FORT STEWART, Ga. - While waiting to return to Iraq with his military intelligence unit, Staff Sgt. David Smith-Barry conducted a secret mission to make the most of Christmas.
Visiting his wife in The Woodlands, Texas, during two weeks of December leave, Smith-Barry would take her to work every morning and then go shopping - for tiles and cabinets, brick and paint colors, a lot and a builder.
"I bought her a house," said Smith-Barry, grinning at the thought of his gift for his wife, Amanda. "She doesn't know anything about it."
For the 19,000 soldiers of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, whose tanks and armored Bradley vehicles led the assault on Baghdad last year, being home for the holidays is a bittersweet prelude to a busy new year.
In January, the Fort Stewart-based troops will begin returning to Iraq for their second tour of duty. The 3rd Infantry will be the first Army division to go back since the March 2003 invasion.
"When the information finally came that we were going to deploy after Christmas, there was definitely a sigh of relief," said Smith-Barry, who will be among the first wave to leave. "It's definitely been a positive, good for morale."
The assignment comes as no surprise to the 3rd Infantry troops at Fort Stewart and Fort Benning. The soldiers began training for a second tour almost as soon as they returned home in late summer 2003. The Pentagon officially announced their return trip last March.
Now, 15 months after the troops' homecoming, yellow ribbons again hang along with Christmas lights on utility poles in neighboring Hinesville. In early December, soldiers began loading their tanks, helicopters and other war machines onto Navy freighters bound for the Middle East.
"I believe the majority will be gone 12-14 months," 3rd Infantry commander Maj. Gen. William G. Webster said earlier this month. While much of the 3rd Infantry will not be in place for the Jan. 30 elections in Iraq, Webster said his troops will play a key role in providing security for follow-up elections in the spring and summer.
A number of Fort Stewart soldiers who had planned to leave the Army after their first combat tour remain in the ranks, their enlistments extended as part of the Army's "stop-loss" program.
"I was hoping I'd be moving on," said Spc. Desmond Lackey, 21, a machine-gunner who was slated to leave the Army in March 2005 but learned last month that his enlistment has been extended until April 2006. "Personally, I'd like to get out and go back to college."
Lackey had time to spend Christmas with family in Jay, Okla. He said he particularly looked forward to seeing his grandmother, who had heart surgery this year.
"The bad thing about being in the military is you always have to have that 'what if' thought: What if he didn't come home?" said his wife, Victoria. "So I wanted to make sure his grandmother and mother got to see him and tell him they love him."
During the past year, 3rd Infantry troops have trained for a vastly different type of conflict from the war they fought last year. More than 1,300 U.S. troops have died in Iraq, with more than 1,100 killed since President Bush declared an end to major combat operations in May 2003.
The soldiers who are going back have been honing their urban warfare, riot-control and hand-to-hand combat skills.
"I think it's more dangerous this time, because they know us better," Sgt. Mark Matekovic, a Bradley gunner, said of the Iraqi insurgents. "Now they're not wearing uniforms. It makes it a little trickier."
Matekovic spent the week before his holiday leave tuning up his tracked vehicle, making sure its armor and weapons were in working order. Then he was leaving for Kansas to spend Christmas with his 4-year-old son, Anthony.
"It's my first Christmas with him - I already missed three," said Matekovic, who spent the 2002 holidays in Kuwait during the buildup to war. "I have to try to be a part of his life."