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Old 07-21-2003, 04:56 AM
thedrifter thedrifter is offline
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Cool The long road home

The long road home

Army families flustered as military changes plans for troops in Iraq.

By Noelle Phillips

In her 14 years as an Army wife, Michelle Bush has never been through a deployment like this.

And she's been through several -- Korea, Bosnia, Somalia.

But during those, she knew when her husband, Sgt. 1st Class Mark Bush, would be home. This time, she has no idea, and she's no longer paying attention to Army time lines.

"I've got the mind-set that he'll be gone a year and if he comes home early, I'll be happy," said Bush, whose husband left in January with 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry. "If I think too early and it comes to that time and it doesn't happen, I'll be depressed."

Bush is like a lot of Army family members around Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield. When it comes to learning when their soldiers are coming home, they just don't know what to believe.

This month has been confusing.

On July 7, Maj. Gen. Buford Blount, division commander, released a time line for soldiers to return. And planeloads of soldiers began arriving at Hunter.

But last weekend, Blount sent an e-mail to families with bad news. Soldiers from the 1st and 2nd Brigade Combat Teams would remain in Iraq, and he didn't know when they would be released.

That sent Army families into a furor. On July 13, about 60 wives gathered in a Hinesville parking lot to voice their frustration. The Army held emergency meetings for families, and national media rushed to Hinesville.

Meanwhile, a general who outranks Blount was saying the division would be home by the end of September.

Gen. John Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command, held a Pentagon press conference Wednesday assuring reporters the division would be out of Iraq by September.

Army families say they've twice been promised their soldiers were coming home, so they don't really believe Abizaid's promise.

They originally were led to believe soldiers would be home in June. Then, the division was given another mission.

Ute Scott, whose husband serves with 3rd Battalion, 15th Infantry, said she's tired of getting her hopes up.

"I told the family readiness group they don't have to call me anymore unless my husband is on American ground," Scott said. "I don't even want to hear it if they're in the air."

Understanding the situation is difficult. But, people familiar with military life say families need to understand their soldiers are still at war.

"I don't think the Army at any point was out to mess around with the 3rd Infantry Division," said Susan Wilder, who works with families at Fort Stewart's Army Community Services. "The cold, hard fact is this: We're still at war. Period. Ground combat is over. But we are still at war."

Whenever soldiers deploy -- whether for war or training -- they immediately talk about going home. From the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, soldiers knew the road home went through Baghdad.

From the top down, everyone hoped the 3rd Infantry would leave Iraq almost as soon as Baghdad was captured. They believed in the theory of "first in, first out." Talk also circulated through the ranks that it wouldn't be a good idea to have the soldiers who won the war also serve as peacekeepers.

When President Bush flew onto an aircraft carrier May 1 and declared the end of major combat operations, it seemed the war was over. At Fort Stewart and Hunter, families began attending meetings to discuss readjusting once soldiers come home. Some units held banner painting parties. The city of Savannah even talked of sponsoring a parade.

Everyone was convinced the troops would be home by July 4.

Then, resistance continued in Fallujah, and the 3rd Infantry was sent to crack down on it. Blount announced the new missions in early June, and there was no return date in sight.

Then came the July 7 time line Blount released through the division's public affairs office. Families got their hopes up again.

A week later, Blount apologetically dropped the time line.

Anita Blount, the commanding general's wife, sent an e-mail to families, trying to soothe tensions and provide encouragement. She expressed her own sadness over the delay, but reminded families that things change in the Army.

"Our nation's overall plan for our forces in Iraq is changing as the situation in Iraq changes," she wrote. "That has caused unexpected changes in 3ID redeployment dates."

Dates were released because soldiers, mostly in the 3rd Brigade, were packing up. Commanders knew this would be in the media and would lead to speculation and rumor, Anita Blount said. They hoped to inform spouses of troop movement before they heard it from the media.

"Unfortunately, the early release of redeployment dates and the subsequent changes have been the cause of bitter disappointment among many soldiers and spouses," Blount wrote. "Spouses have told us that they'd rather not know when their soldiers are returning than be disappointed again. At this point, I feel sure that request will be honored."

Army explanation

The reason the 3rd Infantry must stay, Army officials say, is continued terrorist attacks against U.S. troops.

Blount sent word that troop numbers in Iraq would not be reduced in the coming months, and he had no projection for the division's release.

Abizaid explained in his Wednesday press conference that he and two other officials discussed troop strengths two weeks ago. They expected increased attacks July 14-18 because of Baath Party holidays.

Because the 3rd Division's 3rd Brigade was already in Kuwait, they let it go home. But, they decided the other two brigades should remain, Abizaid said.

Abizaid said top level commanders don't specifically discuss unit rotations, but plan according to what they need on the battlefield to accomplish certain goals. For a brigade to leave, commanders want something equivalent to arrive from either the U.S. or coalition forces.

Once those discussions reached the field, words -- possibly promises -- went out to troops about when they were coming home, Abizaid said. Then, the extreme opposite happened when troops were told they were staying indefinitely.

"And I'd say 'indefinitely' is certainly the wrong answer," Abizaid said. "We will bring those troops home by September, certainly out of Iraq by September, and they'll be moving towards home in September. And a lot of it, of course, will depend upon the rotational scheme that either the U.S. Army, the U.S. Marine Corps or allied coalition forces happen to submit to us in the next week. But we'll know the specific answers to the questions in about a week."

So far, no replacements have been named, and the 3rd Infantry waits.

Damage control

Back at Fort Stewart and Hunter, Army officials are trying to control the damage.

Word has gone out that Army spouses should watch what they say, especially to the media.

A rear detachment commander from 2nd Battalion, 3rd Aviation discouraged anyone from writing elected officials or speaking negatively to the press.

"It will do much more harm than good," the e-mail said. "The spouses here have done an unbelievable job supporting their soldier and negative press from soldiers' family members degrades the foundation of U.S. resolve with those in the region and internationally that oppose us. Bottom line is it will bring spouses home no sooner, it tarnishes the U.S. Army, their unit, and the individual soldier as well as the person making the complaints."

Anita Blount went a step further when she sent an e-mail to family members. She explained that attacks on troops help inflame the American public and could lead to a U.S. withdrawal. That would make the war a failure, so the public, especially Army families, should be committed to finishing what was started.

"When the Iraqis see media coverage of disgruntled Americans, publicly campaigning for the return of our soldiers from Iraq, they are encouraged and believe their strategy is working," Anita Blount wrote. "They believe that their continued attacks on American soldiers are having the desired effect and are diminishing the resolve of the American people to complete the task in Iraq."

However, the warnings haven't slowed the complaints, as hundreds of military families have called reporters and elected representatives. The complaints led U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., to write Secretary of the Army Les Brownlee, urging better management of deployments and information.

Chambliss said the changes create anxiety. "This also leaves the impression that the Army does not have a plan and is not concerned about the morale of their troops," he wrote.

Affecting morale

It is troop morale that most family members cite when airing their concerns. They get phone calls from the front and hear the weariness in soldiers' voices.

Susanna Brousseau, the wife of an Arabic translator in 103rd Military Intelligence Battalion, worries about exhaustion.

"Fatigue is dangerous," she said.

Tired soldiers may make poor decisions that could result in injuries and even worse -- death.

"I just don't see how these guys can concentrate when the morale is so down," said Stephanie Perysian, whose husband serves with 1st Battalion, 3rd Air Defense Artillery.

Brousseau fumed when she read the part of Maj. Gen. Blount's e-mail that said morale is high. She questions the point of saying that when families and soldiers regularly talk and write.

"Any family member you talk to knows that isn't true," she said.

One way to help soldiers' morale is to be supportive back home, Wilder said. Continue flying flags, wearing yellow ribbons and holding rallies. Be positive in phone calls and letters.

"These soldiers need to be supported," Wilder said. "While I realize patience is running thin, we need these families to be patient a little while longer."

As for the families' morale, there are some who say they just need to buck up. Their husbands joined the Army and this is what they should expect. After all, families endured much longer absences and less communication in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

Brousseau said she's thought about that and decided it's all a matter of perspective.

"It's always hurts the worst when you're going through it," she said.

She doesn't think she has it any more difficult than an Army wife of 30, 50 or 60 years ago. But it's not fair to create false hopes of homecomings.

"My main point of contention is this is the second time they've said 'OK, they'll be home,' " Brousseau said. "If it was just indefinite, OK. Unfortunately, they're jerking people around."

Copyright 2002/2003 Savannah Morning News. All rights reserved. Privacy Policy.


SSgt. Roger A.
One Proud Marine
Once A Marine............Always A Marine.............
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