Over his holiday leave, Army 1st Sgt. Lewis Walls will put a ring on his new bride's finger, hold their baby boy one last time, and then report back to deploy to Iraq.
Even as signs point toward the winding down of U.S. involvement in the Iraq war, there's been no slowing in the deployment schedule for Walls and more than 4,000 other members of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard.
They'll be assuming their positions in Iraq about the time that President-elect Barack Obama takes the oath of office on Jan. 20. Later, if things go according to plan under a newly ratified U.S.-Iraqi security agreement, they will be among the troops moving out of Iraq's urban areas by June 30 - a major step toward withdrawing U.S. troops from the country by 2012.
"Every deployment is different and you can prepare for different things and try to situate them the best you can, but you never go into it looking too far forward," Walls, 38, of Browns Mills, N.J., said in an interview at Fort Dix, where the soldiers were packing equipment and firing their final rounds at a shooting range.
Walls, an Iraq war veteran who also served in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and in Somalia, planned to marry his fiance, a fellow soldier, over the holidays. Combined, the two have five children they will leave behind with grandparents when they deploy.
The deploying troops make up the largest contingent from the Pennsylvania Guard to deploy to a combat zone since World War II. They are from the Guard's 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, the Army's only Guard unit to have the high-tech Stryker vehicles.
The estimated 40 percent of the soldiers who have already served in Iraq and Afghanistan have been told the situation in Iraq is different and the emphasis on the upcoming deployment will be less on combat, and more on supporting the Iraqis as they take the lead to get basic government services running, said Col. Marc Ferraro, 44, of Cherry Hill, the brigade commander.
There's "a big difference in the mind-set in what you would've done in '06 or '07 compared to what you do now," Ferraro said. "Keeping in mind, though, that at the drop of a dime, that could always change."
Staff Sgt. Aaron Leisenring, 30, a member of the Guard from West Chester, Pa., who deployed to Afghanistan in 2002 with an active Army unit, said he's noticed the emphasis more now on the culture and language in Iraq.
Sgt. Charles Fassano, 23, a union steamfitter from Philadelphia who already did one deployment to Iraq, said even though he's been told Iraq has stabilized, it's difficult to comprehend.
"I think that's something I'm going to have to see and find out for myself," Fassano said.
Pfc. Steven Hartnett, 34, a truck driver in Philadelphia who recently joined the military, said he'll do whatever the president asks.
Staff Sgt. Patrick Hamill, 29, a state trooper in Philadelphia, said he volunteered to go back a third time.
"I was there for the beginning. I might as well finish it out," Hamill said.
Before the deployment, the soldiers receive a 10-day holiday break to say goodbye to their families.
Hartnett, the truck driver, said he would marry his fiance in a banquet hall with about 90 people.
Cpl. Dave Bulman, 32, a paramedic from Philadelphia, made videos of himself reading so his baby daughter would remember his voice and he plans to spend his holidays holding her.