The phone call surprised Katie Kriesel, so soon after her husband, John, shipped out.
"Where are you?" she asked.
"I am where I need to be," he answered cryptically, not wanting to disclose his exact location in Iraq. He probably would have waited to call home to Minnesota, but April 8, 2006, was special — it was Katie's 26th birthday.
Kriesel was at Camp Fallujah, just east of the city where U.S. contractors had been hanged from a bridge, where Marines had battled insurgents in some of the bloodiest battles of the war.
Soon after his arrival, Kriesel saw a tent near his living quarters that had been hit by enemy mortar fire, twisting the metal support beams and shredding the canvas.
Welcome to Iraq.
But Kriesel wanted to be in thick of the action, not sitting in a tower or standing guard in a mess hall. He'd always been gung-ho; even as a kid he had watched the Gulf War on TV and proclaimed: "If I can get paid to do that, then I'm in."
Kriesel had trouble sleeping his first night in Iraq. His gear hadn't arrived, the air conditioning in his tent was going full blast and he had no blankets.
Establishing a routine
Some guys, he noticed, were sleeping in their body armor. He used his as a pillow. If a mortar lands here, he thought, it won't matter if I'm wearing chain mail. I'm a goner.
As he settled into the soldier's life, Katie established a routine in Minnesota.
She dropped off their sons, Elijah, almost 5, and Broden, 3, at day care in the morning, headed to work at a freight-forwarding company, then picked up the boys. Every evening it was dinner, baths, then time to check the computer for messages from Dad or await his call. Some days there was special mail — "Operation Iraqi Freedom" T-shirts or coins that Elijah brought to show-and-tell.
Like so many other families with soldiers in Iraq, the Kriesels lived in a wired world: They often communicated by phone or e-mail — John had his laptop computer with him.
But reminders of those at war came home in less comforting ways, too. One day, Elijah, waiting in a gym for Katie, saw a TV news story about a soldier who died in Iraq.
"Is Dad going to die?" he asked his mother.
No, she assured him — that's why the family prayed every night to keep Dad safe.
By spring 2006, however, the war was entering its fourth year, more than 2,000 U.S. troops were dead, and it was clear no place in Iraq was secure.
No road seemed off-limits to improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, no building impervious to attacks. Not the fortressed Green Zone, not the United Nations headquarters, not the forward operating bases where thousands of soldiers made a ready target.
The 1st Brigade Combat Team/34th Infantry Division — not just Minnesotans, but incorporating soldiers from 36 states — was headquartered at Tallil Air Base in southern Iraq near Nasiriyah. But the thousands of troops were stationed throughout the central and southern parts of the country.
They were both combatants and goodwill ambassadors, fighting insurgents with rocket launchers and handing out Beanie Babies to Iraqi kids. They escorted fuel and food convoys, conducted patrols, provided security, tended to the sick and wounded, delivered books and supplies to schools, paved roads, helped start newspapers and built and repaired water treatment plants.
They worked together in close quarters, and inevitably, became surrogate family.
But they longed for home.
Janelle Johnson, a battalion supply sergeant, tried not to dwell on all the once-in-a-lifetime moments of motherhood she was missing. Her baby girl, Emily, was taking her first steps, speaking her first words.
Her husband, Chad, faithfully chronicled these events, sending Janelle DVDs and e-mail photos, though he was reluctant to tell his wife one of Emily's first words was "Da-da."
There was one family event, though, that Janelle was determined not to miss: the 5th birthday of her other daughter, Elizabeth.
Poor substitute for home
On that May day, Janelle set her alarm early. By 4 a.m., she was riding a borrowed bike in the darkness at Camp Adder. Reaching a computer room at an outpost a mile away, Janelle clicked on a Web cam.
In a moment, she was at the party in Minnesota: Year-old Emily pressed her face to the screen, pointed to her mother, smiled and laughed.
Elizabeth blew out the candles and opened her gifts. Janelle and Chad had bought her a pink bike with pink streamers, her first without training wheels.
But as the moments ticked away — and especially when the images and audio faltered and they had to communicate in text — Janelle felt increasingly homesick. Yes, the technology was amazing, but really there was no way to be part of a family event on a different continent, in the middle of a war.
After a half-hour, Sgt. Johnson rode back to her trailer and went to sleep.
That same month, another brigade soldier was NOT present for a major milestone in life: his wedding.
Spec. Seth Goehring was in Iraq, but he had signed papers so his mother, Julie, could stand in for him at a proxy ceremony.
He and Alicia Dowling had been high school sweethearts and had planned a Lutheran church wedding and big VFW hall reception for 2007. But before he went to war, they changed their minds.
Instead, on May 26, 2006, Alicia — accompanied by her mother and future mother-in-law — headed to Montana, a state that allows proxy weddings. The bride and groom would be more than 6,500 miles apart.
Alicia wore her gray "Proud to be An Army Fiancee" sweatshirt and jeans; the strapless satin dress with a beaded train she had bought at a bridal shop trunk show remained in her closet. Alicia wanted to be comfortable for the 5 1/2-hour ride to Glendive, Mont.; also she was pregnant.
"I, Seth, take thee ..."
When Julie Goehring, representing her son before a justice of the peace, solemnly recited the vows and then gave Alicia a peck on the cheek, the bride giggled. Her mother's stern look reminded her this was serious stuff, no matter how surreal.
Someday, she thought, this would be a great story for the children.
Alicia, like many others, joined a support group while her husband was away. The spouses got together to swap stories and lean on each other.
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 bedstand 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.
These things happen
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.
Gone in a flash
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 ...