These days many soldiers just want the war to end

Greg Bean Coda

Greg Bean
Coda

As I write this today, my middle son is completing training at Fort Dix in preparation for deployment to Iraq next month.

This will be his second tour of duty in that country. He joined the Army on Sept. 5, 2001, six days before terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, an action that was the catalyst for plunging our nation into a war that has lasted longer than the Civil War, the Korean War and World War I. It has lasted as long as American involvement in World War II, but not as long as our nation’s failed adventure in Vietnam.

On his first tour, he was a paratrooper with the 173rd Airborne, based in Vicenza, Italy, and jumped into northern Iraq during the first days of the war. It was the only landing in force by airborne infantry in the conflict so far.

On this tour, he has been recalled to active duty as a member of the 175th Infantry Regiment of the Maryland National Guard, which will deploy around 1,300 troops to Iraq this summer. Once in-country, he’ll be the machine gunner on an armored Humvee, a job he is well trained for, but that is dangerous nonetheless.

Needless to say, his mother and I, as well as his brothers, friends and extended family are worried, and looking at a lot of sleepless nights in the coming months. I remember it from his last tour, the nagging 24-hour-a-day gut-level fear for the safety of your child. Looking at the darkened ceiling at 3 a.m., dreading the glow from the headlights pulling into the driveway in the middle of the night, or the official cars waiting as you arrive home from work. The vision of uniformed soldiers on the front porch with news that the worst has happened.

Every day without that news was a gift, a blessing, and one long day stretched into another until he was finally home and safe. We gave thanks to God for that, and believed we’d never have to face anything of the like again.

We were wrong, as were the parents, wives, husbands, lovers, children and families of thousands of other American soldiers called back to active duty, some for their third or fourth tours – tours which are getting longer, by the way. For years, the standard in-country deployment per-iod in the American armed forces was 12 months. Now that has been increased to 15 months, and the military says it can’t even guarantee that. It could be longer.

And with every day, the numbers of killed and wounded grow.

Information from the United States Department of Defense says that as of the middle of July, 3,622 U.S. military personnel had been killed in Iraq, and there were 26,558 wounded.

So far, 35 people from Maryland, or with ties to that state, have died in Iraq. Last October, the Maryland National Guard suffered two troop fatalities, the first Maryland National Guard soldiers killed abroad in the line of duty since World War II.

The simple law of averages says there will be more, but what will those sacrifices have gained? It is becoming apparent that they were made based on lies and failed intelligence. It looks as if they will have gained little, if anything at all. I’m incredibly angry about that, and I’m not alone.

We shared a picnic with our son at Fort Dix on July 4, the only day this summer that families have been allowed to visit. And it struck us that this is a different military than the one our son joined in 2001.

Then, the soldiers were angry at the people who had attacked us in such a cowardly fashion, anxious to get some payback. They believed wholeheartedly in the cause, in themselves and in the integrity of their leadership. They were tough, strong young men and women on a mission.

These days, there’s a lot of gray hair in the ranks. A lot of dads and moms with a few extra pounds in their midsections. A lot of soldiers who look more like accountants than fighters. A whole lot of people making an incredible sacrifice of time, energy and finances – older people who have given up jobs and educations and precious time with their families. A whole lot of people whose main ambition is to come home again in one piece.

While I don’t speak for all of them, I also sensed a general shift in the attitude of the soldiers from what I saw in 2001. These days, they’re still proud to serve their country, still bound to duty and honor. But many no longer have faith in their leadership to tell them the truth. They’re angry at their government. They no longer believe in the soundness of the cause. They no longer believe that a victory is probable, or possible. They don’t want to go back, again. Many of them simply want out.

In the meantime, they’ll serve their country and honor their commitments. They’ll fight for each other, to keep their buddies alive and safe. That will be an increasingly difficult task. Here are a few headlines from The New York Times today:

• Attackers Kill 39 in Iraq; Massacre Details Emerge;

• Bush Advisors See a Failed Strategy Against Al Qaeda;

• Same People, Same Threat as 6 Years Ago;

• The Imperative of War: A Life Recruited at 17, Taken at 18;

• Help Wanted: Peacemaker (Thomas L. Friedman’s column about the Iraqi Parliament going on vacation for August because it’s too hot, while American soldiers swelter in body armor);

• Hey, W! Bin Laden (Still) Determined to Strike in U.S. (Maureen Dowd);

And the most troubling, for the parent of a soldier:

• Democrats Lack Support to Force Vote on Pullout.

At this point, it looks like there aren’t enough votes to compel the Bush administration to initiate a plan to withdraw American forces from combat in Iraq in spite of the overwhelming desire of the public (myself included) to see that accomplished. But we all know it’s just a matter of time. A matter of time before enough Republicans in Congress join their Democratic brethren to force the administration’s hand and do what George W. Bush (the worst president in history) stubbornly refuses to do. A matter of time before this ill-begotten war is brought to an overdue end.

All we can do until then is hold on, be strong, pray for the safety of our soldiers, children and loved ones – and watch the ceiling at 3 a.m.

It’s going to be a long 15 months.

Gregory Bean is executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at gbean@gmnews.com.