March 14, 2005 — -- Army Lt. Col. Gary Volesky of the 1st Cavalry Division's 5th Battalion returned from Iraq this weekend to his wife and son in Fort Hood, Texas. It was a homecoming the family was not sure would ever happen.
It is no wonder, since Volesky's battalion -- the Army's premier heavy-armored division -- was involved in some of the fiercest fighting in Iraq.
"We thought it was going to be a rebuilding, reconstruction mission for our guys," said his wife, LeAnn. "And it was nothing like that."
Four days after the battalion arrived in Iraq -- and just 15 minutes after Volesky took command in Sadr City, a Baghdad slum that became an insurgent stronghold -- the region erupted in violence.
"You know, my boys got here the 31st of March ," Volesky said. "We were fighting, starting on April 4  for 80 straight days."
On the first night of fighting alone, eight of his soldiers were killed and more than 50 were wounded.
"I remember taking care of those patients and evacuating them -- standing in the middle of that aid station -- thinking, 'I can't believe this is happening,' " said battalion surgeon Capt. David Mathias.
Back home, the soldiers' families found it difficult to comprehend as well.
"Your legs just kind of go weak," said Gina Denomy, who had a baby boy just three days before her husband, Troy, a company commander, left for Iraq. "I mean it's just an unbelievable feeling of fear, not knowing who's hurt, who's no longer with us."
"You try to think, 'What am I going to tell my wife?' " said her husband. "That was the first time I called her, and she was crying a little bit."
Denomy was wounded, but he quickly returned to duty.
The brigade had many losses and many heroes. Sgt. Robert Miltenberger was awarded the Silver Star for bravery and for the lives he saved while under intense fire. But Miltenberger's memories still trouble him.
"I think they are haunting," he said. "Real haunting. It's like I just replay the thing in my head."