Military wives accept and wait

SUN JOURNAL

Extensions: Spouses of soldiers serving in Iraq know those homecoming dates are very much subject to change.

December 08, 2004|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

KILLEEN, Texas - When her husband deployed to Iraq with the 1st Cavalry Division back in January, Tracy Pepper expected him home at Fort Hood by now. She made plans for a November homecoming and a Christmas trip to visit her family in New Mexico.

Then came word that the Army would extend the tour of the 1st Cavalry Division's 2nd Brigade until mid-January. And last week, the military ordered a second extension - delaying the soldiers' return until March - as part of a broad effort to boost the number of American troops in advance of Iraqi elections scheduled for next month.

Military families met the news with weary resignation. "You don't like it," Tracy Pepper said. "But you understand. It's him. It's what he does."

Troop extensions in Iraq have become so commonplace that some spouses say they now mentally add six months to any deployment to brace themselves for delays. Others refuse to watch the calendar or make any celebration plans until a homecoming is imminent.

"We just don't look forward to Daddy coming home, loved ones coming home, until they are in Kuwait and call and say they're getting on the plane," said Charlene Greene. Her husband, Staff Sgt. Brian Greene, is serving a 12-month tour in Iraq with the 1st Cavalry's 1st Brigade.

By next month, U.S. troops in Iraq are expected to be at their highest level since the March 2003 invasion: about 150,000 in the country when Iraq holds elections scheduled for late January. About 148,000 troops were deployed early in the war.

Speaking at Camp Pendleton, Calif., President Bush said yesterday that the increase of about 12,000 troops in Iraq, from the current 138,000, would help provide security for the election and keep pressure on the violent insurgency movement in such trouble spots as Fallujah.

The president also told a crowd of cheering Marines that he understood the long tours meant strain and pressure, not just on troops in Iraq, but also on their families in the United States.

"The time of war is a time of sacrifice, especially for our military families," he said. "Being left behind when a loved one goes to war is one of the hardest jobs in the military. It is especially hard during the holidays. Families here at Camp Pendleton endure long separation. Carrying these burdens, you serve our country."

The latest extension includes about 3,500 soldiers from the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division, known as the Black Jack Brigade. The deployment of an additional 4,400 soldiers from the 2nd Brigade of the Army's 25th Infantry Division, based in Hawaii, is being extended, as well as that of 2,300 Marines from the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, based in Japan.

The Army also is extending 160 soldiers from the 66th Transportation Company, who were due to return in January to their base in Germany. And it is sending 1,500 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., to Iraq in coming days.

In Killeen, which sits alongside the sprawling Fort Hood base, word began spreading several weeks ago that another extension for the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Cavalry was likely, said the town's mayor, Maureen Jouett.

By the time the extension was officially announced, she said, the military had prepared the soldiers' families for the news.

"I don't think they were surprised," Jouett said. "It's worse if you think, `They're going to come home, they're going to come home,' and then you discover a week out that they're not."

Carleen Hughes, assistant director for the United Service Organizations' office at Fort Hood, said military families have become increasingly resigned to the fact of troop extensions. They make the best of it, she said, dropping by her offices to send e-mail or talk by Internet Web cameras with their husbands and wives overseas. A state-of-the-art Xbox system in her office lets military spouses play video games against each other.

"The don't like it. Of course they don't like it. But they learn to deal with it," Hughes said.

Pepper, who is 32 and raising two sons and taking classes in social work, said she has tried hard not to dwell on the delayed homecoming of her husband, Cpl. Joseph Pepper. Instead of the trip to New Mexico, she will spend Christmas with her sons at their home at Fort Hood.

On Sunday, she helped juggle the crowd of about 300 people who turned out for a pancake breakfast fund-raiser with Santa Claus (played by Mayor Jouett's husband, Richard), sponsored by the Fort Hood Area Enlisted Spouses Club.

The proceeds from the breakfast went to a local children's charity. The companionship of the other military spouses went even further, Pepper said.

"You just support each other and help each other," she said. "When you're feeling low, they'll be there for you, and you'll do the same for them."

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