Military Families Sacrifice for 'Surge'

At Fort Riley, near Junction City, Kan., military wives and soldiers talk about whether the cost of the troop increase that Bush ordered earlier this year has been worth it for them.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. A weak Iraqi government but some progress in the ground war. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick.

That mixed assessment is from a new report by U.S. intelligence agencies. The administration will release parts of it today. The New York Times says the report is very skeptical of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's leadership.

BRAND: Meanwhile, the release of the big report is still three weeks away. Army General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker will assess the impact of the surge, the 30,000 extra U.S. troops since the beginning of the year.

DAY TO DAY has been asking Iraqis and Americans for their views on the surge this month. And just last week Alex was in Junction City, Kansas on the radio, but not our radio.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Unidentified Man #1: KJCK, the talk of JC, presents Your Town. And good morning, everyone, and welcome to Your Town on the talk of JC. I'm joined today by the host of DAY TO DAY on the National Public Radio network, Alex Chadwick. NPR is in Junction City. They are working on a story concerning military life in Junction City.

CHADWICK: JC, Junction City; we are almost dead center in the middle of America. A long way from Iraq; still, an excellent place to see what the war means. Sacrifice and suffering, sure, and people and prosperity. Fort Riley is here, two hours west of Kansas City, home base for the Army's 1st Division; that's more than 15,000 soldiers. More than 20,000 family members with them and a lot more to come in the next few years. It's a military boomtown.

Ms. GAYLAN CHILES(ph) (Army Wife): Junction City is known as an Army town. They're proud of it.

CHADWICK: We stopped at the local history museum to see Gaylan Chiles(ph). Her husband is retired Army, and they stayed on.

Ms. CHILES: The weather is not the most ideal. It can be darn scary at times, and yet it's the people, the people are good.

CHADWICK: Junction City celebrates its 150th anniversary next year, and the fort is even older. The trimmed grounds where cavalry once trained, the handsome old limestone buildings; Amber McCall is living in one of them. She is married to an Army captain on the surge in Baghdad, his second tour. And from the insights she reads in his daily e-mails, things are better.

Ms. AMBER McCALL (Army Wife): He has told me that he's starting to recognize people in a friendly way, in a good way, of course. Because they're out more often. They recognize him so the Iraqi people are feeling very comfortable with my husband's unit being where they are, that they can approach them. And I mean, my husband has told me that they've caught several bad guys too, so I know that that's a great success, not only to the military, of course, but obviously to the Iraqi people.

CHADWICK: Her two-year-old son napped upstairs and all the time we talked Amber fiddled with a bead bracelet that spelled out her husband's name: Brian. It's not fun with him gone, she said, but it's okay. Off base I met other Army wives at a shopping center. And maybe it was the heat and the asphalt and the busy kids, but the strain seemed more apparent. Sacha Wingrove(ph) was struggling to get a big new baby-seat box into the back of her minivan.

Ms. SACHA WINGROVE: I love my country, but I - being in the Army and facing now a 15-month deployment, I just - it's just ridiculous. There's no other word for it.

CHADWICK: How many kids do you have and how old are they?

Ms. WINGROVE: I've got a two-and-a-half-year-old, a one-year-old, and I'm due here in a couple of weeks. So almost three.

CHADWICK: And another woman came walking down a row of cars. She wore white shorts, a blue football jersey, and two small tension lines where her nose bridged into her forehead.

Ms. CHRISTINA PETTITE(ph): You probably don't want my opinion.

CHADWICK: Why is that?

Ms. PETTITE: Because I'm divorced. I divorced my ex because he went to Iraq for 17 months and came back and mentally was not stable.

CHADWICK: Do you have kids?

Ms. PETTITE: I do, I have three kids. And he beat my son so badly, we had to call an ambulance. I was with him for 10 years of my life and I knew him. I knew the man that left, and he was not the same man that came home.

CHADWICK: Could I get your name, please, miss?

Ms. PETTITE: Christina Pettite.

CHADWICK: So did you think that the war was a part of that stress that came out on him?

Ms. PETTITE: I think it was the combination of the way that the military runs things and the support that they have for the families. Personally, I don't think it's fair that our soldiers have to go over there and duck and hide from bullets when we can't shoot back into these fools when these Iraqis are taking cover in schools and churches, because that's why our men are getting killed.

Unidentified Man #3: Fire!

CHADWICK: The Army uses Fort Riley to test new training. They've got a mock Iraqi town here and they hire local Kansans to play villagers, and the practice looks real.

Unidentified Man #4: We got no more bad guys, unless they fire at us, we got to get the hell out.

CHADWICK: Still, even with the personal stories, how can you tell from here if the surge is working? But you can ask what it costs. Private First Class Dustin Fretchel(ph) left here for Iraq in February, part of the surge, and then he came back a couple of months later. He'd taken a nickel-size piece of shrapnel in his midsection. It ruptured his spleen, tore a hole in his stomach, and destroyed a good length of intestine. So Private Fretchel really does understand the cost of war.

Private First Class DUSTIN FRETCHEL (U.S. Army): Would I say that, you know, what we're doing is worth it? Yes. I think what we're doing is worth it. Does it - is it worth someone's life? No. Is it worth someone's limbs? No. But I would say that what we're doing over there is worth it in the sense we're helping the people.

CHADWICK: Is it worth your gut?

Pfc FRETCHEL: Is it worth my gut? It was, because I don't have it anymore and I'm living and I'm fine.

CHADWICK: Well, he's not truly fine yet. It's going to take a year for him to heal. Anyway, he's just an Army private. Like the rest of us, he's going to be waiting to hear from General Petraeus in a few weeks.

Pfc FRETCHEL: If we threw 25,000 extra soldiers over there for the surge and then everything that's happening over there is the exact same, then I don't really think the surge succeeded.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: Okay. Back to the radio talk show.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Unidentified Man #2: Go ahead. You're on with Alex.

ANDY (Caller): Good morning. This is Andy Popovich(ph) and I'm calling to say that I support the war. I don't support how the war is being prosecuted. And I'm not sure that we're fighting the right way.

CHADWICK: What do you think we should be doing differently?

(Soundbite of laughter)

ANDY: I've said in the past that we ought to nuke them till they glow so we can shoot them in the dark.

CHADWICK: Well, this is a conservative community. None of the other callers, all men by the way, actually suggested nukes, but they were all very strong on backing the war. Still, I thought the voices that actually sounded most like Junction City were from women. I spoke with four wives one evening in a small meeting room at the First Christian Church. These interviews run a few minutes, but if you'd like to know what Army wives are thinking, listen.

Ms. RHONDA EGGLESTON (Army Wife): My name is Rhonda Eggleston(ph). My husband is a lieutenant colonel, he's also a doctor, and he was deployed during OIF 1, or Operation Iraqi Freedom 1, the first phase of the war.

Ms. JENNIFER VEDDER (Army Wife): My name is Jennifer Vedder(ph) and my husband is Edward Vedder. He's a major. He is executive officer of 11 CAB and they're deploying on - this coming week and they'll be in Iraq for 16 months.

Ms. CASSIE SUBWOOD (Army Wife): My husband is Chad Subwood(ph). We've been here two years. He's with 134-AR and he's been deployed almost a year.

CHADWICK: And say your name.

Ms. SUBWOOD: Cassie Subwood(ph). Sorry.

CHADWICK: And what about yourself? Your husband is about coming home so he's not part of the surge, but he's actually seen it happen.

Ms. SUBWOOD: I don't feel like I've been affected negatively. It's been a hard year, but I think that I've grown - individually. I'm in cosmetology full time and I had a baby four months ago, so we've had a lot going on this year.

CHADWICK: Do you know what is going to happen when he comes back? Is he planning on staying in the military?

Ms. SUBWOOD: Absolutely. We're career. We will be in at least 20 years.

CHADWICK: And Jen?

Ms. VEDDER: Yeah.

CHADWICK: Your husband is about to go.

Ms. VEDDER: Yes, he is.

CHADWICK: And he's been how many times before?

Ms. VEDDER: He's been to Iraq one other time.

CHADWICK: People who are not in the military may be less able to look at this as calmly as you do, because the prospect of my husband is leaving in three days to go to Iraq and be a helicopter pilot, there's a cost to this on you - and what is that cost?

Ms. VEDDER: It depends on how you look at it. You know, I was in the military myself, so I have - we have a very unique relationship in that I understand what he's doing, what it's all going to be about for next 16 months.

CHADWICK: There are people, there are - who are listening to this radio program who'll say, yes, there would be value in doing this, but the sacrifice is just too great at this point. You can't keep on doing this. Iraq is not progressing in the way that it needs to progress. We can't really establish a society over there. They have to do it. And they're not. They're not.

Ms. EGGELSTON: I don't agree with that. I don't agree with that statement. I don't agree with that assessment. This is going to take a while. You know, democracy doesn't happen overnight. You can't rebuild a whole nation in three years, four years. I mean, look at how long - we are still working on it in the United States. We still haven't gotten it 100 percent right. And yet weeks, they want our soldiers to come home when they've only been there for a few years.

Ms. VEDDER: All of the sacrifices that we've made so far will have been for nothing. If we pull out now, the Iraqi people are not strong enough yet. They don't get it yet. It's not been long enough. And my husband missing my daughter's senior year in high school, him missing my second daughter's 16th birthday, will have been for nothing if we do that.

Ms. SUBWOOD: People want an end. They want it now. They want instant gratification, and this is not one of those situations where you're going to get instant gratification. It's going to come over time. And I think it needs patience.

CHADWICK: Well, that's true. But you know, we were told that the war was going to pay for itself. The Iraqi oil reserves were going to, you know, pay for the war, that it was going to be a quick and easy victory.

Ms. SUBWOOD: Who said that? Nobody said it was going to be quick and easy.

Ms. EGGELSTON: Nobody.

Ms. SUBWOOD: Bush said this is going to take time. He never promised quick and easy.

CHADWICK: It just...

Ms. VEDDER: That's all going to...

Ms. EGGELSTON: The history has to judge that. History has to judge that, and I think that's where the discussion has come in. We've put the troop surge in, which gets us back to the point of all this. How do we feel about that? Are we going to support it as a country? Yeah. Please, please, support it. Please support our troops that way.

General Petraeus is going to come out next month and we're going to reevaluate again, more discussion will go on. That's how a free country works. But the Iraqi people need more time. And I think that's the point we need to stick with. But...

Ms. VEDDER: You know, just like you said, the military campaign was quick and easy. I mean, how can you go against some of the fighting vehicles that we have? I mean, there's no question. You know, of course we went it and we took Baghdad. And it wasn't even a question. You know, now we've got the stability and the support part of this whole operation. And you've got soldiers that are going out and they're rebuilding hospitals, and they're rebuilding schools. And they're doing things that don't involve picking up a weapon and shooting somebody. And these are skills that aren't taught at infantry basic training. You can't go against that.

I mean, you have to admit that. I mean you could say whatever you want, but can't say anything against what our soldiers are doing over there, because they are doing amazing things, little things that you never hear about. Those are great things they're doing.

CHADWICK: Jennifer Vedder, Rhonda Eggelston, and Cassie Subwood, whose husbands are in Iraq, back from Iraq, or just on their way, from Fort Riley in Junction City, Kansas.

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