Called to arms from their civilian life, members of a National Guard unit say their goodbyes to their loved ones, not knowing that they are about to depart on the longest deployment of the Iraq war. The first of seven parts.
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 centerline when he drove and swerving whenever he saw anything on the road, fearing hidden bombs. And ticking off a checklist -- 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.
@bodsub2: Eight years of training, now a chance to serve
@bod: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. About 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.