The cost of returning to war

As more troops re-enlist, the toll on soldiers and families could have a big impact at home

September 30, 2007|By David Wood | David Wood,Sun reporter

FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- With bursts of gunfire, insurgents ambushed the American patrol on a lonely road in eastern Afghanistan. Army Spc. Winnshwe Vertley watched his best friend, Sgt. David Hierholzer, charge at the enemy. "He died protecting me," said Vertley, who is of Burmese descent.

Vertley, 24, was sickened by the loss and deeply fatigued as he returned home this summer with almost two and a half years of combat time - more than many World War II infantrymen. But he didn't quit. Like tens of thousands of soldiers whose lives are seared by war and whose families endure stress unimaginable to most Americans, he re-enlisted.

Reassuring to the generals and baffling to many Americans, the willingness of this generation's soldiers and Marines to volunteer again and again is a new facet of America's wartime experience. Never before has the nation fought a long foreign war without a draft. And today's troops are re-enlisting at record rates, partly because of bonuses that can reach $50,000, but in large measure, soldiers say, because they like it and they're good at it.

Yet there are deep concerns that this grinding duty is exacting costs that for the most part are unknown and unseen. Those watching closely fear a high price as soldiers and families struggle with accumulating hardship, whether that stress emerges as alcohol or drug abuse, divorce or the cold distancing of soldiers from the civilian America that is not taking part in the war.

"It's a small snowball," said Army Capt. Jerry Johnson, Protestant chaplain to Vertley's unit, the 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry.

"A lot of stress is kept inside. We haven't seen a lot of big blow-ups, but over time, the stress will accumulate like a snowball and will eventually get out of control, and it will be a far worse problem for the Army," he said.

Johnson, who has two children, returned this summer from 492 days in Afghanistan. How did his family do? "Not good, frankly," he said.

Unknown effects

In fact, no one knows how to calculate the long-term effects on troops and families. "We don't do a good job of assessing the impact on them," said Maj. Gen. Michael L. Oates, who commands the 10th Mountain Division, headquartered here in northern New York. "We just don't know enough."

But opinions abound.

"It is a really resilient population," said Todd Benham, a clinical psychologist and former soldier who is chief of behavioral health services at Fort Drum. "There's soldiers that are fed up, but there are a lot of soldiers who go out and execute" the mission, he said.

Retired four-star Gen. Jack Keane, a gruff paratrooper, rejects the notion that the Army is breaking down in stress. "This is a war, and we should expect stress and strain on our soldiers and Marines," he told a congressional panel this summer. "They are performing magnificently."

"We're programmed to put it into our work," explained 29-year-old Amber Robinson, a 10th Mountain Division sergeant. "A lot of soldiers are depressed, angry, have drinking problems. But you get desensitized." She spoke of carrying the bloody clothes and personal gear of a comrade killed in combat in Afghanistan. "I don't cry anymore," she said, but after a few moments she added in a soft voice:

"Sometimes I wake up and cry for no reason."

Yet still they volunteer, and they will be needed. Barring some unforeseen major shift, deployment of tens of thousands of troops to Iraq and Afghanistan will continue, and the "long war" against Islamist extremists will likely require ground forces elsewhere in the region for years. Filling that need, about 176,500 Americans will enlist this fiscal year in the Army, including Army National Guard and reserves. The Army anticipates re-enlisting 116,349 soldiers for two years or longer, including reservists and guardsmen.

Robust recruiting will enable the Army and the Marine Corps to expand their numbers by 92,000 over the next five years. But there is trouble in the fine print.

Each year, the military sets the number of soldiers it needs to maintain its forces. If it re-enlists above that goal, so much the better: More seasoned soldiers enrich the ranks. Five years ago the Army was re-enlisting 102 percent of its goal, keeping 1,437 soldiers more than it needed. Each year since then it has averaged 106.6 percent.

The rate among combat units in action is even higher: The 2nd Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division, currently fighting in Iraq, has notched a 185 percent re-enlistment rate. Overall at the 10th Mountain Division, the rate of soldiers who sign up for a second term reached 127 percent this year.

That number includes Vertley, who got married in July and re-enlisted. "It was security for me and my wife," he said, referring to the steady pay and health, education and housing benefits the Army provides.

The drop-off

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