Lengthened tours dismay troops, families

Three more months of soldiers' separation

? They found out by reading exasperated e-mails from their spouses, hearing somber announcements from their platoon commanders, seeing snippets of the secretary of defense at a televised news conference: The American soldiers who thought they were staying in Iraq one year would now stay 15 months. All of them.

From Texas to Baghdad and Baqouba to the Beltway, the reaction Thursday among U.S. soldiers and their families to the news of the mass extension was akin to a collective groan.

“It flat out sucks, that’s the only way I can think to describe it,” said Pvt. Jeremy Perkins, 25, who works in an engineering battalion that clears roadside bombs in the embattled city of Baqouba, about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. “I found this out today from my squad leader. I still haven’t told my wife yet.

“I’m just trying to figure out exactly how I’m going to break it to her that ‘Honey, uh, yeah, might be home before our next anniversary, sorry I missed the last one.'”

For Perkins, as with many other soldiers in Iraq and their loved ones back home, the dismay derived not so much from surprise – rumors of such a possibility had been circulating for weeks – nor even from extra time in war zones. The worst was the prospect of the continued strain of missing friends and relatives back home.

Strain on families

“This is tough news; it’s upsetting news for the families,” said Mindy Shanahan, whose husband, Col. Dan Shanahan, is commander of the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade and has been in Taji since October. His first deployment in Iraq was for 12 months in 2004 and 2005.

“It’s another Christmas without my husband and that’s hard when you have young kids,” said Shanahan, who lives at Fort Hood, Texas, the country’s largest Army installation, with her two sons, Patrick, 9, and Kevin, 7.

Shanahan said she was particularly upset that Army families were not briefed about Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ announcement before it was made. There had been rumors that Fort Hood’s 20,000 soldiers currently in Iraq might be deployed for more than a year.

When the news of Gates’ announcement broke, officials of Killeen Independent School District, where 52 percent of the 36,500 students are the children of Fort Hood soldiers, immediately sent e-mails to the school counselors to be “extra sensitive” to children and their moods Thursday after hearing about the extension.

The school district offers special counseling programs in every school for the military children who have had to endure not only long separations, but the deaths of parents and other relatives since the Iraq war started in 2003.

Students are allowed extra days off from school when a parent deploys overseas and returns, partly because “these children never know when their dad is coming back,” said Diana Miller, principal of Skipcha Elementary School in Harker Heights, a community adjacent to Fort Hood.

Skipcha, like every school in the district, has decorated its halls with pictures of students’ parents and other relatives who are serving in Iraq and gold stars for those killed overseas.

Stay or go?

“Everyone is a little disheartened,” said Spc. Edward Dubois, 24, as he waited for a chance to call his wife, Stephanie, in what he expected was a two-hour line at the recreation room on Forward Operating Base Warhorse in Baqouba. “It’s tough on families. I think we worry more about them than we do ourselves. Having to go explain to them that, ‘yes, we are going to be extended,’ yes, it’s hard, but they understand.”

Since Dubois arrived in Iraq in October, his battalion – part of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Cavalry Division – has lost more than 20 soldiers in bombings and other attacks in Diyala province. Dubois said he believes the violence he faces each day would overwhelm Iraq’s fledgling democracy if American soldiers depart too soon.

“If we pull out of here right now, it’s going to be total chaos. We’re going to be back to doing it all over again in 10 more years or 20 more years and I don’t want my son to have to come back over here and take my place,” said Dubois, who became the father of a son in November.

The three-month extension applies to all active-duty soldiers currently deployed or going to Iraq and Afghanistan. Typically soldiers receive 15 days of vacation during a yearlong tour, and for those deployed in war zones, the rest of the tour consists of seven-day weeks of duty, often around the clock.

Several soldiers said they have been told they will receive $1,000 a month in bonus pay for the extended time in Iraq; a private’s base pay is about $1,500 a month.