Yes, he said, his soldiers were upset at first, but they'd get over it. They had a mission, and they were performing very well.
He acknowledged this would create hardships -- but they'd be back, he promised, before the leaves changed colors in the fall.
That promise was little consolation to Teri Walen. She hadn't wanted her son, Chad Malmberg, to go to Iraq in the first place. She had been awaiting his return, clearing the decks so she could devote herself to him full time.
She had worried from the day he left -- and now she'd worry for another four months.
Walen became so depressed she couldn't drag herself out of bed. She felt as if she were walking in quicksand. The pressures mounted at home, too: Her mother was dying, as was her husband's father. Two of their children were getting married. It all became too much to bear.
After talking with the church counselor, she visited a doctor, who prescribed antidepressants. Within weeks, she was better.
On the afternoon of Jan. 26, Teri Walen, mother of a soldier and wife of a Lutheran pastor, spoke to about 100 women at a Christian retreat. She talked about technology that bridges the gap between troops and their families.
As wonderful as it is, she said, maybe it isn't always a good idea for loved ones to expect daily contact with Iraq. It puts too much stress on the troops.
As Walen finished her talk, a new day had dawned in Iraq.
Before that day ended, Chad would lead a convoy into hell.
Chad Malmberg saw the white-yellow flash and giant plumes of smoke a mile down the road. Even before the ground shook, he knew what it was.
He had traveled this main supply route south of Baghdad dozens of times and seen the yawning craters left by IEDs that had killed and maimed others.
As the convoy inched forward, Malmberg knew the enemy was somewhere. The left side of the six-lane road was wide-open desert; they had to be on the right, somewhere among hilly palm groves, berms, canals and trees.
The soldiers scanned the inky darkness, consulting by radio, trying to pinpoint the enemy's location. Could it be that bomb ahead was all the insurgents had planned?
Within minutes, they got their answer.
The crackle of AK-47s soon filled the night air, along with the whoosh of rocket-propelled grenades.
The American troops responded with machine gun fire, moving their Humvees to get a better view of the enemy.
About 20 enemy muzzle flashes -- evenly spaced -- lined the route. This was a well-coordinated attack. There was a convoy ahead of them, and others behind.
They were trapped.
"Wolf 5-6," Malmberg radioed. "Troops in contact! Just north of checkpoint 30 on MSR Tampa."
He was the convoy commander, in the lead vehicle among five armored Humvees embedded with 20 civilian flatbed trucks that had just delivered construction materials.
Malmberg was a methodical guy. He liked to draw up lists in his head.
He ticked off possibilities. What do we do if we have a casualty? What do we do if a Humvee blows up?
He instructed one truck to call in air support, one to alert other Army units in the area.
At the rear of the convoy, a gunner in Truck 4 blasted away with a .50-caliber machine gun, but the insurgents kept advancing.
"We need to end this," Malmberg told his driver.
"Truck 4," he barked over the radio. "En route to your location with AT-4."
The AT-4 -- an anti-tank shoulder-fired rocket -- was the biggest weapon in their arsenal. Malmberg's driver made a U-turn and raced down the pocked highway to the back of the convoy a quarter-mile away.
Malmberg adjusted the sight on the AT-4 for distance, removed the safety pin and released the battle lock on his door. He told his gunner and Truck 4 to keep shooting.
When he jumped out of the passenger door, it sounded like a rifle range. Using the hood of the Humvee as a shield, Malmberg aimed and fired the rocket. It spiraled through the air, then struck the target -- a cluster of muzzle flashes.
Malmberg rocked back from the force. His ears, covered by a headset, rang as he dashed back into the truck. He was thrilled he didn't demolish the hood.
He plugged in his headset connected to the internal radio network.
"AT-4 out!" he shouted, so everyone in the convoy knew he had deployed the rocket.
Helicopters had swooped in and out, but had been unable to open fire on the insurgents because rifle and machine gun fire were bouncing around everywhere.
After he launched the rocket, there was a lull. Malmberg gave himself a mental high five, thinking: We've got them. His truck headed back to the front of the convoy.
But minutes later, there was more enemy fire.
It was louder. And faster.
Instead of pop. Pop. Pop. It was poppoppopoppop.
The insurgents still were out there. Lots of them. And they were moving closer.
To be continued.