Saying goodbye again

Soldiers: After two weeks at home, the first 193 to get vacation return to duty in Iraq.

October 13, 2003|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,SUN STAFF

For two short weeks, Sgt. 1st Class Ruben Stoeltje could idle in traffic without feeling like an easy target for a terrorist ambush.

Army Spc. Darren Hutson slept securely in his family's West Virginia home, safe from attack in the night.

Yesterday, both found themselves donning their emotional armor at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, among the first 193 soldiers returning to Iraq after a 15-day vacation under the Army's rest and recuperation program.

"I would rather not think about saying goodbye," said Spc. Lewis Rose, 27, who left his family Saturday in Newark, N.J., to catch a connecting flight to BWI. "I was beginning to cry, so I had to walk away. ... I told them, `It's not goodbye; it's see you later.'"

These soldiers arrived in the United States on Sept. 26 in the first wave of about 3,200 troops who have left Iraq for a respite. One flight arrives at BWI every day, said Army Lt. Col. Bob Hagen, a public affairs officer at the Pentagon, and others will return regularly from now on.

The weight of the American mission in Iraq has forced the Pentagon to extend the tours of tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers. Many of those waiting to board the 20-hour flight to Iraq from BWI yesterday said they are committed to serve in Iraq for a year, but no one knows whether that commitment will be extended.

For Rose, a reservist from Bayville, N.J., the chance to go home was welcome. He was into his seventh month in Iraq when he received his vacation orders.

He recalls that when he arrived at BWI more than two weeks ago, he and a group of 15 other soldiers thought they heard gunfire outside the terminal and hit the deck. A state trooper assured them that the sound was from a nail gun at an airport construction project.

Darren Hutson's father, Darrell Hutson, was taken aback by how "still on edge" his son was at home in Salem, W.Va. He entered his son's room one morning to try to wake him and barely made it past the door before his son, a 22-year-old Army wheel mechanic, leaped into a defensive posture.

Darrell Hutson thought twice about waking his son again.

Stoeltje, 38, had trouble breaking certain driving habits he developed in Iraq.

He works with the 79th Explosive Ordnance Disposal, the Army's version of the bomb squad. To avoid being hit by grenades dropped while driving in Iraqi cities, soldiers are taught to switch lanes when approaching overpasses - a maneuver Stoeltje caught himself performing while driving with his family in San Antonio.

Once home, many of the soldiers took satisfaction in connecting with the routines of domestic life and getting reacquainted with loved ones. Family members, too, tried to make up for lost time.

The Hutson family went on road trips and to sporting events, and watched a parade. "We keep saying we'd like to hide him and not send him back," said Mandy Hutson-Brown, 25, of her brother Darren.

Yesterday, the soldiers at BWI were confronting the reality that their vacations had come to a close. Most had left family in other cities and were left to mingle throughout the airport while awaiting their afternoon flight.

Spc. Mark Atkins, 20, and Pfc. Chris Oldham, 25, sat on a bench in the international terminal exchanging small talk. They hadn't met before but discovered a bond: Both their wives had given birth while they were deployed. "It's harder being a military spouse than being in the military," Oldham said after two weeks with his newborn daughter.

Several soldiers said they were touched by the level of support for their service. Stoeltje said that when he was taking a connecting flight from BWI to Indianapolis two weeks ago, a man offered him his first-class ticket as thanks for his service.

Stoeltje declined the offer but was grateful. "People come up to me ... and want to shake my hand," he said. "They want to tell us thank you."

Yesterday, as they prepared to board their plane, the soldiers seemed acutely aware of the personal cost of the mission to which they remain committed.

"I don't want to go back, but I know we have to. ... It's kind of hard to swallow," Rose said. "You don't want to leave your family."

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