BAXTER, MINN. - Some guys mark Xs on calendars. But next to 1st Lt. John Loscheider's bunk at his base in Afghanistan, there's a daily calendar with British motivational quotes, including "Keep calm and carry on," a 1939 morale-booster.
For 10 months, he's been watching the calendar and waiting for his two-week leave while most of the members of his infantry company jetted off to exotic locales for rest and relaxation. Loscheider savored each day that his calendar shrunk, waiting until he could return to Minnesota and hug his fiancée, Katie Perpich, for the first time in 10 months.
"There's more pleasure when you can actually rip something off physically every day," said Loscheider, 25, who has been looking forward to this battlefield reprieve for a rather special reason.
He's home on leave to get married Saturday in Little Falls. He flew back with his big brother, National Guard Sgt. Joe Loscheider, who took his own two-week break as an engineer on Chinook helicopters flying nightly missions out of Taji, Iraq, to serve as best man.
The brothers met in Kuwait last week, spent a night together in a tent and made the 6,784-mile trek home.
They shared chocolate at a layover in Germany, had dinner at the Atlanta airport, then pinched themselves at the absolute green of the grass at the Eagle's Landing Golf Club, where they stopped to inhale deeply during John's stag party north of Little Falls.
"Everything is so different it's hard to even comprehend," John said in an interview at Perpich's family home in Baxter. "It's awesome and weird because there isn't a single piece of greenery in Kandahar Province."
After a tender and somewhat comical airport reunion (more on that later), John and Katie headed to the spot of their first date five years ago: Charlie's Pizza in Little Falls. He was in his second year at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. She was studying to become a physician's assistant in Duluth. Her roommate at St. Scholastica knew John from Little Falls.
He proposed two winters ago, concocting a story about a lost suitcase he had to pick up at the Brainerd airport. That's where he took to a knee, popped the question and chartered a small plane to fly them over the area at sunset before champagne at the airport.
Since then, he's spent much of his time at an Army base in Germany and 10 months in Kandahar, where he's the company commander's top aide.
"It's a small camp, very confined," he said. "You can't go outside unless you're wearing full gear with your weapon and an armored vehicle. No choices. No freedom. Uniforms 24-7. You can't go to McDonald's when you feel like it."
Since he returned last week, John has been sniffing the Minnesota air and smiling.
"The first thing he said when we got to his parents' house in Little Falls was how different it smelled," Perpich said.
The brothers, who share short red hair, nodded.
"In Iraq, they burn all kinds of stuff," Joe said. "You're always smelling foul air. Here, it's just sweet."
They hung their uniforms in the closet right after returning home. They'll wear tuxedos instead of fatigues at the 2 p.m. wedding at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Little Falls.
"The last thing I want to do is put on a military uniform when I'm home for two weeks," John said. "In Afghanistan, two weeks go by pretty slowly; two weeks here just seem to be whipping past me."
Both brothers are 80 percent through their first deployments in war zones. A week after the wedding, they both will return for a couple more months. The mentally jolting whirlwind of battlefield to late-summer Minnesota and back again is hard to imagine.
"I'm not even thinking about it at this point," John said.
When his stint ends, Perpich will be waiting at his apartment in Haupersweiler, Germany, to begin their married life. He is halfway through his five-year commitment to the Army, which might mean a redeployment. No honeymoon at this juncture. "I don't want to take him away from his family for the short time he's home," Perpich said.
As happy as this leave has been, it's been tinged with bittersweet emotion. John majored in Russian at West Point and spent a semester aboard in Russia with a fellow cadet named Tim Steele from Duxbury, Mass. Steele was killed late last month in Kandahar when an improvised explosive device erupted. His funeral at West Point was the same day as the Loscheider brothers' joyful return to Minnesota.
"John has had a lot more heartache in Afghanistan than I've seen in Iraq, where it's far more relaxed," Joe said.
Their parents where waiting in the baggage claim area at the airport when the brothers returned. Katie was pacing. Her legs were shaking. Finally, they saw combat boots coming down the escalator.
It was Joe. No sign of John. They waited 15 more minutes.
"Communications broke down," John explained later.
He had to get a bag from the back of the plane. Joe headed to the bathroom. After traveling 7,000 miles together, they lost each other at the airport.
"I checked seven bathrooms, looking for Joe," his brother said. "I was about to go stall to stall, kicking in doors."
Instead, he called Katie's cellphone from a pay phone. He easily recalled her number. He'd been calling it nearly every day. She explained that Joe was waiting with them.
Then he appeared, only to be smothered in Katie's long, feet-in-the-air embrace.
Curt Brown • 612-673-4767