Soldiers in Iraq Count Days Until Return Home

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The regular rotation of United States soldiers through Iraq is forcing some to reconsider their long-term committment to a career in the military. They feel they are missing out on too many family moments.


NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has just wrapped up a month-long reporting trip to Iraq. He traveled throughout the country talking with soldiers, north of Baghdad with the 1st Squadron of the 7th Cavalry Regiment -that's Colonel George Custer's old unit - and south of Baghdad with the 3rd Infantry Division, which is combing the farming area along the Tigris River, searching for the fighters of al-Qaida in Iraq. He sent us his impressions.

TOM BOWMAN: What it comes right down to it, war is all about numbers - enemy killed, weapons seized, territory conquered. It can all be reduced to numerals.

The American military just came out with this press release: Of the 18 provinces in Iraq, Iraqis now control eight. Here's another press release I just saw, again numbers: In three separate locations, Iraqi volunteer fighters found caches of weapons, including four two-liter bottles of homemade explosives.

The American soldiers I talked with over the past few weeks have numbers of their own — very personal ones, like the sergeant on his second deployment. I spoke with him at Taji, a sprawling and dusty U.S. base north of Baghdad. He has a 5-year-old daughter.

I missed all her birthdays, except for one, he told me. I made her fourth birthday. He added, I have a son who is 4 months old. I haven't seen him yet. The sergeant says his wife is supportive of his Army career, but an increasing number of spouses find it hard to cope with the long separations, especially those young and newly married.

The sergeant told me, I know guys whose wives left them, cleaned out their bank account — cold numbers on a balance sheet. I was told that in one unit, a survey found that 28 percent of the sergeants and officers plan on divorcing when they returned home.

All soldiers in Iraq paid special attention to one number — 15. That's how many months they spent in Iraq now, a number that increased from 12 in April. Every calendar you see has the dates crossed off, one more number you can subtract.

Lieutenant PETER BOGART(ph) (U.S. Army): My guys have missed two straight Thanksgivings, two straight Christmases. There are guys with 2-year-olds, coming back and your kid's three-and-a-half. You miss a lot of stuff. So you know, it just becomes a point where you got to weigh the options.

BOWMAN: Army Lieutenant Peter Bogart(ph) is a tall, lean officer with a Georgia drawl. He helps train Iraqi police in the farming villages (unintelligible) Baghdad province. Listen to his numbers.

Lt. BOGART: I've been married 17 months, spent about four and a half weeks with my wife, and a 15-month deployment is just a little long, especially if (unintelligible).

BOWMAN: He's on his second deployment, four years in the active Army with an eye toward a long career.

Lt. BOGART: I've always planned on doing 20.

BOWMAN: Now, he's not so sure. The future likely means more long and repeated deployments. He and his wife, Britney(ph), talk about having kids. His chances of staying in the Army, about 50-50, he says.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Baghdad.

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