Can the long separation be extended further? Yes, and for some there's major fighting ahead. Fifth of a seven-part series on the longest deployment of the Iraq war.
Christmas Day arrived -- and for two 1st Brigade Combat Team soldiers, there was a gift like no other: their very survival.
Sgt. J.R. Salzman had arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center hours earlier, days after being critically injured in a roadside bomb in Iraq.
A few doors down, Sgt. John Kriesel already had settled in as a patient after he, too, was maimed by an explosion.
For both, there would be a long hospital stay and an even longer recovery. The two bombing survivors had much in common but they took different paths in starting over.
Kriesel had to learn to walk again with prosthetic legs.
Salzman would learn to write, feed and dress himself with an artificial arm.
Through their many months of rehabilitation, their wives remained at their sides, standing vigil through surgeries, sharing their triumphs and their setbacks, counting the days until they could return home.
Some of those days were especially memorable.
Just before Christmas, Kriesel had a special visitor -- President Bush.
Ever since he had arrived at Walter Reed, when nurses would ask what they could do for him, Kriesel had one reply: "I want to meet my boss. I want to meet the president."
On a visit to the hospital, Bush and his wife, Laura, met with the family. The president called Kriesel a hero. He turned to the soldier's two young sons. Are you proud of your father? he asked. The boys solemnly nodded in unison.
Leaning over Kriesel, who was still unable to sit up, Bush pinned a Purple Heart on his hospital gown.
As Bush prepared to depart, 4-year-old Broden, sensing the momentous occasion, turned to his mother and asked: "Is George Washington leaving now?"
When Josie Salzman, J.R.'s wife, arrived with her in-laws at Walter Reed on Christmas Day, she didn't know what to expect.
Would she able to hug J.R. without hurting him? Would he have a bunch of tubes stuck in him? Would he even recognize her?
J.R., as it turned out, looked scruffy and exhausted but he seemed OK, thank goodness. After he talked with his parents, Josie stayed behind and gently gave him a sponge bath, head to toe, and brushed his teeth.
It was something she never anticipated she'd be doing for her husband. Certainly, not as a 20-year-old.
As she prepared to pull out a chair in his room to sleep, Josie realized she had barely eaten all day. But it was Christmas night and the cafeteria was closed.
A nurse came to her rescue. He warmed up an untouched meal a patient had passed up. It was just hospital food -- steak and potatoes -- but it seemed like a holiday feast.
Josie cried. At first, she wasn't sure if it was the meal, her exhaustion or J.R.'s wounds. But then she realized why.
"I had my husband alive and in front of me," she wrote in her blog. "I could see his face and touch his skin, he was real. What more could I possibly ask for?"
New Year's Day and the turning of the calendar to 2007 meant one thing to the soldiers of the 1st Brigade Combat Team.
They were going home.
They were due back in spring, and couldn't wait. Many simply wanted to resume lives that were in limbo. They had crops to plant, colleges to attend, families to see.
Some had special vacations planned. In his office at Tallil Air Base, the unit's commander, Col. David Elicerio, displayed the postcards of Hawaii that his wife had sent, anticipating their spring trip.
The soldiers had been gone 16 months, including six months training in Mississippi. It was a long time. But soon they would leave for home.
Or would they?
Sgt. 1st Class Janelle Johnson was on the Web cam with her husband, Chad, back home when he said, "You got extended, huh?"
"Don't believe any of the rumors," she said, calmly. "They're not true."
"Well, that's kind of funny," he replied, "because the governor's on TV right now ..."
Janelle ran a mile to the battalion office. As she raced up the stairs, she heard a voice on a speakerphone talking about an extension. She ran to the bathroom to cry, and returned to the office to see an older soldier crying.
Janelle dreaded telling her 5-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. The family would have to put off a trip to Disney World, planned for April.
"The president says Mom and the troops are doing such a good job and we need to stay here a little longer," she told Elizabeth on the phone.
Elizabeth was quiet at first. Then she said: "You're going to miss my birthday again."
"Don't worry," her mother said, searching for words of comfort. "I'm still coming home."
The extension was ordered as part of the surge in troop strength to try to quell violence that had been convulsing Iraq for months. The brigade was extended another 125 days. The soldiers would not return to Minnesota until the summer.
But somehow, news of the new orders reached families before the troops -- even before the commander.
"When were you going to tell me?" Elicerio's wife, Leslee, asked.
Reporters in Minnesota took up the question in a satellite news conference where the colonel tried to explain what had happened.
Standing in the darkness at the Tallil Air Base, Elicerio acknowledged the error. "Do I feel bad about apologizing for the Army? Hell no," he said. "Certainly we admit that a mistake was made."