LINDSTROM, MINN.For Mickelle Pohlman, the closest she can get to her husband these days is the fish-eye lens of a Skype image from a computer half a world away, and the life-size cutout picture of him leaning against a wall of their dining room.
In his dusty room at an Army base in Kuwait, the best that Staff Sgt. Alex Pohlman can do to make sure his year-old daughter, Jayden, remembers him is to make faces and funny noises at her on the Internet.
After months of preparation and anticipation, the reality has sunk in, and Mickelle has become more open about her fears for her husband, now in a desert war zone.
"You know that he's no longer in that safe perimeter of the United States -- that he's out there and you just don't know where he is," she said.
Most of the military -- and the nation -- is putting nine years of warfare in Iraq behind. The Pentagon expected 30,000 U.S. troops to be pulled out of Iraq by the end of September, with all U.S. troops leaving the country by year's end.
But Pohlman and other members of the Minnesota National Guard have headed in the opposite direction: Their mission is the last Iraq mission, a yearlong deployment leading convoys of soldiers and beat-up equipment out of the country and into Kuwait. It is a return to war for many of the 2,400 members of the 1st Brigade Combat Team. In 2007, they were part of a 22-month deployment during the height of President George W. Bush's "surge" and became the unit that served the longest continuous deployment of any in the military during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Now they have returned to turn the lights out. "There's a certain amount of pride in being able to finish the job right," said Lt. Col. Charles Kemper, commander of 2-135 Infantry, one of the units in Kuwait.
But for families like the Pohlmans, the timing has exacerbated the toll on their home life. In Lindstrom, where the Pohlmans recently purchased a home, Mickelle, 28, is wrestling with handling full-time work as a special-ed teacher, two daughters, and a third child due in November.
New neighbors noticed Alex in his military uniform one day and stopped to talk. Mickelle's co-workers offered cellphone numbers and pledges to help when they heard he would be going overseas.
But in the months since her husband has become one of those few to be sent back to the desert -- not for combat, but still in danger -- Mickelle has been reluctant to ask for help.
"We run the risk as a nation of ignoring this deployment," said Abigail Gewirtz, a child psychologist and an associate professor in the University of Minnesota's Department of Family Social Science, who is studying the impact on families of deployed Guard members.
Volunteering for duty
Alex's six-year contract with the Guard would have been up in March. But military bureaucracy having cost him the chance at an earlier deployment with his unit to Kosovo, he still felt the need to serve overseas, so he volunteered. Mickelle was initially angry, but her anger faded with time.
"It makes it easier to know that my wife and kids are behind me," Alex said one Sunday in April. "Even if it's something small like this. It's not like we're breaking down doors or anything. That kind of stuff is behind, for the most part."
Until he left, he was a security guard at an Inver Grove Heights company, working the 4-to-midnight shift, commuting 80 miles round-trip and going to school.
The run-up to his departure was protracted. For more than a year, the unit knew the deployment was coming. Much of their monthly training was focused on the mission.
As the May date to leave for training in Wisconsin neared, goodbye parties began in earnest. Alex's extended family threw a party for him in Mankato, where he grew up. The cake featured a helmeted Alex emerging from the weeds, and cupcakes were emblazoned with the symbol of the First Brigade, the silhouette of a red bull.
The day before leaving for Wisconsin, Alex's unit, Company B, 1-194 Combined Arms Battalion, was feted with food donated by Outback Steakhouse and a rose for each departing soldier.
The family went to a movie afterward and Alex tucked the kids in bed at home for one of the last times. The time together was getting more precious, but Alex was itchy to get started.
"It's like we keep pulling the Band-Aid off," he said.
Weeks later, Alex was at Fort McCoy and, in military parlance, squared away. At 25, he still has a boyish face, made more obvious by his best attempt to grow a mustache. But in full combat gear, helmet and ballistic sunglasses, he cuts an authoritative figure in front of his squad.
"You obviously lose stuff, but as soon as you get back into this training it comes right back into your head," he said.
Over lunch, he admitted he was worried about his wife. "She needs someone to talk to about being busy and stressed out," he said. "If you look for it, there are things to help, or -- unlike my wife -- actually ask for help. It would be easier. She's just stubborn."
The family met in the Wisconsin Dells in late July, the day before Alex was to leave for Kuwait. Mickelle took pictures of Alex with the baby in the pool and of Dylan, 8, wrapped in a terrycloth robe at a spa. As their time grew short, Mickelle cried while she packed their bags. Alex apologized several times for what he was about to put his family through.
Fears and stomachaches
After Alex's departure, Mickelle and the girls adopted an impressive resolve about getting through, but reality quickly set in. Mickelle was locked out of their bank account. Simple things became more difficult. Lugging baby Jayden and a lawn chair to Dylan's soccer games became more of a chore, especially as the pregnancy wore on.
Mickelle took solace in a sermon delivered at their church that seemed directed at their family. "It was just about how you have something you have no control over and you just need to pray and help will be there," she said. "I need to do that more."
Alex's departure took a quick toll on Dylan, a third-grader whose eyes show a wisdom beyond her years.
She was initially strong, telling her mother the day Alex left, "Mom, it's going to be OK. I'll be the strong one today."
But then the stomachaches started, and she's had trouble sleeping.
As they have been advised through literature Mickelle accumulated, Dylan and Mickelle keep two jars of M&Ms in the kitchen and Dylan gets to eat one every day he is away, watching the level of candy get lower and lower.
With school, though, a whole new routine started -- and a whole set of new issues.
Mickelle's day begins at 5:30, conducting her own personal convoy around Lindstrom -- to day care, school, then work. Shortly after 3, the routine is reversed. Jayden is usually asleep by 6 and Dylan by 9, giving Mickelle about an hour to herself each night.
Dylan admitted they have been too busy to remember to eat the M&Ms. At school one day, Dylan found herself crying. A classmate went to the teacher, but Dylan angrily shooed everyone away.
"I wanted to get through it myself," she said later. "My two friends were crying, too. They felt bad. It just got to be a mess."
The crockpot is getting more attention and the floors of the living room less. Jayden's first birthday was last Saturday.
In quieter moments, Mickelle admits she has been feeling the effects of the isolation. She went to a wedding of a couple she met through the Guard.
"It was like we were all best friends," she said. "All of a sudden you are talking to all these wives who have been through it, and they know. I come back here and, 'Oh, yeah, these people don't understand what it's like.'"
Almost three months into his deployment, Alex has developed a routine, running one- or two-day missions from Kuwait into Iraq. Longer missions are planned that will take him into Iraq for a week or more, limiting his nearly daily e-mail or Skype calls home. There have been no injuries, but a number of explosives have been found and cleared in the area where his unit has traveled.
He plans to return in November for the birth of the baby, another girl.
Sometimes, he and his wife say nothing during a Skype call, just looking at each other's face.
On a recent evening, the talk was lighthearted. Alex made faces at Jayden and commented on the green vampire teeth Dylan had been wearing since she got home from school. Alex gave a harrowing account of an encounter with an overly touchy Kuwaiti barber.
After 22 minutes the couple bid each other adieu in an understated way.
"I kinda like ya," Mickelle joked to Alex.
"Yeah, you're all right," he said.
Mickelle logged off and the screen went black.
Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434