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 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.
Recruiter left flashlight, shotgun for wife's protection
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.
He 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 toolbox: 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.
Johnson videotaped herself holding daughters
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.
Memorial was lesson in soothing grieving soldiers
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.
How the series was done
The story of 1st Brigade Combat Team/34th Infantry Division of the Minnesota National Guard and its tour in Iraq was reconstructed from scores of interviews with more than 20 soldiers and members of their families. Most quotations are as remembered by the speakers. In addition, the series draws upon numerous official documents, including after-action reports; videos of news conferences; correspondence provided by the families (including e-mails and letters); television coverage of the unit's return; personal journals and blog postings.