The director of the National Security Agency told a ceremony honoring veterans and military families yesterday that the war on terrorism, already taking its toll on military families, will be a prolonged conflict.
"This is a long war, three years and counting," Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden told a gathering of about 100 people at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. "It will be a fight to the finish."
He spoke of the continuum from Gettysburg to Normandy to today's troops stationed in the Iraqi desert.
Hayden said that the large spy agency he heads, based at Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County, has more people stationed in war zones than ever before.
"Hundreds of NSA-ers are forward-deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, out with the troops," the Air Force lieutenant general said in a keynote speech. "And there have been [NSA] casualties."
It was an unusual admission for the head of the agency, which intercepts and deciphers foreign communications.
The NSA is one of Maryland's largest employers, with about 16,000 employees at Fort Meade and another 16,000 at undisclosed locations around the world.
Hayden declined to specify the number of NSA personnel stationed to support troops in combat zones.
Hayden, who is reportedly a candidate to be the deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, told of a recent brush with danger of his own, when he and others were on a plane being shelled at a U.S. installation in Balad, Iraq.
He likened the experiences of today's soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan to those of American soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen who fought in past great battles. He added that, then and now, "A good officer goes to the sound of guns.
"They will be a new generation of veterans and heroes who will inspire those to come," Hayden said, referring to the troops in uniform and desert camouflage fighting the war on terrorism.
Speakers in yesterday's ceremony were mindful that today's troops are much more likely to have spouses and children than in previous wars. The skylit international terminal at BWI was a fitting venue, they said, because 220,000 military passengers and their families travel through there every year on military flights.
The USO, or United Service Organizations, provides free services to troops in transit. The group operates an International Gateway Lounge that includes a cafe lounge, Internet and long-distance telephone access, sleeping rooms, a nursery and baggage storage space.
Several USO volunteers attended the ceremony, including Bonnie Andersen of Glen Burnie, who said she makes Christmas centerpieces for soldiers and their families.
Hayden said that military spouses and children are stressed in less-visible ways than those trained to do jobs in tanks, ships and planes.
"The sacrifice of families," he said, "may be greater than those in uniform."