CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. - The tan combat boots were back on the porch where they belonged, near a soccer ball and toy truck. After seven months, Army Staff Sgt. Dwayne Stone had come home from Iraq to see his wife and son and a 5-month-old baby girl he had never held.
But on his first night back at the roomy brick rancher, after the children were asleep, Deiry Stone cried as the couple lay under a flowery comforter. In two weeks, her husband would have to go back to the war zone, and she dreaded it already.
Stone is among the thousands of U.S. soldiers being given 15 days of rest and relaxation under a morale program the Army says could cost up to $770 million a year. The biggest such effort since the Vietnam War, it seems partly intended to mollify frustrated military families.
The soldiers' brief taste of life at home has offered a fresh reminder that those sacrificing the most in the country's war on terrorism are the soldiers who put their lives on the line, and their stressed family members, who have kept households running during the long absences.
In fact, several dozen soldiers have failed to return from leave so far, said Army spokesman Joe Burlas, though he said some may have simply missed flights. Nearly all of the 6,000 soldiers who were scheduled to fly back by now have done so.
For the Stones, the chance to be together was a gift, one not available to many families in this Army town near the Kentucky border and Fort Campbell.
But as their time together would show, the joy wasn't pure. They bickered at times over how to make the most of the visit. They had unwelcome surprises that promised to separate them yet again later.
And as they got reacquainted, they did so against a ticking clock. The more comfortable they felt, the less time they had. The end of their long-awaited reunion always loomed.
From the start there was an undercurrent of tension despite the hugs, kisses and laughter. Deiry, who is 23, wanted her 31-year-old husband to be more outgoing, more like he was before his unit of the 101st Airborne Division left Kentucky for Kuwait on March 1.
"He's not open," she confided the day after he got home, a worried expression on her face. "He's been good to me, but he just used to be more emotional. Maybe he'll come around in the next two weeks. It's kind of scary."
Stone, watching cartoons in the living room with his 3-year-old son, Dillion, admitted he was holding back a bit. Told that his wife was fretting over his behavior, he said he couldn't help it.
"When you're non-emotional for seven months, it just doesn't come," he said. "It's not that you don't have feelings - you don't share them."
Stone's unit no longer camps in dusty, empty buildings as it did in the war. Home is a house with marble floors in the northern Iraq city of Mosul. Soldiers have hot meals, showers, Internet access, air conditioning and satellite television that carries Monday Night Football.
But his job is as risky as ever. He oversees two gun trucks that escort convoys along dangerous roads. At other times, he drives to villages and meets with elders in an effort to help win the peace. The closest call he has had involved a potential showdown with two men brandishing AK-47 rifles; the gunmen ran. But in a separate incident, one of his fellow soldiers lost an arm in a roadside bomb attack.
When the time came for Stone's 15 days of vacation, the Army did not simply turn him loose. Partly in response to several domestic-violence killings committed last year at Fort Bragg, N.C., by veterans of the war in Afghanistan, soldiers now go through briefings to ease the transition, even for a short leave, said the Army's Burlas.
Stone sat through four safety sessions that reminded him, among other things, not to drink and drive. He also heard from his commander, the chaplain and a sergeant major. They all told him to expect changes at home: more independence from his wife, less obedience from his children.
"Things are going to be different," he was told.
Stone quickly noticed that his wife had grown more self-reliant, though he said it didn't bother him. But almost right away he moved to reassert himself as an authority figure for Dillion.
"Hang that up," he said after the boy dropped a jacket on the floor.
When Dillion's thumb found its way yet again into his mouth, Stone issued an ultimatum: "If I see it wet one more time, you're going to your room, OK?"
At one point Dillion whimpered about something, and his father asked, "Will you use your man's voice?" Then he thought aloud that his son "hangs around girls too much."
One advantage the Stones said they had as a couple was an ability to communicate. They learned it the hard way when, a month after marrying in 2001, they sought counseling because of a clash in their personalities, which are as different as their appearances.