Measuring the Iraq War's Toll: Life at Fort Hood

Lt. Col. Peter Bacon at the 4th Infantry Division Memorial at Fort Hood, Killeen, Texas i i

hide captionLt. Col. Peter Bacon visits the 4th Infantry Division Memorial at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas. He was battalion officer for Pvt. Rashid Sahib, a soldier who died in Iraq and is commemorated with a plaque at the memorial.

Melissa Block, NPR
Lt. Col. Peter Bacon at the 4th Infantry Division Memorial at Fort Hood, Killeen, Texas

Lt. Col. Peter Bacon visits the 4th Infantry Division Memorial at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas. He was battalion officer for Pvt. Rashid Sahib, a soldier who died in Iraq and is commemorated with a plaque at the memorial.

Melissa Block, NPR
Wendy Weikel (with son Jonathan)

hide captionWendy Weikel (with 17-month-old son Jonathan) is one of the many military spouses helped by Fort Hood's Gold Star Family Support Center. Her husband Ian died in Iraq last year.

Melissa Block, NPR
Gold Star Family Support Center playroom i i

hide captionVolunteers at the support center help families of those killed in Iraq. This is one of the center's three playrooms.

Melissa Block, NPR
Gold Star Family Support Center playroom

Volunteers at the support center help families of those killed in Iraq. This is one of the center's three playrooms.

Melissa Block, NPR
Maj. Brian Pierce

hide captionMaj. Brian Pierce gets a haircut at CC's Barber Shop just outside Fort Hood. He says the biggest adjustments to life back in the United States are learning how to relax and how to respond to antiwar protesters.

Melissa Block, NPR
Soldiers lower flag at division headquarters i i

hide captionSoldiers lower the flag outside division headquarters at 5 p.m. on a recent day.

Melissa Block, NPR
Soldiers lower flag at division headquarters

Soldiers lower the flag outside division headquarters at 5 p.m. on a recent day.

Melissa Block, NPR

Next month, the United States will enter its fifth year of war in Iraq. The conflict has had a deep impact on communities across the country — perhaps nowhere more than Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas.

Fort Hood is the only military post that is home to two active divisions: the 4th Infantry and the 1st Cavalry of the U.S. Army. The 1st Cavalry Division is currently deployed, while the 4th Infantry Division returned last fall from its second deployment.

Covering 340 square miles, the fort is the home base of 50,000 soldiers. More than 600 who were stationed there have died since the war began.

The 4th Infantry Division Memorial commemorates those fallen soldiers.

On a recent day, Lt. Col. Peter Bacon visited the memorial. He was the battalion officer for Pvt. Rashid Sahib, who was killed in Iraq on May 18, 2003, and whose name appears on one of the plaques adorning the memorial.

"He was a good guy," Bacon says. "He was firmly committed. Whenever he wasn't in base, when we were over there, he was always out among the children. He had candy in his pockets."

Workers are in the process of building an addition to the memorial: a second semicircle to ring the first.

The memorial was originally designed for the names of the 81 soldiers under the 4th Infantry's command who were killed in the first deployment.

Then the division was sent to Iraq again. And many soldiers fully expect to return to Iraq for a third deployment.

For now, Command Sgt. Maj. Dwight Morrisey says he's happy to be alive.

"That's pretty good, considering," he says.

He also says he's proud of the work the 4th Infantry has done in Iraq, restoring electricity and water. But he cautions that the work will take more than just a few months.

"These people have been living like that for a long time, so it's going to take some while," he says.

For Maj. Brian Pierce, one big adjustment is finding the "off switch" — to just do nothing and relax. And he says another issue is confronting opposition to the war.

Of a group of protesters who recently gathered outside Fort Hood, Pierce says, "If you want to stop the war, go to Capitol Hill. We just do what we're told. Do we have reservations about what we're being told? Sure. Everybody's got reservations. But last time I checked, we have a volunteer army. We're here because we want to be here."

Maj. Gen. Jeff Hammond took command of the 4th Infantry in January. He acknowledges the "anguish with the unknown" that soldiers face.

"When there's a call in my house late at night when I'm deployed, my wife is afraid to answer the phone," Hammond says. "No one in their right mind should be happy with continuous deployments."

But in the end, he says, continuous deployments are "what we do."

NPR's Melissa Gray produced this story.

'Gold Star' Efforts Help Families of Fallen Soldiers

A mural adorns a playroom at Fort Hood's Gold Star Family Support Center. i i

hide captionA mural adorns a playroom at Fort Hood's Gold Star Family Support Center.

Melissa Block, NPR
A mural adorns a playroom at Fort Hood's Gold Star Family Support Center.

A mural adorns a playroom at Fort Hood's Gold Star Family Support Center.

Melissa Block, NPR
Debbie Busch

hide captionThree years ago, Debbie Busch founded Helping Unite Gold Star Survivors, the group that operates the support center.

Melissa Block, NPR

Related NPR Story

In a perfect world, the group wouldn't even exist. But at Fort Hood, its members do a lot of good.

Helping Unite Gold Star Survivors is a support organization for the families of Fort Hood soldiers killed in action.

The group, known as HUGSS, serves more than 50 families in the Killeen area of Texas. Through e-mail and phone calls, its reach expands to more than 250 people throughout the state.

Though it's based at Fort Hood, the nonprofit is funded by private donations and run by volunteers.

Debbie Busch started the organization three years ago, after discovering that many of the needs of Gold Star families were not being met. The wife of a command sergeant major, Busch has led family readiness groups during her 25 years as an Army spouse.

During the first few days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, a friend of her husband's - another command sergeant major - was killed. Busch contacted his widow to offer her support. Several months later, the widow asked Busch, "Why are you the only one who still cares and calls me?"

As the support group grew, members began comparing notes. One thing became clear: Fort Hood's casualty assistance officers needed better training.

The main job of a CAO is to keep family members informed and to ensure they receive all the benefits to which they're entitled.

But some CAOs weren't following up in the weeks and months after a soldier's death; families felt abandoned and disconnected from the military.

HUGSS pushed for and helped create a 40-hour training course for the officers. In addition to receiving a refresher course on which agencies provided services and benefits for Gold Star families, CAOs learned more about coping with grief and about the different counseling and support options available for survivors.

Busch says now she hears praise for the CAOs from new Gold Star families, and the Army is using the training course as a model for programs at other bases.

Today, HUGSS operates Fort Hood's new Gold Star Family Support Center. There are three different children's playrooms and a cozy meeting room, furnished with overstuffed couches and comfy chairs for adults.

Boxes of tissues stand sentry in every room, where a sympathetic ear, emergency childcare or other extra assistance is usually available.

Ever mindful that Gold Star families worry about being forgotten, volunteers regularly call or send notes on days that are hard for survivors: birthdays, holidays and the anniversaries of their soldiers' death. The support group meets at the center about every two weeks.

Ursula Pirtle, 37, got involved with HUGGS in 2004, after her husband Heath, an Army gunner, was killed in Iraq. She was eight months pregnant when he died.

"This is a unique place," Pirtle says. "Before Debbie, there was no place to go, no place to bring us together."

Pirtle says she has learned a lot from trial and error, and from talking with other widows.

"You don't want someone to tell you, 'I know how you feel,' because they don't. But it's nice to hear, 'I've been through this, I imagine it's rough on you. Here's some advice that worked for me and some things that haven't. I'm happy to share with you,'" Pirtle says.

Wendy Weikel is a new member, and she says it's comforting to see how other people live with their loss. Women like Pirtle, who are still grieving but are able to smile and embrace the positive aspects of their lives, give Weikel an idea of what her own life might be like a year or two from now.

Weikel's husband, Ian, died in April 2006. The two met when they were students at West Point, and both went to Iraq in 2003. A former company commander, Weikel left the Army soon before their son Jonathan was born.

On advice from the other widows, Weikel made what she calls a "preemptive strike" on her first Christmas without her husband.

"I wanted Jonathan to be happy and to be with smiling faces, something I couldn't give him," she recalls.

So she left him with his grandparents and spent part of the day at Ian's grave at Arlington National Cemetery.

"I had to see his name on that tombstone to understand fully in my head what's going on. It's what I personally needed on Christmas," she says.

Weikel credits the Gold Star Center for helping her navigate the good days and the bad, and for keeping her connected to the military community.

Busch says when she hears of Fort Hood casualties in the news, she knows more families will be coming her way.

"There's always a need for personal contact," she says.

Her organization is hoping, with more volunteers and more donations, to expand its services beyond the base, to grieving families in other cities and states.

"We've done things here at Fort Hood to improve the care of Gold Star families, but it's our nation's responsibility to help care for these families," Busch says.

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