Troops and families at home count the many milestones missed and made. Third of a seven-part series on the longest deployment of the Iraq war.
The Ferris wheel at the Minnesota State Fair offered a bird's-eye view of an end-of-summer, mid-American ritual. From the top, you could see the places where 4-H kids showed off their prized hogs and cows, where farmers ogled gleaming tractors, and where throngs lined up for food-of-every-kind-on-a-stick.
Robert and Kathy Hanson had walked the Midway, had seen the sights. And they were on their way home, in their car, when the cell phone buzzed.
It was the military, and what the officer would not say spoke volumes about their son, Josh, on duty in Iraq. Something was terribly wrong.
Robert knew if Josh had just been injured he'd get details on the phone. But the caller had news that had to be delivered in person.
Gripping the wheel, Robert didn't know whether to hurry home, or slow down and delay the inevitable.
Finally, the Hansons reached their house deep in the woods outside Dent, Minn. They didn't have to wait long.
Within minutes, two officers in dress uniforms knocked on the door.
It was their sad duty to report the death of Staff Sgt. Joshua Robert Hanson.
On Saturday, Sept. 9, 2006, several hundred people filed into the gym of Pelican Rapids High School for Hanson's funeral, paying tribute to him with prayer and song.
Classmates, teachers, friends and family remembered the high school linebacker whose football team won the state's 1997 AA championship. The duck, pheasant and deer hunter who loved the outdoors and tubing on the Otter Tail River. The taekwondo black belt who collected a row of trophies. The happy-go-lucky guy who was always smiling and got a kick out of making up funny words. "Truly an unfairity," was a favorite phrase.
At the end, there was a rendition of "Amazing Grace."
"'Twas grace that brought us safe thus far," sang Josh's younger brother, Jake. "And grace will lead us home."
The funerals mounted (eventually, there would be 21, in all), as did the happy occasions the soldiers missed during what's been called the longest deployment of the Iraq war.
Proms and graduations. Recitals and soccer tournaments. Holiday dinners and anniversaries. Small events, maybe, in normal times but magnified to those closest in a time of war.
As fall approached, Sgt. 1st Class Janelle Johnson scheduled home leave so she could take her 5-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, to her first day of kindergarten.
It was a two-week chance to be a mother again. She shopped with Elizabeth for a pink jumper, curled her daughter's hair and watched her step aboard the yellow school bus. She marveled that her 18-month-old daughter, Emily, who had no hair and blue eyes when she last saw her, had blossomed into a blond-haired, green-eyed, walking, talking toddler.
Her husband, Chad, was doing a great job.
But in the blink of an eye, the two weeks were over. Before Janelle could begin to settle in, she was back in Iraq -- and, strangely, at a school that made her think of the kindergarten back home.
Her unit was delivering soccer balls and backpacks stuffed with school supplies, another mission designed to give an Iraqi community a helping hand.
The school was little more than a collection of desks in a mud building surrounded by a dirt yard and a fence; children who couldn't attend because they didn't own shoes watched forlornly outside as the soldiers arrived with their offerings.
Later, when Janelle received a photo scrapbook of Elizabeth's first months at school, she thought about what she had seen and she was grateful for her daughter's fortunate life at Knight Elementary School in Randall, Minn. She sent a thank you note to Elizabeth's teacher with a special gift: an American flag that had flown over her base.
"As the days got long ... there was always one thing that would brighten my day, seeing the American flag," she wrote. "Every morning it was raised and reminded me of what a great nation I come from. ... I hope this flag also brings you and your class the joy and contentment it has brought me."
Seth Goehring had prepared for fatherhood, as best he could from a war zone.
He had monitored his wife's pregnancy with photos she had sent by e-mail, storing them chronologically in computer folders. The doctors even obliged by providing ultrasound images -- with labels for the boy parts.
In another era, a father-to-be would have to wait weeks for letters and, if he was lucky, a snapshot or two. But Seth and Alicia were in constant, electronic contact. They mulled over possible names for their son. Alicia sent a list of possible of strong "cowboy" names before they settled on Kolton.
On a November afternoon, returning from patrol, Seth got the word from his platoon sergeant: The Red Cross had relayed the message that Alicia had gone to the hospital.
He quickly dialed the cell phone of his mother, who'd proxied for him at his wedding and now proxied for the delivery room doctor.
"Congratulations!" she declared. "You're a father."
Within hours, Seth had e-mail photos of his new son taken by Alicia, who held black-haired Kolton in her arms and snapped pictures with her cell phone.
On Nov. 22, Col. David Elicerio turned 49 -- and the commander of the 1st Brigade, along with a small group of his soldiers, journeyed to a remote spot in the desert for a special treat.