On a recent Saturday afternoon, in a home not far from Rejoice Way, a neighborhood celebrated the return of Spc. Justin McClure and other soldiers from his Fort Lewis-based combat brigade.
Donna Lowery, McClure's neighbor and a retired sergeant major, organized the party as a thank-you for the soldiers' service during 15 months in Iraq.
Inside, friends chatted and laughed. Outside, as smoke rose from ribs cooking on the grill and everyone's cigarettes, the soldiers reflected on their time in Iraq and their plans now that they're home.McClure, 26, Sgt. Joey Cambre, 27,
Their unit, the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division (Stryker Brigade Combat Team), also will undergo some major adjustments. Its commander, Col. Stephen Townsend, and its top non-commissioned officer, Command Sgt. Maj. Jeffrey Du, will be replaced next month. Almost all of its battalion commanders will leave the brigade.
New leaders will guide the brigade toward an uncertain future, which includes the possibility of a third deployment to Iraq.
But that's far from the present. On this Saturday afternoon, the companionship offered at the party provides another deep breath for these soldiers after more than a year of combat, stress and separation.
Asked about his immediate plans, Cambre, assigned to the brigade's headquarters company, half-jokingly replies, "Drink as much as possible. Try to stay away from anyone who wants to talk about work."
During the deployment, he was the gunner on the Stryker armored vehicle that carried Lt. Col. Fred Johnson, the brigade's deputy commander. Every morning, he'd chart primary and back-up routes for the three-vehicle convoy so Johnson could reach his various appointments. He provided security when they reached destinations outside forward operating bases. He worked 10- to 12-hour days, often sweltering in 120-degree heat while wearing 60 pounds of gear.
He says that he became a "sniper magnet," noting that on a half-dozen occasions, a bullet missed him by no more than a foot.
"It seems like everywhere I went, a sniper was shooting at me."
He expresses frustration at the more dangerous turn Iraq has taken since his first deployment, when he was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division based at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Insurgents are using more lethal improvised explosive devices, including those buried deep underground to target the underbelly of armored vehicles. The U.S. military is spending more money than ever on fighting sophisticated groups.
"They're smart," he said of the groups. "They're not dumb."
"We've been over there for five years now, and you would think we would have it figured out," he added.
But Cambre hasn't allowed his concerns to prevent him from re-enlisting.
"I love my job," he said. "I don't know how to do anything else. The frustration will go away."
His tone softened when he talked about his pending marriage Dec. 1 to his high school sweetheart in Shreveport, in their home state of Louisiana.
Meanwhile, Justin and Megan McClure have spent almost half of their nearly three years of marriage apart. They married after he returned from his first deployment with the brigade and moved into a home off Boulevard Road. Their son was just a few months old when McClure deployed for a second time.
He served with a sniper team assigned to the brigade's headquarters company. He agreed with Cambre that things were harder for the brigade this time. But he also has re-enlisted for six years.
"Last time, they were scared of us," McClure said. "This time, they knew our tactics. They had three to four years to get to know us."
McClure returned home Sept. 22, but still struggles with the after-effects of the long deployment. He said he sometimes feels lonely and scared.
His home stands under the flight path of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and the jet engines remind him of rockets.
His son is adjusting to life with a father, with some initial difficulties.
"I got frustrated," McClure said. "He didn't come to me. He went to Mom."
It took more than a week for Jack to call him "Daddy," when he was trying to get his father's attention while McClure was shopping for shoes. The next day father and son played for four hours.
While the couple kept in close contact throughout the deployment, Megan McClure said she became self-sufficient.
"Poor thing," she said, lovingly teasing her husband. "He came home, and I learned to say 'no.' "
She looks forward to a Valentine's Day together, a luxury they've never been able to enjoy as a military family.
In the garage, Scottie Marin, an infantryman assigned to 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, sips a beer and looks after Jack McClure as he plays nearby. McClure was his first squad leader before he transferred.
Before he deployed, Marin thought he would be shot at daily. The bigger challenge, he learned, is winning the trust of the Iraqi people. It starts with the kids, he added. Kindness shown to children will win over the parents, sooner or later.
Marin said he made many friends and shared unforgettable experiences with them. But his deployment was not devoid of heartache.
On leave, when he planned to propose to his girlfriend, she announced the relationship was over.
Then on Aug. 6, near the end of the deployment, things got worse.
Insurgents detonated a home rigged with explosives, killing four soldiers. Among the dead was Cpl. Kareem Khan, whom Marin said was his roommate and was like "a little brother."
Khan arrived two months before the brigade deployed, and Marin said he took the young soldier under his wing. Khan was interested in becoming a doctor.
"I just wanted to watch over him as much as I could," Marin said.
The grief returns from time to time, but Marin has found a way to deal with it.
"I know they would want me to get on with my life," he said. "Just like I'd want them to get on with their lives if it had happened to me."
Marin is scheduled to leave the Army in December, and said it's not a moment too soon.
"I have a problem with authority," he admitted. "I've held my tongue for so long, and I'm tired of it."
Back on the patio, McClure is asked of his feelings about a third deployment.
He replied that he and his wife have discussed it in vague ways, and that the prospect does linger in the back of his mind.
"It's hard," he said. "I don't want to go again. But you got to do what you got to do these days."
Christian Hill covers the city of Lacey and military for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-754-5427 or firstname.lastname@example.org.