This seven-part series was reconstructed from scores of interviews with more than 20 soldiers and members of their families. Most quotations are as remembered by the speakers. In addition, the stories draw upon numerous official documents, including after-action reports; videos of news conferences; correspondence provided by the families; television coverage of the unit's return; personal journals and blog postings.
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.
'Truly an unfairity'
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."
Proms, recitals, anniversaries
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 blonde-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.
'We've come to celebrate'
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.
"My friend, this is for you," a local sheik named Ali told Elicerio, handing him the reins of a camel. "I understand this is your birthday. We've come to celebrate."
He also handed Elicerio an Arab headdress, a shawl, a robe — and a shotgun. Elicerio had confided to the sheik earlier that he loved the outdoors and hunting wild game. And so here they were, in the middle of a war, chasing wild rabbits. It all seemed unreal.
When they were done, a sheep in the back of one of the trucks was slaughtered, and there in the desert, Elicerio sat at a campfire, eating the roasted meat with flat bread, tomatoes and onions.
The year before, he had spent his birthday with his family, in Las Vegas.
A few days later, an Army convoy rolled up in a swirl of dust toward a concrete slab of a building on the edge of Qaryat al Majarrah, a village of squat yellow brick houses.
"Mister, mister!" some Iraqi kids yelled, following the truck. "What are you doing? Why are you here?"
The answer to their questions could be glimpsed in the vehicles, which looked like a movable flea market bearing piles of medical supplies, clothes, soccer balls and Beanie Babies.
Stepping from one truck was Dr. Joe Burns, a North Dakota emergency room doctor who had arrived weeks earlier for a six-month stint with the 1st Brigade Combat Team. He was in this village to join Iraqi Army personnel in a goodwill mission — a daylong health clinic.
Burns, a colonel, had been to war before, serving in Bosnia. But everything about Iraq was different, including his new home, a dusty metal storage container.
With his wire-frame glasses and rosy complexion, Burns was a man comfortable in his own skin. He had a healthy dose of Midwestern common sense and an unflappable manner.
He'd need it. His temporary clinic was a building with no heat, electricity or water. It was surrounded by a concertina wire perimeter unfurled by U.S. troops. Visitors were searched for weapons and explosives.
Burns shared his duty with an Iraqi doctor, a colonel who told him a harrowing story — his 11-year-old son was kidnapped near his school and released only in exchange for several thousand dollars.
As patients filed in, Burns felt like a frontier doctor. He knew what was wrong, but couldn't do much to help.
When a 7-year-old Iraqi girl born with her heart on the right side asked, through an interpreter, if the Americans could do anything, Burns told her no, regrettably he couldn't.
When she said her 15-year-old sister, frail and bundled in a long coat and a head scarf, was tired and cold all the time, Burns felt the girl's neck for a pulse. Her heart rate was 110, about 50 percent above normal, even when she sat still.
Checking her heart with a stethoscope, Burns heard an incredibly loud sound: Whoosh-whoosh-whoosh, like a washing machine.
He suspected the girl had had rheumatic fever that had scarred her heart valves so the blood didn't flow as quickly at it should. He drew the girl a picture on a scrap of paper showing her the valves and explaining her illness.
Burns knew she needed surgery, but her family didn't have money. He also knew she wasn't likely to get help.
His final visitor was a father in his 30s, dressed in white flowing robes, his face creased by the sun. He was clutching CAT scans.
He said his 15-month-old daughter had become ill months earlier. The symptoms — stiffness, a high fever, aching head — sounded like meningitis to Burns.
By the time the father had arrived with his daughter at an Iraqi hospital, she was blind and having seizures. The Iraqi doctors told him she needed a brain wave test and a brain scan. They also prescribed medicine.
Burns studied the CAT scans, holding them up to a dust-caked window for light. He saw no abnormalities. He assured the father the medicine she was prescribed was good.
But the father had a request: Could they fly his sick daughter to America for the brain tests?
The Iraqi doctor, who was treating another patient, said nothing. He and Burns shared a knowing glance — no tests would change the daughter's prognosis now.
Burns put a comforting hand on the man's shoulder. No father wants his children to suffer, he said, adding that he had four children himself. The best thing to do, Burns said, is continue giving her the medicine.
The father thanked him, took the CAT scans and left.
Had the day's mission done any good? Burns wondered.
"How much different will things be for Iraq as a result of today?" he wrote in his journal. "Will the insurgents have a less receptive hiding place? Will IEDs become less frequent? Will the children of this town be more likely to have a future with less hatred?"
Joe Burns hoped so, but that was about all he could do.
And in the weeks to come, hope became much harder to sustain.
TO BE CONTINUED ...
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