"Everybody's looking forward to coming home, but we can't lose sight that there's a bad guy out there," said Maj. Daniel Cody of Chambersburg.
In a phone call from Iraq, Angell echoed Cody's excitement for a homecoming coupled with concentration on duties.
"We have to stay focused on the job at hand. As a brigade, we've had a very successful tour of duty in Iraq," said Angell, the brigade's public information officer.
The Stryker Brigade trained in Mississippi and Louisiana before deploying to Taji. The brigade is responsible for nine joint security station outposts and patrols in a 500-square-mile rural area 12 miles north of Baghdad. It specializes in operations involving an armored combat vehicle that can hold more infantrymen than a Humvee.
"Being a part of the National Guard, there were a lot of skeptics about our ability to get over here and accomplish the mission. ... You couldn't ask for a better force, and I'm proud to be with them," said Cody, who is the brigade's provost marshal, meaning he is the head police officer.
The much-publicized transfer of security responsibilities in Baghdad had little effect on efforts in and around Taji, according to Cody. He said the Iraqi police, with whom he coordinates, take a very reactive position within their role, rather than patrolling.
"The Iraqi police can't seem to get out of the station," he said.
Regular police officers do not have arrest authority, but the supervisors do. Cody, who graduated from Chambersburg Area Senior High School in 1985, described the department as very centrally led. It doesn't typically use forensics evidence and only got its first court conviction on fingerprints in January.
"It's a different world, and it's trying to influence them to become a functioning police agency. Their own culture prevents them from doing it," Cody said.
Angell, of Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa., said Guard members kick soccer balls with Iraqi children or talk to adults when they patrol markets. A military photo service features pictures of Stryker soldiers hosting medical expos and teaching a variety of classes for Iraqis.
"I think every soldier in a way is an ambassador," Angell said.
Planning is under way for the guardsmen's return to Fort Dix in New Jersey. They will demobilize and go home in groups.
"There are no solid dates yet. ... (But) there are steps we're taking right now to get ready to come back," Angell said, noting that the chaplain recently held a briefing about how to reunite with loved ones.
Cody said he's looking forward to hugging his wife and two sons -- and he'll be thankful to see grass again. Care packages with Pennsylvania hunting magazines and Snyder's of Hanover pretzels have provided reminders of the Keystone State for the troops in the midst of 115-degree, sandstorm-filled days.