- Amanda DeGeneres is a war veteran; Sarah Wombold is new to the military life
- Their husbands are among the last soldiers deployed to Iraq, assigned to close U.S. bases
- Amanda must parent her child alone; Sarah will give birth while her husband is in Iraq
Pfc. Josh Wombold manned the gun in the turret of a hulking armored vehicle, scanning the road and its surroundings. He was looking for anyone or anything that might pose a threat to the convoy.
This was, at last, the road out of Iraq -- the final and perhaps most dangerous stretch for soldiers of the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, as they made their way through the southern Shiite heartland to Kuwait.
In a few short hours, the war would be over for these soldiers.
In another vehicle, Sgt. 1st Class Daniel DeGeneres listened to the radio traffic from Josh. He wasn't worried about the lanky 20-year-old from West Milton, Ohio. He was a tough soldier, with a good head on his shoulders, who had served as a gunner from Mosul to Kirkuk to Baghdad to Nasariyah.
But Josh had gotten news just a few hours earlier, during their last refueling stop, that his young wife was in labor with their first child. Daniel felt for him; he knew what it was like to miss family milestones. This was his fifth deployment to Iraq. He'd been gone for birthdays, anniversaries and, toughest of all, a pregnancy that ended in tragedy for him and his wife.
Josh didn't have a chance to learn how his wife was doing back in Texas. The convoy had to push south.
The new bonds of war
The bonds of war in Iraq were not cemented in one long, extended deployment but rather through multiple rounds of duty that required soldiers to leave their families repeatedly for 12 and 15 months at a time.
Soldiers seasoned by the Iraq war -- with two, three, four and five deployments -- taught hard-learned lessons to the next generation who earned their military mettle in places like Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk.
Daniel spent more time in Iraq than any American soldier spent fighting in Europe or Japan during World War II; he surpassed the time put in by soldiers in Korea and by most in Vietnam.
His experience proved to be a comfort to less experienced soldiers, who themselves would be seasoned warriors by the time they left Iraq.
It was a new bond in a new type of war.
On the home front, similar bonds formed between spouses left behind. The Iraq war saw the creation of new Army-isms, such as "geographically single parent," to describe a husband or wife who raised a child while their spouse was away.
A military home front organization was also expanded; Family Readiness Groups helped smooth communication with families during long and frequent deployments.
The spouses of officers and noncommissioned officers were called on to lead those groups because of their experience. A seasoned military spouse could be a rookie's best friend.
On the surface, Sarah Wombold and Amanda DeGeneres appeared the unlikeliest of friends.
Sarah was a newlywed when she arrived at Fort Bliss with her husband in late 2010. Soon, the 21-year-old learned she was pregnant.
Amanda DeGeneres, 26, had arrived at the sprawling Army installation in El Paso, Texas, the same year. She and her husband, who was from Mesa, Arizona, met while in the Army. They have been married almost four years.
Sarah was wide-eyed about military life (neither she nor her husband grew up in military families). Amanda knew the Army inside and out.
She'd enlisted after a year in college in Bryan, Ohio, as a way to pay for her nursing degree. She had served in Iraq herself, and now she was heading up the Family Readiness Group for her husband's squad at Fort Bliss -- and becoming Sarah's friend and guide.
As different as they seemed, the two women had something in common. Their husbands were part of the last brigade being deployed to Iraq. The assignment: To turn out the lights at U.S. bases before the deadline to withdraw troops.
The women had something else in common, too: Children.
Amanda gave birth a year earlier to a boy named Traber. This would be the first time she'd parent him alone for an extended period of time. Sarah was preparing for her first child. She and Josh hoped for a boy.
'We are waiting for him'
During a hot July morning at Fort Bliss, days before the brigade was set to leave for Iraq, Josh and Sarah spiffed up a room in their home for a nursery.
Sarah was six months pregnant, and the baby bump on her slight frame was already protruding. Her due date: October 26 -- while her husband was scheduled to be in Iraq.
During the eight-year-long war with repeated deployments, the military had begun trying to unite families for the birth of a child -- especially a first child -- either in person or by video conferencing or a long-distance telephone call.
But with this deployment, nothing was guaranteed.
From the beginning, there were questions about how long the brigade would be gone. The White House had been pressing Iraq's government for months to say whether it would ask to extend the January 1, 2012, deadline for American troops to withdraw.
As a result, there were also questions about whether troops would be given leave -- usually two weeks during 12-month deployments.
Access to the Internet or telephone was to become rare as bases closed. One commander told soldiers and their spouses to "buy stamps."
Sarah set her mind on staying at their one-story, red-brick house on base. That meant enduring the final months of her pregnancy without the support of her husband or her family and friends in Fredericktown, Ohio.
"I'm going to stay right here. I'm not leaving until Josh comes home," she said.
Her reason was simple.
"I want him to know that we are waiting for him."
War parallels life
Amanda and Daniel DeGeneres spent their final days together capturing memories: Taking family portraits, going to a water park, getting their son baptized.
They had been through this before, together. And alone.
In many ways, the Iraq war paralleled their lives together.
Daniel had rolled across the Iraq-Kuwait border with the tip of the U.S. military's invading force, fighting his way to Baghdad. It was an uncertain time for the soldier personally. His marriage to his first wife was on rocky ground, and he missed milestones in the development of his then 2-year-old daughter, Keara.
By the time he deployed to Iraq a second time in 2005, the tone and tempo of the war -- and his life -- had changed. His marriage was over; sectarian fighting was ripping Iraq apart.
In Baghdad's fierce Rustamiyah district, where Sunnis and Shiites battled each other and the Americans, Daniel's platoon leader was mortally wounded after being struck by a rocket-propelled grenade.
The death of Army Sgt. 1st Class Lonnie J. Parson stayed with Daniel. He hoped to be the kind of leader Parson was one day.
He began wearing a black, metallic bracelet etched with Parson's name, rank and date of death.
Not long after Daniel returned from Rustamiyah to Fort Stewart, Georgia, he met Amanda, an attractive, smart, outgoing woman. A fellow soldier introduced them; he thought they would make a good match.
There was an age difference -- he was 12 years her senior. And he wasn't looking to jump back into a long-term relationship. But there was something different about Amanda.
He thought she seemed older than her years, seasoned by a broken home and time in the military.
Three times he asked her out. Three times she stood him up. Then she called him.
'An unexpected gift'
By the time Daniel and Amanda deployed together to Iraq in 2007, they were married.
"That was our honeymoon-- Iraq," Amanda said.
She was sent to Camp Taji, a large Saddam-era airfield just north of Baghdad. Daniel was a scout whose job took him to smaller outposts.
Once in awhile, when Daniel's unit went to Taji to resupply, they got to see each other. As a married couple, under a U.S. Army policy introduced in 2006 as a way to retain soldiers, they were allowed to live together when he was at the base.
A year into the 15-month deployment, Amanda learned she was pregnant. She returned to Fort Stewart. Daniel stayed in Iraq.
Within weeks, alone, she miscarried.
At the same time, Daniel's father developed a life-threatening blood infection after a triple heart bypass. The Army sent Daniel home for a brief visit with his wife and his father. Then it was back to Iraq.
Sitting at the computer monitor in early October this year, Amanda held 18-month-old Traber while she played a video of Daniel speaking to his son.
It was recorded in late July in the hours before Daniel was due to leave Fort Bliss for Kuwait, the first stop on the road back to Iraq.
Traber was born nearly two years after the miscarriage. "An unexpected gift," Amanda says now.
Despite his previous tours of duty, Daniel expected this deployment to be among his most difficult.
This time, he was charged with the care of young soldiers. This time, he was leaving behind his wife, his son and his daughter.
"It just seemed like there was more to lose," he said later.
In addition to heading the Family Readiness Group, Amanda - who had been out of the Army for nearly two years - volunteered to be part of the team that would notify family members if a soldier was killed.
These volunteer efforts gave her a sense of purpose. But Daniel worried: What would it do to Amanda to tell a soldier's loved one that he was never coming home?
Talking about 'what if'
While Daniel recorded his video for his son, Josh said goodbye to his pregnant wife. The couple had learned they were having a boy. They'd call him Trae Allan Wombold -- a name they'd picked out before they'd even begun dating.
Josh asked his father, if anything happened to him, to look after Sarah and the baby. The couple couldn't bring themselves to talk about "what if."
It was a tough conversation for anyone -- much less a young couple like the Wombolds who should be focusing on their future together.
But that discussion would come weeks later, when Josh was at the Contingency Operating Base Marez in Mosul, a place once considered the last stronghold of al Qaida in Iraq.
It began late one night, while they were instant messaging. Josh asked Sarah, if something happened to him would she allow their baby to call another man daddy?
"No," she wrote back. "He's your son."
The conversation disturbed her. Had something happened? Sarah scanned the news every day, looking for headlines about Iraq. Amanda encouraged her to stop; she knew they would not provide comfort.
There's a practice among military families separated by deployment to hotspots: Don't share the bad stuff. The reasoning: No one wants their spouse to be distracted in a dangerous place.
"Everything's fine," Sarah wrote Josh.
But truthfully, it wasn't. They had learned he would not be allowed to come home for the birth of their baby.
Neither one knew it at the time but talks about extending U.S. troops past the withdrawal deadline had broken down over the refusal by Iraqi political leaders to grant immunity from prosecution to American soldiers.
That meant troops were likely leaving Iraq well ahead of schedule. It also meant no leaves were being granted -- not even for the birth of a child.
Amanda comforted Sarah and assured her she'd be by her side during labor. She had taken on the role of supporting Sarah through the pregnancy. She attended doctor visits with her, listening to the young woman's questions to the doctor -- and answering others herself.
As a Family Readiness Group leader, Amanda was also lending an ear and support to other spouses. She squashed rumors that soldiers were being pulled from Iraq and sent to Afghanistan for the remainder of their tour.
Her answer: Don't believe anything unless it comes from the command.
Maybe it was the former soldier in Amanda. Or maybe it was being the wife of a soldier.
"They'll tell us when we need to know," she said.
When the command called a meeting of the battalion's family members in mid-October to "provide information about the deployment," it was her job to notify them with the date and time. The message she was told to relay: Stop mailing packages and letters.
At that meeting, families got the word: Their loved ones were coming home -- ahead of the deadline to withdraw from Iraq.
Sarah and Amanda, sitting side-by-side among hundreds of family members, smiled at the news. Josh still wouldn't be there for the baby's birth, but he'd be home soon.
For Daniel and Josh, the relationship was different. Daniel was "Sgt. D" -- Josh's superior.
Still, there was a kinship of sorts. Daniel was familiar with the emotions Josh was experiencing, trying to balance his duty with missing family milestones.
As their convoy moved south toward Kuwait, Josh found himself in the middle of two competing, life-altering moments. He was finishing up his first tour of duty at an historic moment -- the end of the war -- while a world away, his first child was about to be born.
During a refueling stop, Josh got online to say hello to his wife. Communication had been virtually non-existent as they moved south from northern Iraq.
"Hey, babe," he wrote.
Her response was a surprise. She told him she was at the hospital, and she was in labor.
Josh relayed the news to "Sgt. D," who congratulated him.
Then the convoy pushed south.
The soldiers crossed safely into Kuwait at the famed Khabari border checkpoint, one of the key routes during the 2003 ground invasion. They stopped a short distance later and offered one another their congratulations.
By the time they rolled into Camp Virginia, Josh had gotten word that his wife had given birth.
He also learned that baby Trae had been born with a respiratory complication and was being kept in the neonatal intensive care unit.
In the days that followed, Daniel kept an eye on Josh from a distance while the young soldier's comrades kept him busy.
Within weeks Josh was on a plane home, ahead of Daniel and the others.
"You would be crying," Josh teased his wife as he enveloped her and their baby in a hug at the El Paso airport.
Sarah handed over Trae, who had been a given a clean bill of health and released from the hospital.
"Hey, buddy," Josh said, studying baby Trae. He saw himself in his son. He saw his eyes, his chin.
Daniel arrived two weeks later, scooping his own son into his arms inside an aircraft hanger at Fort Bliss.
There, with his wife at his side, the war came to an end.