Guard Unit Home After Record Combat Tour

bowers, minn national guardsman w/kid and flag

A call by Puerto Rico's governor for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq earned a standing ovation from a conference of more than 4,000 National Guardsmen.

Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila said Saturday that the U.S. administration has "no new strategy and no signs of success" and that prolonging the war would needlessly put guardsmen in harm's way.

"The war in Iraq has fractured the political will of the United States and the world," he said at the opening of the 129th National Guard Association general conference. "Clearly, a new war strategy is required and urgently."

Acevedo said sending more troops to Iraq would be a costly blunder.

"By increasing the number of National Guard and reserve troops, we put our soldiers in danger for the umpteenth time since the beginning of the global war on terrorism," said the governor, adding U.S. territories and states need Guard reserves in the event of natural disasters and domestic disturbances.

It was a reunion the soldiers and their families had played out in their minds over and over.

But it wasn't until they could see and touch each other that they were finally able to exhale and let go of emotions bottled up since the fall of 2005, when 2,600 members of Minnesota National Guard's First Brigade Combat Team shipped out.

By the time they got home, the group that included cops, welders, students and teachers, had served 22 months; 16 months in what they called the "hellhole of Fallujah."

"It was about a 38-minute firefight. In the end, 20 insurgents were killed," Capt. Chip Rankin Bravo Company Commander said in Iraq.

Extended by the troop surge, theirs was the longest combat tour of any branch of the military in this war, or any war, except for this same guard unit, which put in 17 months back in World War II. Bloodshed then gave them the nickname Red Bulls. And this group, too, came home, in the words of one commander, "tattered and missing some pieces."

"It's a great thing to be back, but at the same time, you realize they didn't get a chance to come back with you," Sgt. Tim Nelson tells CBS News correspondent Cynthia Bowers.

Bravo Company lost three soldiers; 24-year-old James Wosika was one of them. The others, Bryan McDonough, 22, and Corey Rystad, 20, were out on patrol when an IED tore through their armored vehicle. Sgt. John Kriesel survived, but barely.

"I looked down and my left leg was gone and then my right leg about six inches below the knee," says the wounded Bravo Company soldier. "I just closed my eyes … I didn't want to see that, and that if I do make it, I don't want that to be the last thing I see or remember, you know?"

Kriesel made the trip from Walter Reed Hospital in Washington to welcome his guys back home.

Most of these soldiers were just coming off a one-year stint in Bosnia when the call came to deploy to Iraq. In all, they've been gone three of the last four years, gone from their families, their jobs and their everyday lives.

Turning in weapons is just one step in a long process.

"It's going to take some time to adjust," says Eric Myrold.

The soldiers have missed milestones and moments, and their loved ones have had to learn to soldier on without them.

For Myrold and others, the toughest battle may prove to be figuring out how to fit back in ... in their very own homes.

What happens after the homecoming? In part two of her series, Cynthia Bowers takes a look at the tough transition faced by the returning soldiers and their families.