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Unending War: 'When We Win, We Can Relax'

5 years ago
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David Wood
Chief Military Correspondent
FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- Wearied and worn by eight continuous years of war, the 37,000 soldiers and family members of the 10th Mountain Division here await with stoic resignation the decision President Obama will soon announce on sending more troops to Afghanistan.

So far, they have found the strength to weather a seemingly unending wartime cycle that has sent soldiers away for a year of combat, brought them home for a year of intense training, and sent them back into war for another year. If the president calls, they will salute and pack up once again, of course. But the signs of strain are unmistakable, and no one, mental health professionals say, can calculate the eventual damage.

That is one more cost for Obama to reckon: How much more can the White House -- and the nation -- ask?

With 100,000 troops still in Iraq and 45,000 fighting in Afghanistan, the Army is straining just to meet its current commitments, let alone an increase of up to 40,000 troops under discussion at the White House (tens of thousands of Marines are also deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan).

Military families are proud of their service and bristle at being thought of as victims. "We are strong people, we can take care of ourselves,'' said an Army spouse. "If we fall apart, our men fall apart,'' explained another.

There is little political discussion here about whether or how the war in Afghanistan should be waged. Men and women serve honorably amid great difficulty, they say. Families somehow bear up, and the only question is when will they all get a break.

"The major issue is that after eight years, it just seems like there is no end in sight,'' said the wife of a 10th Mountain Division soldier.

Across the services, military personnel and their families already have endured an unprecedented burden, longer than the Greatest Generation that fought through World War II. Half a million Americans have served two 12-month tours in Iraq or Afghanistan; 70,000 have served three combat tours; and 20,000 have served five or more deployments, according to Defense Department data.

For families and soldiers, there are positive aspects to long deployments. Many soldiers thrive on the risks; the soldiers I've traveled with in Afghanistan love what they do and know they're good at it. At home, children often learn to take on new responsibilities, and often grow closer to siblings and grandparents.

Yet in recent Pentagon-sponsored surveys, 90 percent of military spouses reported severe loneliness while their husband or wife was deployed; only one in three said they were able to cope with their feelings. In a 2006 survey, 41 percent of active-duty families reported feeling a "significant increase'' in family stress; by 2008, 47 percent were reporting significant increases in stress.

"These signs of increasing stress on spouses and children are significant because this is a group that tends to under-report stress,'' said Dr. Rachel Mapes, an Army researcher.

Last week the Army acknowledged that the suicide rate among active-duty soldiers continues to rise. Between January and October of this year there were 133 reported suicides, compared to 115 during the same period in 2008.

"It's not that our family unit is not strong,"
an Army spouse recently wrote to Sound Off!, a public blog hosted by the 10th Mountain Division. "It's the fact that no matter how strong and how much love and tolerance we have for each other, we are separated far too often. . . . Add to that the fact that your spouse is in a hostile environment makes it near impossible to bear."

Another Army wife, with a husband deployed and a 2-month-old daughter at home, wrote, "We're all tired -- mentally, physically and especially emotionally -- of the strain that's being put on us EVERY SINGLE YEAR."

Others scoff at what they feel is whining. "I'm trying to figure out how do soldiers enlist during a time of war and have the thought that everything is going to be easy," a soldier wrote to Sound Off! "When we win, we can relax."

It was just over eight years ago that Fort Drum families sent its first soldiers off to Afghanistan, where they assembled for a major push against the remnants of the Taliban in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. The Taliban are still there, and the 10th Mountain division still has an infantry brigade in Afghanistan, as well as one in Iraq, each with roughly 3,500 soldiers.

"While we all know deployments are part of military life, no one ever expected that deployments would be every other year and time gone would exceed time home. . . . It just seems like there is no end in sight.''

"It's pretty much been one year at war, one off,'' said Maj. Randy Imhoff, a family life chaplain at Fort Drum. He and dozens of other family-life chaplains, all trained therapists, were recently called out of retirement to help deal with a demand exploding across the Army for family counseling, especially among teens with one or more parents deployed.

Under the current strain, Imhoff said, "some families fracture, some don't.''

Currently, Fort Drum is brimming with soldiers, with only two of the division's four infantry brigades deployed, and its aviation and support brigades temporarily at home after long deployments. But Maj. Gen. James L. Terry, who took command of the division in September, predicts that by this time next year, half of all personnel will be away at war.

"We are definitely headed out the door,'' Terry recently told local merchants, warning them to brace for economic impact of no longer having tens of thousands of soldiers spending money in town.

"My husband is about to embark on his fourth deployment. . . . Both my husband and I are feeling the strain of, 'Will this ever stop!?' It was a year ago tomorrow that he returned from his last deployment."

In the 10th Mountain Division's newspaper, The Mountaineer, a page of community announcements is revealing: an anger management class, a class on checkbook and debit management, a job search workshop, an Army family team-building course, a workshop to help parents and teenagers cope with deployment stress, and a class on family budget management .

"My husband is on his 2nd tour in Afghanistan. . . . Staying positive is the hardest thing. . . . How do you choose between serving your country and providing the best life you can for your family?"

Strain is also showing inside the ranks of the division's tough, proud infantrymen. Many single soldiers return from a 12-month combat deployment still buzzing with adrenalin, and in the months before their next deployment, they never let down. "You get back, you go on leave, you come back and it's count-down time,'' said one trooper. Training takes soldiers away for weeks at a time during this "home" period. Reluctant to get married, start a family or even buy a condo, many 10th Mountain soldiers "hot-bunk'' apartments: six can rent an apartment for four, since at least two will always be away.

A soldier wrote: "We are gone so much that what's the point of having a family, a house, a boat, etc.?"

Capt. Dan Gregory, who is single, shares an apartment with a buddy who is currently deployed. "It's just where I keep my stuff,'' he said. "I don't live there.''

A West Point graduate with two Iraq deployments under his belt, Gregory, 28, commands Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry. The unit is part of the division's 2nd Brigade, which has spent 40 months deployed since 2001.

"It's tough because we don't know when we might deploy again. Fortunately, soldiers are good at playing the 'Gumby' game,'' he said, referring to the flexible animated TV figure. "They roll with the punches. Families generally do as well . . . because they have to.''

But Gregory said war has taken its toll on his soldiers, particularly the combat-hardened mid-career enlisted soldiers who lead small units and who are critical to the Army's battlefield performance. "We have a lot of guys with a lot of issues, guys who've lost good friends, guys who've seen things you'd like to forget.''

Among this group of experienced soldiers, Gregory said, many say their wives are putting pressure on them to quit and get out. "Guys are telling me they're on the fence,'' he said. "I'm afraid I'm going to lose a lot of these guys.''

But many will carry on despite the personal cost, out of a sense of duty and pride.

"We survive and we will continue to survive,''
an Army wife wrote. "An Army family is a family that can get through ANYTHING. We do it every day and for that STRENGTH I am grateful.''

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