A willingness to fight again

Redeployment: Some soldiers are eager to return to war in Iraq, duty in Afghanistan.

April 18, 2004|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. - A year ago in Baghdad, Sgt. Anthony Wright of Essex swore one taste of war was enough. But now, fresh off an 11-month tour in Iraq, he's not sure anymore.

Rumors are ricocheting around this city-size base that the Army's 101st Airborne Division might go to Afghanistan or back to Iraq within a year, and Wright is thinking about re-enlisting before his hitch ends this summer. If his buddies go back to combat, he might go along.

"I went through all of that with them," the soft-spoken 21-year-old says in the spare, dimly lighted Charlie Company headquarters here. "Now I don't want to leave them. Getting shot at, that's not fun at all. But it's hard to let go."

As strange as it might sound to people outside the military, many of Wright's fellow infantry soldiers say returning to the combat zone would be fine.

In more than two dozen interviews, a few express outright enthusiasm, even as recent spasms of violence in Iraq have killed dozens of U.S. troops.

"I would go more so because of that," says Spc. James Martin, 23, of Oaklyn, N.J. "Because they need help. You want to protect them."

He, like other soldiers interviewed last week, is part of 3rd Battalion, a subset of the 101st Airborne's Bastogne Brigade.

Beneath the veneer of bravado lie various reasons for soldiers' willingness to fight again: Some feel cheated because they saw little action in Iraq. Some are angry that insurgents occupy Najaf, a city they helped capture last April. Some want the combat bonus pay that can amount to hundreds of dollars per month. Some enjoyed war and know what to expect.

"If you gave them the choice," says Capt. Shane Dentinger, a company commander from Cumberland, "I think the majority would go."

Of course, they have no choice after they join or re-up. A common refrain is that their job is to fight and that they will do whatever they are told, like it or not.

`I'd kick and scream'

Still, soldiers are notorious for their grousing, especially while living in a dust bowl like Iraq and eating indifferent food day after day. So while Spc. Dustin Jans of Phoenix, Ariz., says he would gladly go back to war, the 24-year-old quickly adds, "I'd kick and scream a little."

The soldiers interviewed at Fort Campbell acknowledge that their families don't want them in harm's way again. But many say, with little sympathy, that Army wives know what they are getting into when they marry a soldier.

If there is a line between those who want to go and those who don't, it comes down to children. Fathers in this all-male combat unit tend to be less eager to deploy, and some sergeants hope to get a new job - as a recruiter, say - to stay home next time. They are, says 1st Sgt. William Karpowecz, pulled two ways.

Not all of them feel that way, though.

"She'll be here when I get back," 21-year-old Pfc. Timothy Roberts says of his daughter, Madison, born six months ago while he was in Iraq. He says the extra money makes up for the hardship.

Being a soldier does not pay well. Stateside, base pay for a private first class is less than $17,000 a year before taxes. But in Iraq, some soldiers, with no expenses except car payments and other debts back home, netted $20,000, counting base and bonus pay, for the year.

So far the 101st is not having trouble holding on to troops, in step with Army-wide figures as of March 31. In the first three months of the year, the unit met 111 percent of its re-enlistment goal, says spokesman Lt. Col. Hugh Cate.

This is despite - or possibly because of - a long stint in Iraq that resulted in the deaths of 60 soldiers from Fort Campbell, more than any other Army division. Two of the dead were from the 3rd Battalion.

Unlike members of the National Guard and Reserves, soldiers in the 101st have no other job. The 700-man 3rd Battalion left for Kuwait early last March, spent 10 months in Iraq and flew back to the United States in February.

Now, the battalion is getting back on war footing. Tomorrow will mark the first time since the war that the battalion is at full strength. Vacations are over, and training is set to resume.

For some, it's time to lose the extra pounds that are taxing buttons on camouflage shirts. For others, it's a chance to pick up a new skill, as a dozen troops did in the sunshine Thursday at a workshop on how to fire M-240 machine guns.

When and where the division's soldiers will go next is anyone's guess, Cate says, but "they know they're going somewhere."

Cate's "best guess" is that "nine months from now, we'll be ramping up to go back to" Iraq or Afghanistan. He says it's possible that parts of the division, with 17,000 members, could go both places, given Army plans to more often mix and match brigades, with 3,000 or more soldiers, from across divisions.

Soldiers know that rumors often prove false. Otherwise, they would have come home last June, as one rumor had it. But that does not stop soldiers from spreading them and speculating as they clean rifles, smoke in the parking lot or wait for orders.

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