In a telephone news conference from a base in southern Iraq where the Minnesota brigade is headquartered, its commander, Col. David Elicerio, acknowledged brigade members were not happy when the extension news came down in January. But he said morale has bounced back and he does not think the brigade will be subjected to another extension. Elicerio said they'll be home, on schedule, this summer.
"Right now we're operating on a horizon that the brigade will be out of theatre by 1 August 2007," Elicerio said. "So I can say that date out loud. We have not officially received the date that we will depart theatre yet, but it is and will be just before that 1 August time frame. I'm confident of that."
Elicerio talked about his soldiers' accomplishments since arriving in Iraq more than a year ago. He said they've discovered hundreds of undetonated bombs, engaged in joint patrols with Iraqi troops, and worked on millions of dollars in civic improvement projects such as road and water treatment plant construction.
Elicerio told reporters his soldiers, the Red Bulls as they're called, have run 4,500 convoy escort missions over more than two million miles, including a regular, high-profile route.
"Every night starting in the south of Iraq we line up 200 about semi-trucks and push those things north. We've done that for 14 months straight," said Elicerio. "But that truly is the one thing that keeps this war operating is the fact that the Red Bulls continuously deliver 200 trucks of needed supplies every night across the most dangerous roads in the world." While the countdown for returning home is on again, even military leaders acknowledge, until the orders to leave come down, soldiers on the ground will take the redeployment date with a grain of salt.
"I don't think we're really confident about anything anymore," said 24-year-old Cory Schmidt in a recent telephone interview with Minnesota Public Radio from Iraq.
Schmidt, a medic from Apple Valley is at a base called Camp TQ located about 45 miles west of Baghdad. It's been Schmidt's home since he deployed to Iraq in the spring of 2006. His job is to move patients from Camp TQ's two entry points, to its medical facilities. When he's not working, Schmidt tries to spend time on correspondence courses toward degrees in English Literature and Economics from the University of Minnesota.
"I've had good days and bad, " Schmidt said. "I've enjoyed my off time and I think I have utilized it well. Good days are when I am productive in my homework and the bad days would be I miss my family a lot."
Schmidt says he spends a lot of time on the telephone trying to assure loved ones back home that he feels safe even though he's in the middle of Iraq. It's challenging argument to make.
Cory's girlfriend, Heather Holldorf, says she cries daily and constantly finds herself searching for news about the fighting in Iraq whenever she and Cory are out-of-touch -- even if it's just for a day or two.
"We came up with this thing called the marathon and we came up with this analogy saying, 'it's like a marathon,'" Holldorf explained. "You have so many miles and you have milestones that you get to and that's how we have been able to kind of stay sane and be connected."
But the unexpected news of the Minnesota brigade's extension in January forced Heather, Cory and many others to push back the finish line of their marathon. Digging deeper to summon the emotional strength has been difficult.
"You have to find more energy, you have to find ways to keep going and keep that strength and that's been difficult because there's not a lot of strength left," Holldorf said. "I am mean the consensus is we're exhausted and they're exhausted and, how do we keep that strength."
Heather said she's heard, for many soldiers, the real war begins when they return home and try to get back to normal life.
When Cory Schmidt and the others do come back, they'll take part in a new reintegration program intended to make the transition from military to civilian life as smooth as possible.
Guard Chaplin Maj. John Morris has been developing the program called, Beyond the Yellow Ribbon. Morris says the extension has given him and others more time to help further prepare local governments, social service organizations and military families for the homecoming.
"I've been all over the state of Minnesota, almost every county now, well over 100 communities. And (there are) over 10,000 Minnesotans that we're trained and we have dozens more events before our brigade gets home," Morris said.
But Morris also says more time away from home under the extension will invariably increase problems for some soldiers.
"It will make the reunions that much more dramatic which can be difficult because then you have unrealistic expectations. 'Hey, I'm finally home, it's all over, everything's going to be good.' Well, you come home you're going to start another chapter of very difficult work," says Morris.
Brigade Commander Col. David Elicerio says when it's time to bring his soldiers home, they'll leave Iraq over several days. After stopping off in Kuwait they'll end up at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin for about a week's worth of demobilization before being released.