The soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division are ready for another long tour in Iraq, nearly a year and a half after a tumultuous march to Baghdad left them tested and toughened. They lost 46 soldiers the first time, and more than 250 were wounded. For some, their deep battle scars have not yet healed.
Among them, Chaplain Stephen Hommel, who enjoyed Christmas with his family while his desert past colored his near future.
"When I found out we were definitely going back, [I] had some bad dreams, nightmares," he says.
Bill Scates was a machine-gunner then — a rookie grunt. He’s now been promoted to sergeant and is preparing to lead other men into enemy fire.
"Sometimes your mind will still be over there," says Scates. "I've got to make sure they've got what they need, and they know what they need to know, to come out of that fight."
The 3rd ID had a hard first tour in Iraq, with no episodes harder to process than a sudden ambush just outside Baghdad that left them with casualties and their first horrific memories. They called it "Objective Curly."
"It's something that just stays with you," says Scates. "Kind of a movie theater inside your brain. And it just plays over and over."
There was also the accidental killing of a civilian family who'd run a Baghdad checkpoint, with only the mother surviving.
In a counseling session weeks after the incident, Scates admitted he was on the edge of exploding.
"[I was] pissed off. So frustrated I just wanted to choke somebody out constantly," he says.
But the counseling sessions helped. Scates says now his flashbacks and nightmares are manageable. And his proximity to war's life and death equations put everything else in perspective. His once-broken marriage is now repaired. His mission, this time, is crystal clear.
"You've got soldiers that depend on you, and you need to be there to take care of them," says Scates.
The 3rd ID will be leaving Fort Stewart sometime in January and will arrive in a country that's different in many ways, but the same in its guarantee that every individual soldier's will and emotional strength will be tested.
Chaplain Hommel says that in an even more lethally explosive environment the division's experience is a great advantage.
"Fifty percent of our guys have been through it before," he says. "And that's invaluable."
Sgt. Bill Scates, who's been through it, agrees.
"I’m good to go," he says. "I’m ready to go back. You know, this is my job. It's what I do."
It’s what he will do, starting any day now, for at least another year.