Spc. Jobel Barbosa had spent the past hour with his family in a parking lot after a public ceremony marking his unit's deployment to a war that's coming to an end. It was time to go.
As other National Guardsmen boarded a white bus behind him, Spc. Barbosa hugged his mother, two sisters, his daughter, his girlfriend and their baby girl, then turned to join the other troops. His four-day leave, the last time he would see his family for a year, was over.
"It takes everything I got to keep it inside," he said.
While the gaze of generals has drifted east to Afghanistan, the last waves of American troops are headed into Iraq. Among them: 4,000 soldiers of the 30th Heavy Brigade of the North Carolina National Guard combat team, including the 76 men of Spc. Barbosa's bomb-clearing unit, and E Company, which departed days ago from its base in tiny Hamlet, a close-knit community long abandoned by the good jobs that made it a prosperous railroad town.
It has been six years since the U.S. invaded Iraq, and fewer soldiers are dying there. That does little to console the families of those just shipping out - the troops' absence at home causes as much strain there as their presence in a faraway combat zone.
"We're praying nothing happens," said Spc. Barbosa's mother, Rosa Lamourt. "But you can never be sure."
Jackie Webb knows the drill; this is Sgt. 1st Class Brian Webb's second tour in Iraq.
In early April, as he shuttled between four different bases to prepare for deployment, she was up all night watching over their sick 2-year-old daughter Alivia, one of the couple's three children.
"Brian is so good at helping take care of the kids," said Mrs. Webb, who oversees three bank branches.
A full-time member of the National Guard, Sgt. Webb runs the day-to-day operations at the Hamlet armory. Most nights he has dinner ready for Jackie and the children. Now she depends on family and friends to pitch in.
"I've been here before," she said. "I know what to expect. But it's getting harder and harder."
Her birthday fell during his two-week stint at the military's National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif. He wanted to call, but the soldiers had to give up their cell phones when they arrived, part of their preparation for being out of contact.
Sgt. Webb expects to find a still dangerous but far tamer Iraq than the one he saw in 2004. He also knows all the missed birthdays over the years, all the times he wasn't there for his family. And he knows they're all going through it all over again.
Tracy Partridge recently had a taste of how her life will change when her son, Sgt. Justin Detter, is deployed. A single mother, she talks with her 23-year-old son almost every night.
When Sgt. Detter was at the National Training Center for two weeks in March, he couldn't call. She didn't know how he was doing. And that drove her crazy.
When he finally called, he told her that he wanted "good barbecue."
"He said, 'Mama, they don't have barbecue in California,' " she said with a laugh.
When he returned on leave, Sgt. Detter relaxed at home and spent time with his 16-year-old sister, Jessica, who just bought her first car - a 1995 Honda Accord with 139,000 miles.
"Just another thing for me to be worried about when I'm over there," Sgt. Detter said, joking for the most part.
Sgt. Detter, who hasn't seen combat, couldn't wait to get to Iraq. His mother wishes he was back paving roads with the state transportation department, where she works as an inspector.
"What if something happens" - she stopped short, unwilling to finish the sentence.
Yes, Ms. Partridge knows the violence has subsided. Yes, she knows her son will be more of a peacemaker than a warrior. Still, the uncertainty keeps her awake.
"No one talks about Iraq anymore. You don't see it on the news," she said. "But for our families, it's always on our mind."
Jennifer Guinn moved in with her mother shortly after Staff Sgt. Ryan Guinn left for Fort Stewart, Ga., in January. In late March, her stepfather died of cancer.
This was almost too much to handle for Mrs. Guinn, just 22 and the mother of four: a son from a previous marriage, two stepsons who joined the family with husband Ryan, and the couple's daughter Kylee, just 10 months old.
"He's my rock," she said of her 34-year-old husband.
The experience of E Company veterans like Sgt. Guinn, many of whom served at the height of violence in Iraq, doesn't neatly translate to the job ahead: ramping down a war in a country coming to terms with relative peace. Ten American men and women died in Iraq in March - the fewest number of U.S. casualties in Iraq since the beginning of the war. Six of those troops were killed in non-hostile action.
Even so, Sgt. Guinn and other veterans are still trying to brace youngsters like Sgt. Detter for what's to come.
"You have a lot of rookies here and you have to show them the way," Sgt. Guinn said. "You train hard as a unit so everyone knows their role. You can't make any mistakes because there's no place in Iraq that's 100 percent safe."
When Sgt. Guinn returned on leave, he spent most of his time with his family. Now that he's deployed, his wife is mentally preparing for all the bumps in the road she knows she'll face over the next year.
She knows Iraq is safer today than it was during her husband's first two tours. Sgt. Guinn fought with the 3rd Infantry Division during the initial invasion in 2003, facing swarms of Iraqi fighters who charged American tanks. During his second tour, he patrolled violent streets of the Shi'ite slum Sadr City in the center of Baghdad.
Everybody's saying this time shouldn't be as bad, but still, she's worried.
"I know how dangerous it is, but I'm going to try not to think about it. I have to stay positive. I have to stay strong," she said.