OCONOMOWOC, Wis. — The soldiers had already started sending home their DVD players, decks of cards and extra deodorant. The National Guard had organized a party so kids could paint welcome-home banners.
The mood here in southeastern Wisconsin was almost festive: After an endless year in Iraq, the 157 soldiers of the 32nd Military Police Company were coming home.
But last Friday, phones began ringing in the homes of the soldiers' spouses, parents and siblings. Spc. Michelle Witmer, one of their own, had been killed when her Humvee came under fire on a routine patrol through Baghdad. Shaken, the families of the 32nd reminded one another that the rest of the troops were already packing.
Then the phones rang again.
On Easter Sunday, the soldiers of the 32nd had learned that they would not be coming home next month as planned.
The Pentagon had promised American forces in Iraq that they would spend no more than 365 days in hostile territory. But this week, officials said they would order more than 10,000 troops to stay on beyond their yearlong tour. The 32nd was one of the first to get that order.
"We were so close to getting them home intact. Then to rip our hopes away like that.... We were devastated," said Krista Sorenson of Waterloo, Wis.
Her husband, Sgt. Denis Sorenson, had planned to be home by May 10 for their daughter's eighth birthday. He had missed her seventh.
"I have felt and thought of every terrible emotion you can think of," the sergeant wrote his wife, hours after learning that he would not make it home for Justine's birthday. "We were so close. I never saw this coming."
News of the 120-day extension angered families already strained with grief over Witmer's death.
Many of the soldiers' relatives felt they knew the long-haired 20-year-old from New Berlin. She and her older sister, Rachel, both served in the 32nd. Her identical twin, Charity, was also in Iraq, with a medical battalion. The soldier-sisters, who joined the Guard to help pay for college, had been featured several times on local TV and in the papers.
Their parents even posted the girls' letters online: Michelle's description of the filthy Iraqi police station where she worked the night shift; photos of the disabled children she cuddled at a Baghdad orphanage; her request for a care package of lemonade mix, flip-flops and "anything that is frivolous ... [to make me] feel like a girl again."
"We'd gotten to know the sisters through all the coverage of the family. We were grieving," said Janet Gatlin, who lives in this lakeside town midway between Milwaukee and Madison. "Then to get the news of the extension. It was like, 'This can't be happening.' We're living a nightmare."
Her husband, 2nd Lt. Anthony Gatlin, broke down when he told his wife that she would be alone for another summer.
Several officers from the 32nd had been boarding a plane for Kuwait to plan the unit's demobilization when the extension order arrived, Gatlin told her in a phone call. The officers were pulled off the plane. They were told not only that they'd be staying in Iraq, but that they'd also be redeployed south of Baghdad.
It had taken months for the soldiers to turn a bombed-out palace into a comfortable base. Using their civilian skills in plumbing, construction and engineering, they had restored electricity and water. They even set up a microwave, in which they tried -- not very successfully -- to make pizza. Now they face moving, most likely to a tent camp, without air conditioning or e-mail access.
"That's the first time," Janet Gatlin said, "that my husband has ever cried to me on the phone."
When the 32nd was activated on March 15, 2003, their orders called for a year of active duty.
But last summer, the Pentagon set out a new policy: A year of active duty meant a year of "boots on the ground" in hostile territory. The two months the 32nd had spent mobilizing, training and deploying to Iraq did not count. Anxious relatives back home circled a new date on their calendars: May 9. That would mark precisely one year since the 32nd had touched down in the Middle East.
The boots-on-the-ground policy had been designed to boost troop morale by setting a fixed date for homecomings. For the men and women of the 32nd, it seemed to work. As their one-year deadline approached this spring, the soldiers excitedly told their families to stop sending mail. They'd soon be back to hear all the news in person.
"The concentration of the unit has shifted to packing up," one soldier noted in a dispatch for a family newsletter.
"As we start to count down the days, the excitement can be heard in voices behind tired and tested eyes," another wrote.