the last year, while continuing to work for the Guard, Janelle has settled back into motherhood, reading bedtime stories to her girls and celebrating birthdays with them, not missing them anymore.
Seth and Alicia Goehring, who got married by proxy, are expanding their family. They're expecting their second child in August, a girl they'll name Audrey Florence.
Others have picked up where they left off.
Dr. Joe Burns went back to the emergency room of a Fargo, N.D., hospital, though he probably will return to Iraq next year.
Cassandra Houston entered a nursing program in college - something she postponed when she went to Iraq. Seeing so many needy people in Iraq inspired her. She wants to work for a humanitarian organization.
She had to adjust, too, to changes at home. During her 22-month absence, her son, Josh, turned 16, got his driver's license and his first car. He proudly picked her up in the dented 1997 Sunfire to take her home.
Chad Malmberg came home to glory.
On Sept. 22, 2007, hundreds of friends, family and dignitaries gathered to watch him receive the Silver Star for his bravery during a January firefight.
Malmberg "deliberately and courageously exposed himself to enemy fire in order to prevent the enemy from assaulting through the kill zone and overwhelming his convoy," the citation read. "His selfless actions prevented the enemy from turning the tide of the battle and undoubtedly saved the lives of his soldiers."
The medal now hangs on the wall. And the hero has gone on with life. He finished Minnesota State University at Mankato with a 3.4 average and will enter the St. Paul, Minn., police academy in September. For now, he works for the department, issuing parking tickets.
In his first few days this spring, he was cussed out a half-dozen times.
It didn't upset him. He has been in tighter spots.
Adjusting to home
For Dathan Gazelka, it wasn't easy to put aside military rigor when he returned home and went to rejoin his wife, Mandy, in the real estate business.
He hated wearing a coat and tie, wasn't sure what to say, and didn't like Mandy being the boss.
He likes clear rules. Yes or no. Not maybe - or, I'll think about it overnight.
He had an unorthodox sales pitch to prospective home buyers: "Listen, we're going to look at three houses today and you're going to buy one of them."
Made perfect sense to him. Mandy, of course, found herself doing damage control.
And so, when the National Guard invited him to return to his job as a recruiter, Dathan (and Mandy) quickly accepted.
And he has a second job now: being a father. Mandy gave birth to Nyah last July.
J.R. Salzman was relieved to be back in Wisconsin after nine months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
His wife, Josie, was happy to be back in her own bed, sitting on her own couch, watching her own TV. But she worried, too. When they traveled to a Minnesota veterans hospital, she noticed that her husband - who had lost his lower right arm - was the youngest patient by far. She wondered whether the government would be there helping them for the next 50 years.
Both Salzmans enrolled quickly at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie.
But college life wasn't easy for J.R., who had stopped taking medicine that made him groggy. He couldn't sleep more than three or four hours a night.
His memory failed him often. He missed classes because he couldn't remember his schedule. He had trouble focusing. Then one day, while researching a paper he read a report about traumatic brain injury.
He reviewed the symptoms - confusion, anxiety, memory problems - and realized he had every one of them. Then he discovered from his Walter Reed records there was something he had been unaware of: He had minor traumatic brain injury. Bingo. It all made sense.
As the months passed, Salzman improved. His memory got better. And he took a big step toward returning to his old life.
It happened last summer when he and Josie visited Lumberjack Days in Stillwater, Minn. - trailed by an ESPN crew chronicling his recovery.
"You're going to log roll," Josie told him. "You're done putting it off."
She tied his tennis shoes and watched.
Wearing his prosthetic arm, he stepped onto the log. First tentatively, then more confidently, he took a few steps. He rolled for a few seconds, stopped, then rolled some more, getting into the rhythm.
He smiled broadly.
J.R. Salzman had to relearn how to tie his shoes, to write his name. But log rolling? It came back naturally.
Just like he never was away.
Never to be forgotten
In the year since he arrived home, Col. David Elicerio has traveled to several states, advising Guard units, telling them what to expect when they are deployed to Iraq.
In May, the colonel was on hand for the unveiling of a "Fallen Heroes" memorial to Minnesota soldiers who died. A sculpture of a helmet, a rifle and combat boots stands atop a granite slab inscribed with their names.
Elicerio also carries his own personal memorial: a chain with replicas of 21 dog tags, each bearing the name of a 1st Brigade soldier who died in Iraq.
Every time a soldier in his command was lost, Elicerio wrote the family a letter, vowing to remember their sacrifice. In a small way, he feels those tags are holding up his end of the bargain.
One bears the name of Staff Sgt. Joshua Hanson.
Nearly two years have passed since his death but for his parents, Robert and Kathy, there still are days when they feel he might call or walk into the room.
Their home is filled with memories of Josh. Outside, there's a bench a friend made, with "Remember Sanchez," his nickname, carved in it. His old room remains the way it was when he left it. The stuffed bass he caught as a boy, the Minnesota Twins 1987 World Champion baseball pennant, the taekwondo belts.
His military medals rest on a corner table in the dining room, illuminated with a prayer candle.
On Aug. 30, the second anniversary of Josh's death, a picnic shelter at Maplewood State Park, where Robert Hanson is a ranger, will be dedicated in Josh's honor. Much of the work on the shelter was done by Josh's Guard friends.
It will have a polished black granite marker inscribed with the words: "YOU WILL NOT BE FORGOTTEN."
John Kriesel knows how close he came to death. He's determined to savor every minute of life.
In December, he, Katie and the boys moved into a wheelchair-accessible house - built by a construction company for cost and paid for with two fundraisers.
Kriesel is taking broadcasting classes at a local college. He interns at a sports radio station, where he's on the air one morning a week.
This fall, he'll start a marketing job with the Guard, working with sports teams, the media and businesses.
In the mirror, he can still see the faint scars of war etched on his 26-year-old face. And sometimes, he has tingly phantom sensations as if his feet were still there. He realizes, of course, he'll never have the feel of walking on freshly cut grass or a plush carpet. He does not dwell on the past or his injuries
He is a grateful man. Every night, he kisses his two sons as they go to sleep. Every morning, he hops in his wheelchair, showers and puts on his prosthetic legs.
There's no time to waste. He's got lots of plans. Even for next summer. That's when he hopes to start running again.