A youth looks at a U.S. army soldier as he takes position while on patrol in Baghdad's Shiite enclave of Sadr City, Iraq, Thursday, July 3, 2008. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)
Even as signs point toward the winding down of U.S. involvement in the Iraq war, there's been no slowing in the deployment schedule for Walls and more than 4,000 other members of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard.
They'll be assuming their positions in Iraq around the same time that President-elect Barack Obama takes the oath of office on Jan. 20. Later, if things go according to plan under a newly ratified U.S.-Iraqi security agreement, they will be among the troops moving out of Iraq's urban areas by June 30 — a major step toward withdrawing U.S. troops from the country by 2012.
The changing political landscape has prompted questions among the troops about what's ahead. But there's a resigned acceptance, too, that when it comes to the Iraq war, the one certainty is that there is uncertainty.
"Every deployment is different and you can prepare for different things and try to situate them the best you can, but you never go into it looking too far forward," Walls, 38, of Browns Mills, N.J., said in an interview at Fort Dix, where the soldiers were packing equipment and firing their final rounds at a shooting range.
Walls, an Iraq war veteran who also served in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and in Somalia, planned to marry his fiance, a fellow soldier, over the holidays. Combined, the two have five children they will leave behind with grandparents when they deploy.
The deploying troops make up the largest contingent from the Pennsylvania Guard to deploy to a combat zone since World War II. They are from the Guard's 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, which is the Army's only Guard unit to have the high-tech Stryker vehicles. The soldiers were pulled from more than 40 armories from Philadelphia to Erie.
The estimated 40 percent of the soldiers who have already served in Iraq and Afghanistan have been told the situation in Iraq is different and the emphasis on the upcoming deployment will be less on combat, and more on supporting the Iraqis as they take the lead to get basic government services running, said Col. Marc Ferraro, 44, of Cherry Hill, N.J., the brigade commander.
A "troop surge" ordered by President George W. Bush has been credited with decreasing violence in Iraq in the last year. Iraq, however, remains an unstable and dangerous country with daily bombings and other violence.
There's "a big difference in the mind-set in what you would've done in '06 or '07 compared to what you do now," Ferraro said. "Keeping in mind, though, that at the drop of a dime, that could always change."
Staff Sgt. Aaron Leisenring, 30, a member of the Guard from West Chester, Pa., who deployed to Afghanistan in 2002 with an active Army unit, said he's noticed the emphasis more now on the culture and language in Iraq.
"We're just kind of trying to gain new skills as a soldier that not a lot of us are used to having," Leisenring said.
Sgt. Charles Fassano, 23, a union steamfitter from Philadelphia who already did one deployment to Iraq, said even though he's been told Iraq has stabilized, it's difficult to comprehend.
"I think that's something I'm going to have to see and find out for myself," Fassano said.
Lt. Col. Bert Kozen, a Catholic priest who is the brigade chaplain, said the primary question he's often asked is if the mission is going to change. Many of the questions are related to Obama's win in the Nov. 4 election, since Obama promised to bring an end to the war.
"Yes, it's going to be a new administration, perhaps even a new focus and direction, but all we can do is prepare as best we can for the variables we may encounter," Kozen said he tells them.
Ferraro, the commander, said the troops are focused on the mission they've been given in Iraq.
"We'll just follow through with that until someone comes up and says, hey, change of mission. We need you to go do this now," Ferraro said.
There are also friends and family members of the soldiers who wonder if they'll still go to Iraq. Sgt. Philip Schratwieser, 39, of State College, Pa., who has a civilian job working in sales, said he responds to the question by saying any major changes are down the road.
"The military has so many gears in place and it's really tough to get in there and just put a stop to that," Schratwieser said.
Pfc. Steven Hartnett, 34, a truck driver in Philadelphia who recently joined the military, said he'll do whatever the president asks.
"I wouldn't be upset if he said we're leaving Iraq, as long as it's the best thing to do, if it's safe over there," Hartnett said.
Staff Sgt. Patrick Hamill, 29, a state trooper in Philadelphia, said he volunteered to go back a third time.
"I was there for the beginning. I might as well finish it out," Hamill said.
Before the deployment, the soldiers receive a 10-day holiday break to say goodbye to their families.
Hartnett, the truck driver, said he would marry his fiance in a banquet hall with about 90 people.
"Originally, nobody was going to know, but she's in there trying on a dress so happy and I said, 'You've got to tell everyone,' " Hartnett said.
Walls said he's also looking forward to getting married and spending time with his family. On New Year's Eve, he's planning to grill ribs and tell stories with his children, but he knows the deployment ahead overshadows the holidays.
"We know as soon as we come home, we're starting the process of saying goodbye for a bit," Walls said. "You're happy and sad at the same time."
Cpl. Dave Bulman, a 32-year-old paramedic from Philadelphia, made videos of himself reading so his baby daughter would remember his voice and he plans to spend his holidays holding her.
"We still look at it as it's still unpredictable over there," Bulman said. "You don't know who is your enemy over there any way. So we go into it as just as unpredictable as it was three or four years ago."