At Fort Benning, News of Possible Third Tours in Iraq

Soldiers react to the new Iraq strategy. President Bush visited Fort Benning, Ga., on Thursday to rally the troops. Many of the soldiers based at Fort Benning have been to Iraq before and are going back for their second or third tours.

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President Bush tried to head off some of that criticism yesterday, speaking about his new plan at Fort Benning, Georgia. And while he made his remarks, news of accelerated deployments was circulating by e-mail on the sprawling army base. Some got the word. Others were anxiously waiting.

After the president flew back to Washington, NPR's David Greene stuck around to talk to soldiers, but he ran into some trouble.

DAVID GREENE: The trouble was Major General Walter Wojdakowski, the commanding general at Fort Benning who decided to bar his troops from talking to reporters. The commander expressed concern this might take attention away from the president's message. But a few hours after Mr. Bush was gone, officials at the base yielded. They offered up two young privates, insisting they had not been prescreened or scripted.

In fact, these soldiers were plucked, conveniently, from their assignment, which was to tear down the room where the president had spoken, including hauling endless rows of numbered and lettered chairs.

Unidentified Man #1: I wouldn't know.

Unidentified Man #2: There should be numbers of that.

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah.

Unidentified Man #2: Like B-10.

Unidentified Man #1: B-10.

Unidentified Man #3: Those are A. Those are B. Those are C. It's alphabetical order.

Private KENNY SHEER(ph) (Fort Benning): Today was, by far, the best detail I've done in the long time, sir.

GREENE: That is Kenny Sheer. He is 18 years old, from Menasha, on Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin. He enlisted last summer.

Pvt. SHEER: People look up to me and I like that. I got a 9-year-old brother, a 12-year-old brother and a 17-year-old brother and a 15-year-old sister and they all look up to me. And I like the respect I get back home in town.

GREENE: In March, Sheer will ship out to Iraq. He says the order came before the president's announced escalation. The private says he expects to spend his days in Iraq hunting for improvised explosive devices. But he was more eager to talk about the Christmas he just spent back home where he asked his girlfriend to marry him.

Pvt. SHEER: Actually, she said yes. I'll be getting married as soon as I come back from Iraq.

GREENE: Is she nervous?

Pvt. SHEER: No. She loves me. She has faith in me. I have faith in myself. And I have faith in others. I have faith in the Lord. So, I know everything will work out.

Private RORY JOHNSON (Fort Benning): My name is Private Rory Johnson(ph). I'm from San Diego, California, sir.

GREENE: Rory Johnson was the other private on clean up detail. He is 24. He, too, enlisted last year and he, too, is headed to Iraq for his first tour. He is told he is leaving in August but says that may now be moved up. He said he has heard horror stories about Iraq from friends who have returned.

Pvt. JOHNSON: They said it sucks over there. I mean, there's this one kid who, you know, they go out at night in their squads and they, you know, kick down doors and all that. He said one time, it was his turn to kick the door down, there was a RPG set up with a string ready to trigger but it didn't go off. So, it's like, hey, they ain't screwing around over there.

GREENE: What makes it worth it?

Pvt. JOHNSON: Everybody out here. All my battle buddies. You know, you meet a lot of excellent people in this place. Some of my good friends I met in basic. You know, it's guys that, you know, if you had to take a bullet for him, you would. And that's what it's about. It's about the guy next to you.

GREENE: The president's troop increase had an immediate impact on a large combat brigade here. The soldiers will be returning to Iraq earlier than they thought. One of them, Sergeant Kenneth Hay(ph), was doing some shopping off base at Ranger Joe's military supply store.

Sergeant KENNETH HAY (Fort Benning): Oh, I just got some name tapes for my uniform. Some these flags, you know, because they get worn out and dirty, so, you know.

GREENE: Hay has tours in South Korea and Iraq in the past three years. He found out, yesterday, that he is going to Iraq this spring instead of in the summer. And he came home to share the news with his wife.

Sgt. HAY: Well, you know, I sat down and, you know, I kind of want to have a talk with her and I was like, you know, I got something to tell you and she was like, well, I already know so.

GREENE: She already knew, because an e-mail had beaten her husband home. Hay says he had been hoping for more time with his two-year-old son.

Sgt. HAY: Yeah. It would have been nice. It kind of came up quick, but, you know, that's just - that's how it goes. We're the army. It's what we do.

GREENE: David Greene, NPR News, Fort Benning, Georgia.

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