National Guard troops reach their stations in Iraq while family members back home begin a hard adjustment. Second of a seven-part series on the longest deployment of the war.
The phone call surprised Katie Kriesel, so soon after her husband, John, shipped out.
"Where are you?" she asked.
"I am where I need to be," he answered cryptically, not wanting to disclose his exact location in Iraq. He probably would have waited to call home to Minnesota, but April 8, 2006, was special -- it was Katie's 26th birthday.
Kriesel was at Camp Fallujah, just east of the city where U.S. contractors had been hanged from a bridge, where Marines had battled insurgents in some of the bloodiest battles of the war.
Soon after his arrival, Kriesel saw a tent near his living quarters that had been hit by enemy mortar fire, twisting the metal support beams and shredding the canvas.
Welcome to Iraq.
But Kriesel wanted to be in the thick of the action, not sitting in a tower or standing guard in a mess hall. He'd always been gung-ho; even as a kid he had watched the Gulf War on TV and proclaimed: "If I can get paid to do that, then I'm in."
Kriesel had trouble sleeping his first night in Iraq. His gear hadn't arrived, the air conditioning in his tent was going full blast and he had no blankets.
Some guys, he noticed, were sleeping in their body armor. He used his as a pillow. If a mortar lands here, he thought, it won't matter if I'm wearing chain mail. I'm a goner.
As he settled into the soldier's life, Katie established a routine in Minnesota.
She dropped off their sons, Elijah, almost 5, and Broden, 3, at day care in the morning, headed to work at a freight-forwarding company, then picked up the boys. Every evening it was dinner, baths, then time to check the computer for messages from Dad or await his call. Some days there was special mail -- "Operation Iraqi Freedom" T-shirts or coins that Elijah brought to show-and-tell.
Like so many other families with soldiers in Iraq, the Kriesels lived in a wired world: They often communicated by phone or e-mail -- John had his laptop computer with him.
But reminders of those at war came home in less comforting ways, too. One day, Elijah, waiting in a gym for Katie, saw a TV news story about a soldier who died in Iraq.
"Is Dad going to die?" he asked his mother.
No, she assured him -- that's why the family prayed every night to keep Dad safe.
By spring 2006, however, the war was entering its fourth year, more than 2,000 U.S. troops were dead, and it was clear no place in Iraq was secure.
No road seemed off-limits to improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, no building impervious to attacks. Not the fortressed Green Zone, not the United Nations headquarters, not the forward operating bases where thousands of soldiers made a ready target.
The 1st Brigade Combat Team/34th Infantry Division -- not just Minnesotans, but incorporating soldiers from 36 states -- was headquartered at Tallil Air Base in southern Iraq near Nasiriyah. But the thousands of troops were stationed throughout the central and southern parts of the country.
They were both combatants and goodwill ambassadors, fighting insurgents with rocket launchers and handing out Beanie Babies to Iraqi kids. They escorted fuel and food convoys, conducted patrols, provided security, tended to the sick and wounded, delivered books and supplies to schools, paved roads, helped start newspapers and built and repaired water treatment plants.
They worked together in close quarters, and inevitably, became surrogate family.
But they longed for home.
Janelle Johnson, a battalion supply sergeant, tried not to dwell on all the once-in-a-lifetime moments of motherhood she was missing. Her baby girl, Emily, was taking her first steps, speaking her first words.
Her husband, Chad, faithfully chronicled these events, sending Janelle DVDs and e-mail photos, though he was reluctant to tell his wife one of Emily's first words was "Da-da."
There was one family event, though, that Janelle was determined not to miss: the 5th birthday of her other daughter, Elizabeth.
On that May day, Janelle set her alarm early. By 4 a.m., she was riding a borrowed bike in the darkness at Camp Adder. Reaching a computer room at an outpost a mile away, Janelle clicked on a Web cam.
In a moment, she was at the party in Minnesota: Year-old Emily pressed her face to the screen, pointed to her mother, smiled and laughed.
Elizabeth blew out the candles and opened her gifts. Janelle and Chad had bought her a pink bike with pink streamers, her first without training wheels.
But as the moments ticked away -- and especially when the images and audio faltered and they had to communicate in text -- Janelle felt increasingly homesick. Yes, the technology was amazing, but really there was no way to be part of a family event on a different continent, in the middle of a war.
After a half-hour, Sgt. Johnson rode back to her trailer and went to sleep.
That same month, another brigade soldier was NOT present for a major milestone in life: his wedding.
Spec. Seth Goehring was in Iraq, but he had signed papers so his mother, Julie, could stand in for him at a proxy ceremony.
He and Alicia Dowling had been high school sweethearts and had planned a Lutheran church wedding and big VFW hall reception for 2007. But before he went to war, they changed their minds.
Instead, on May 26, 2006, Alicia -- accompanied by her mother and future mother-in-law -- headed to Montana, a state that allows proxy weddings. The bride and groom would be more than 6,500 miles apart.
Alicia wore her gray "Proud to be An Army Fiancee" sweatshirt and jeans; the strapless satin dress with a beaded train she had bought at a bridal shop trunk show remained in her closet. Alicia wanted to be comfortable for the 51/2-hour ride to Glendive, Mont.; also she was pregnant.
"I, Seth, take thee ..."
When Julie Goehring, representing her son before a justice of the peace, solemnly recited the vows and then gave Alicia a peck on the cheek, the bride giggled. Her mother's stern look reminded her this was serious stuff, no matter how surreal.
Someday, she thought, this would be a great story for the children.
Alicia, like many others, joined a support group while her husband was away. The spouses got together to swap stories and lean on each other.