Home Base Weighs In on Extended Iraq Stay for Brigade

Soldiers of the 172nd Stryker Combat Brigade serve in a rural area near the town of Mosul and were supposed to start coming home from Iraq this week. Then President Bush announced that additional troops were needed in Baghdad, and the Pentagon decided that the 172nd would have to stay for several months more. Family members are surprised and frustrated at Ft. Wainwright, the 172nd's home base in Fairbanks, Alaska.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

This week, soldiers with the 172nd Stryker Combat Brigade were getting ready to head home after a year in Iraq. Their gear was packed, welcome home banners were up and the parties planned. But then, new orders: go to Baghdad. President Bush announced 3700 more troops were needed to quell the violence there. At Fort Wainwright, Alaska where the brigade is based, the news hit hard.

From Fairbanks, NPR's John McChesney reports.

JOHN MCCHESNEY reporting:

Many of the wives living in base housing here are bitterly angry. In the parking lot behind the drab barracks-style townhouses provided for enlisted soldiers' families, Jenny Thomas is spray-painting slogans on her big, black Dodge Ram pickup.

On the rear window it says, Four more months? Followed by a question mark and exclamation marks. On the side it says, Bring my Daddy home.

Ms. JENNY THOMAS (Army Wife): Just to let everyone know that it isn't okay, that we want them home.

MCCHESNEY: Next to Jenny Thomas's pickup, Samantha Gouldner(ph) is on the truck of her car. On the rear window, she is painting bring the 172nd home. They've done their job.

Ms. SAMANTHA GOULDNER (Army Wife): I mean, they can't just do this to the soldiers and expect nobody to be upset about it.

MCCHESNEY: Both of these women have served in the Army themselves. Inside a tiny apartment, Samantha apologizes for the dinosaur toys and stuffed animals scattered on the floor by her two children, three and six.

Ms. GOULDNER: Guys, you've got to be quiet. Y'all have got to be quiet. Y'all need to go sit down.

MCCHESNEY: She says first learned that her husband wasn't coming home from television news, not the Army.

Ms. GOULDNER: It was unbelievable. I mean, it felt like somebody just literally rushed into your chest and just like grabbed your heart, and just squeezed any bit of hope and happiness out of you.

MCCHESNEY: Her six-year-old son's birthday is on August 10th and she had to tell him that his father would not be home as promised.

Ms. GOULDNER: And his chin started quivering and he started to cry. And his first question was, why, Mommy, why? And I mean, I promised my son that Daddy would be home for his birthday. And I blame Bush. I blame Rumsfeld. To them, our guys are nothing but numbers. That's all they are. They're not living people.

MCCHESNEY: Jenny Thomas says she and her husband, Willy, enlisted in the Army just after 9/11.

Ms. THOMAS: We had it in our minds to go over there and get the (bleep) who'd done 9/11.

MCCHESNEY: By over there, she means Afghanistan. Like Samantha Gouldner, she now believes that the war in Iraq was a big mistake. She says her husband and his fellow soldiers are exhausted and should come home.

Ms. THOMAS: You know, they will carry on. They will do their job, but morale over there has never been lower.

MCCHESNEY: Thomas has three children, one just under two, another seven, and Elena, six; black hair, bright eyes.

So did you think your daddy was coming home soon?

Ms. ELENA THOMAS (Soldier's Daughter): He was about to come home in three days. And he was suppose to come home tomorrow, but now that the president told him to stay a little bit longer and fight the bad guys a little bit longer, then I'm not happy anymore.

MCCHESNEY: Jade Webber lives in the same apartment complex. She says she's ambivalent about the war. She can see both the positive and the negative. She has two children, three and five.

Ms. JADE WEBBER (Army Wife): We made signs. We made t-shirt. We went grocery shopping and spent all this money getting all the things that Daddy likes to eat and everything. And so I was trying to think what can I do because we can't put up our welcome home sign that we made.

MCCHESNEY: So she too has painted a slogan on her car, Bring my Daddy home. Jade Webber says for the past year, she has feared every knock on the door.

Ms. WEBBER: And we've made it through this year and nothing. They've been safe. They haven't been hurt. So we're like, oh, thank God it's over, they're on their way home, they're going to be okay. And now they're getting sent somewhere even more dangerous, and we don't know. So now we have that feeling all over again.

MCCHESNEY: The Pentagon says it could be another four months before these wives see their husbands and the children see their fathers.

John McChesney, NPR News, Fairbanks, Alaska.

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