Mandy Gazelka did the same back home outside Bemidji, Minn.
On Sunday afternoons during the summer of 2006, she hosted a weekly barbecue in her back yard for the wives and children of soldiers. She provided the meat for the grilling, her guests brought the trimmings. It was like group therapy, she joked.
Mandy filled the emptiness in the house with a new companion, a Pomeranian poodle named Vinny, rescued from a puppy mill. She e-mailed Dathan a photo of the scrawny dog.
He was not impressed. A dog's not a dog, he believed, unless it's bigger than a squirrel.
Now Sam, his Golden retriever-Labrador mix -- there was a dog. And Sam patrolled the homestead now, with his master away.
One day, Sam sounded the alarm, barking furiously. Something was outside. Mandy grabbed a .38-caliber handgun she kept on the nightstand for protection and opened the door.
A porcupine had attacked Sam, then scrambled up a tree.
Mandy dispatched the critter with .38 slugs. Eleven of them.
Mandy poured herself into her job as a real estate agent, even doing some business with clients in Iraq. Dathan and the other soldiers sometimes talked houses during their down time. And when someone was in the market, Mandy sent photos online, and if need be, drove girlfriends or parents to look at the places. She sealed four deals.
But her workload didn't take her mind off the dangers of Iraq. And her fears intensified with the news that came on June 22, 2006.
Dathan's Humvee was following his brother Daniel's truck as they inched along the top of a canal road trying to intercept insurgents smuggling IEDs out of Ramadi.
In a flash, Daniel's Humvee exploded. The deafening blast lifted the front of the vehicle like a kid's bike doing a wheelie.
Dathan reached to open his door and rescue his brother. But his training kicked in.
That would be crazy. Snipers might be waiting. Or someone might be out there waiting with a remote control to set off another bomb.
His Humvee backed up to give a better view of the area, then edged closer once it seemed there was no threat. Apart from some hearing damage, everyone was OK, and Dathan could relax a bit -- even pulling out his camera to shoot some souvenir photos for Daniel.
The bombed Humvee's crew crowded into other gun trucks and waited for a tow -- and were jolted when a truck escorting the recovery team hit a second bomb, which blew the hood off but again caused no serious injuries.
When Dathan later called Mandy, he downplayed the incident. This is war, these things happen. He and Daniel were OK, he reported. He didn't want her to worry.
But she did. The pressures of work, being apart and the war were taking a toll.
By July, Mandy had severe headaches and back pains. She underwent a brain scan and other tests before a chiropractor treated her for what he said was a neck vertebra out of place.
She didn't want to alarm Dathan, and didn't even call him about it.
But it isn't easy keeping a secret from this war's electronic grapevine. Dathan found out through another soldier who had heard from his wife.
As July ended, Staff Sgt. Joshua Hanson e-mailed his parents with a breezy note and some special requests:
"I was thinking about stuff you could send ... snacks clams oysters stuff like that."
Hanson, who had recently graduated from college and planned to become a deputy sheriff, signed up to go to Iraq to be with buddies he had served with in Bosnia.
In his e-mail, he told his parents he was no longer working the guard towers and was back on patrols. He signed off: "I love you both."
His mother, Kathy, always reminded Josh -- a former altar boy -- to bless himself.
Kathy had a habit. She never said goodbye to Josh when they chatted on the phone. When her husband, Robert, wasn't around, Josh had to hang up first.
Aug. 22 was Josh's 27th birthday and he talked with his parents. Something special was coming up next week. He didn't say much more.
Eight days later, at noon, two Bradley vehicles and a Humvee edged out onto the gravel roads on the edge of Khalidiyah, a village of mud huts and palm trees in west-central Iraq.
The plan was to fake out the insurgents and make it look as if they'd abandoned the area while Marine snipers hid, waiting to see if the enemy would plant more IEDs in the road.
Then, it happened.
As the vehicles rolled along at 10 mph, the rear wheel of Hanson's Humvee hit a double stack anti-tank mine. His truck flew in the air, twisting and landing on its wheels.
Sgt. James Bakkila, who was at the rear of the Bradley following the Humvee, saw spare tires and the luggage rack flying, along with shrapnel. The vehicle's doors were blown off or flung open. The gas tank had ruptured. Flames shot in the air.
There were five guys inside. One, two, three, four got out.
"Someone's still in the Humvee!" screamed Bakkila's driver.
It was Josh Hanson, who had been sitting in the rear passenger side, above the diesel tank.
His buddies knew instantly he was gone.
The next day, soldiers stood in silent salute as his flag-draped casket was loaded on a C-130. Soon afterward, the company commander observed simply, "There goes Josh," looking up as the big transport plane passed overhead, starting the long trip home to Minnesota.
To be continued.