Fort Stewart, Ga. — In a remote area of this sprawling military base, soldiers are preparing for a mission to Iraq that has become all too familiar.
Cracked Georgia red clay simulates the dusty deserts in Iraq. A make-believe village called Medina Wasl, occupied by Iraqi-Americans acting as its townspeople, stands in the midst of pine trees.
But the veteran U.S. soldiers undergoing the rigorous training know that this makeshift battleground is far from the real thing. They have been to Iraq once or twice already, and with each deployment, the danger of war becomes more intense and their family life at home, more strained.
Today marks the fourth anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and 7,000 soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division are preparing to return to Iraq in May and later this summer as part of President Bush's plan to add 21,500 new combat troops to fight escalating civilian violence. In the rush to accelerate troop buildup, soldiers are deploying two to three months earlier than scheduled. They are training on the base rather than traveling to the National Training Center at Ft. Irwin, Calif., where soldiers normally undergo rigorous exercises designed to acclimate them to conditions in Iraq.
While the longevity of the war has taken a toll on many military towns, it has hit particularly hard at Fort Stewart, home of one of the Army's largest and oldest assault units of snipers, gunners, scouts and other infantrymen trained for some of the military's most perilous missions. Not since World War II has the 3rd ID experienced such a long engagement and never have its soldiers been called to duty so often.
At the beginning of the war in 2003, the Chicago Tribune met families of the 3rd ID days before the soldiers deployed the first time. Though many of the troops had served briefly in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, there was excitement on the base over the new assignment 12 years later and the chance to put those years of training to use.
When members of the 3rd ID rolled their tanks into Iraq, signaling the start of the ground war, their spouses sat glued to the television sets at home on March 19, 2003, cheering them on.
And when the soldiers returned home that fall, their families greeted them with open arms, though apprehensive about what the future would hold.
Of the 3,197 military deaths in Iraq since the beginning of the war, more than 320 have been soldiers from Fort Stewart. Meanwhile, on the home front, a different kind of casualty has taken place.
The strain of war has worn down families, many of whom were unprepared for the isolation and demands of such a long, drawn-out conflict. Though many wives said they still believe in the mission and support their husbands, they acknowledge that they have sacrificed more than they bargained for.
Divorce rates soared in 2004, the year after the war began. Among married Army officers, divorce rose 78 percent from 2003, while divorces among enlisted personnel rose 28 percent, according to the Army.
Army officials credited counseling and other programs with a decrease among officer divorces in 2005. Divorces among enlisted soldiers have remained about the same.
Some couples that seemed the most committed when the war began were among those to divorce. Others continue the fight to hold their families together while battling financial woes, alcoholism, infidelity, emotional problems and injuries. Some welcomed new babies into the family. Now, women are stepping up again to take care of children alone as fathers heads off to war.
Though the soldiers insist they still believe in the mission, each time it is harder to go back, some said. It is hard to leave their families, knowing they will miss yet another birthday, or anniversary or high school graduation.
"The first time, you train and train and you can't wait to fight. Then you conquer and come back a hero," said Sgt. Pedro Loureiro, a 22-year-old gunner from Newark, N.J., whose fiance broke up with him following his first deployment in 2005. "But when you've already been there, you have to muster new strength ... and you prepare for the worst."