Measuring the Iraq War's Toll: Life at Fort Hood 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 — and perhaps nowhere more than Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas, home to two active military divisions.
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Measuring the Iraq War's Toll: Life at Fort Hood

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

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

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Next month, the United States will enter its fifth year of war in Iraq. And as that milestone approaches, we wanted to gauge the effect of the war on a military community. So I went to Killeen, Texas, and Fort Hood. It's the only military post that's home to two active divisions - the 4th Infantry and the 1st Cavalry.

The 1st Cavalry is deployed in Iraq now. The 4th ID got back last fall from its second deployment. More than 600 soldiers from Fort Hood have died since the war in Iraq began. Fort Hood is vast - 340 square miles. 50,000 soldiers are based there.

(Soundbite of marching band)

BLOCK: On a recent morning, the 4th ID band practiced marching around the field just outside division headquarters next to the 4th ID Memorial. It's covered with plaques for the division's soldiers killed in Iraq.

Lieutenant Colonel PETER BACON (U.S. Army): I remember the first third guy down there, Private Rashid Sahib.

BLOCK: Lieutenant Colonel Peter Bacon was the battalion officer for Private Sahib, who was killed on May 18th, 2003.

Lt. Col. BACON: I remember him dying very early in the conflict.

BLOCK: Tell me about him.

Lt. Col. BACON: He was a good guy. He was firmly committed. Whenever he wasn't in the base, when we were out there, he was always among the children. He had candy in his pockets, things like that. He was a good guy.

(Soundbite of machinery)

BLOCK: Workers are shaping a slab of white Texas limestone to finish an addition to the memorial, a second semi-circle to ring the first. The memorial was originally designed for the names of the 81 soldiers under the 4th ID's command who were killed in the first deployment. But then the division was sent to Iraq again.

Lt. Col. BACON: No. Did we know we were going back a second time? No. There's always that possibility, and at the time there was no thought of expanding on the interior of this, which is why the design expands to the outside and the outside of this wall will then house the plaques from those who fell over the last year.

BLOCK: And how many is that?

Lt. Col. BACON: We have 234 fallen in the last rotation.

BLOCK: So triple what was in the first year.

Lt. Col. BACON: Yes, ma'am.

BLOCK: That's just a remarkable thing to think about.

Lt. Col. BACON: Well it is a completely different fight.

BLOCK: Do you expect that the 4th ID would be going back again?

Lt. Col. BACON: I know that the 4th ID will be going back again.

BLOCK: Now the division doesn't have its official deployment orders yet. But at CC's barbershop.

Ms. CHUN ZARNECKI(ph) (Owner, CC's Barbershop): Thank you.

BLOCK: Just outside the gates to Fort Hood, you'll find a lot of 4th ID soldiers fully expecting to go back to Iraq for their third deployment.

Sergeant Major DWIGHT MORRISSEY (U.S. Army): Pretty much, you're probably looking at in the next year or so we'll probably be back over there.

BLOCK: Command Sergeant Major Dwight Morrissey is draped in a leopard print barber's cape, getting what just everyone gets at CC's, a high and tight: shaved on the side, close cut on top. Eight dollars and a vigorous back and shoulder massage thrown in to boot.

Sergeant Morrissey's been coming to CC's for 15 years. He got back from his last tour in Iraq in November.

Sgt. Maj. MORRISSEY: I'm alive. So I guess that's pretty good, yup. Considered, that's pretty good.

BLOCK: Does it feel like things are getting over there?

Sgt. Maj. DWIGHT MORRISSEY: In some ways they are. For the most part, I think we are doing a lot of good. I mean, restoring a lot of stuff. I mean like electric and stuff like that. We're helping them with their water and stuff like that. So it's not one of those deals where, you know, everyone kind of look at it, think okay, in the next three or four months we're going to make something happen. This is - I mean, these people have been living like that for a long time. So it's going to take some while.

Unidentified Man #1: I know why it's just like (unintelligible).

Major BRIAN PEARCE (U.S. Army): Hey, I just came from graduation...

BLOCK: Sergeant Morrissey's friend, Major Brian Pearce, walks in and takes Morrissey's seat in the barber chair. He watches as Morrissey drives away in a shiny black Chevrolet Avalanche.

Maj. PEARCE: He got a new truck.

Unidentified Woman: Yup. Uh-uh. He (unintelligible)

Maj. PEARCE: He did?

BLOCK: A lot of soldiers here will convert their combat pay into a new vehicle. You'll see signs at the local car dealership welcoming the soldiers home, promising them a sweet deal.

Major Pearce tells me one big adjustment about being home is trying to find what he calls the off switch - to just do nothing and relax. And he says another adjustment is confronting opposition to the war. He mentions protesters who recently gathered outside the gates of Fort Hood.

Maj. PEARCE: Well, they were saying down with the war. Stop the war. You're talking to wrong people. 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. Last time I checked, it's a volunteer army. We're here because we want to be here.

BLOCK: The proud owner of this barbershop is Chun Zarnecki, known to all as CC, a Korean woman married to a soldier she met in Korea long ago. She wears a pin in the shape of an Apache helicopter on her shirt. It was given to her by a helicopter pilot, just one of the many soldiers who she calls her sons.

Ms. ZARNECKI: Everybody calls me Mom. I really don't have no kids. But they're all my kids.

BLOCK: They're all your kids. Do you worry about them when they're over in Iraq?

Ms. ZARNECKI: Oh yes. I do. One soldier lost both his...

BLOCK: Lost both his legs. For that soldier who lost his legs, or any other wounded soldier, CC promises a free haircut.

Killeen, Texas, is a sprawl of tattoo parlors, army surplus stores, pawnshops, chain restaurants, and in a city that's now majority minority, there's an African-American bookstore and culture shop called Under One Roof.

(Soundbite of doorbell)

BLOCK: It's run by a veteran of Vietnam and Desert Storm who goes by the Yoruba name, Bobbatunday(ph). It means the father returns. He sees the store as a kind of community center and he does see a lot of young soldiers.

Mr. BOBBATUNDAY: What we tell me is, look, when you get back, make sure you come and show your face. I lot of them, I don't even know their names. You know what I'm saying? But we know faces, do you follow me? Just show your face, let us know you're all right. It's what they do. I'm back.

BLOCK: What does it mean for Killeen, for this community to be heading into the fifth year of a war?

Mr. BOBBATUNDAY: You know it's almost we're numbed to it, to be quite honest about it. We don't talk about it a lot. You hear the soldiers say oh, man. This is - I'm going over my third time and my fourth time. And you'd be surprised as to how many of them are trying to get out of the Army. These soldiers are tired. Not only do they go to war for a year, but they come back and have to train for a year to go back.

(Soundbite of traffic)

BLOCK: Inside Fort Hood, along streets named Tank Destroyer Boulevard and Hell on Wheels Avenue, just about everything is the color of desert sand. The trucks, Humvees, Army barracks and the small brick building that houses the Gold Star Family Support Center. The volunteers at the center help the families of those killed in the war with support groups, cards and phone calls on birthdays or the anniversary of a soldier's death. It is at the family support center that we meet Wendy Weikel and her 17th-month-old son, Jonathan.

BLOCK: Wendy met her husband, Ian, when they were students at West Point. They both went to Iraq in 2003. She left the Army even before their son was born. Captain Ian Weikel was a 31-year-old troop commander on his second deployment to Iraq when his Humvee hit a roadside bomb. He died on April 18th last year.

Ms. WENDY WEIKEL (Gold Star Center, Fort Hood): I still, you know, it is so weird. It's like the 18th of every month, I know it's the 18th when I wake up. I don't even look at my watch. I just know. You rerun that whole time of being down at the end of the driveway and having those guys come and, you know, telling you this information. And you just don't believe it.

BLOCK: Other widows at the Gold Star Center had warned Wendy that holidays would be especially hard. So this past Christmas, she left her son with her parents and went to Arlington National Cemetery. That's where her husband is buried, his gravestone just behind that of his best friend.

Ms. WEIKEL: Yeah, and I just walked all the graves there and just kind of digested what this war has meant to people, you know, to families that have had to go through this. I think when I go to D.C., sometimes I get angry outside the gates of Arlington because people just forget, you know. And it's not their fault. It's just that they don't have it as a daily reality in their lives like we do. It's a daily reality that somebody's either coming or going, or that people have gotten hurt or killed.

BLOCK: What would you want them to know about - you mentioned what this war has meant.

Ms. WEIKEL: I just hope that people understand that there's a huge human aspect to it. You know, when political leaders make decisions, a lot of times, you know, some of us get the idea that, you know, we're just pawns. And we're not.

It's real people and real lives. And you know, deploying every other year is a reality for a lot of these soldiers right now, and that's a lot to ask, you know, not just families but of a person. You know, I meet several soldiers around here who - I know it sounds funny - but that can't even keep a date because you're not home long enough to have that.

I definitely, you know, don't want to impose my feelings on the war or anything like that by any means, because I support the military 100 percent. Obviously, I loved it. I love the military, but it's a hard life right now. It's real hard, and sometimes I think people forget that, you know, it's a hard life.

Major General JEFF HAMMOND (U.S. Army): I'm Jeff Hammond, and I'm a major general in the United States Army. And I am the division commander for steadfast and loyal, the 4th Infantry Division.

BLOCK: General Hammond took command of the 4th ID last month.

Maj. Gen. HAMMOND: I think every soldier's anguish is with the unknown. There's nothing easy about deploying and getting into direct combat. It's hard. It's hard on families. Your family stays glued to the TV, watching the network news to see what happened. Every time something happens, back here they don't know if it was their husband or their wife, their son or daughter, and everyone's in a semi-panic while waiting to hear.

When there's a call in my house late at night when I'm deployed, my wife's afraid to answer the phone. I mean, no one in their right mind should be happy with continuous deployments, no one. But it's what we do. We deal with it and we take care of each other.

BLOCK: Does public support matter, do you think? I mean, if you think about polls that show the public thinks the war was a mistake and wants the troops home soon?

Maj. Gen. HAMMOND: We're not in a cocoon. We are very proud of what we do, and it's my experience to date that the American public stands firm and strong behind the soldier. I just came back from Fort Carson the other day, and I loved watching, getting on a plane, watching people give up their first-class seats so that soldiers could sit in there. I mean, that's pretty remarkable.

(Soundbite of trumpet)

BLOCK: At 5:00, seven soldiers lower the flag outside division headquarters. Traffic stops. You'll see soldiers get out of their cars and stand at attention in the middle of the street. Then the flag is immediately raised again.

(Soundbite of trumpet)

BLOCK: As it has since March of 2003, the flag will fly here through the night, illuminated by a spotlight because the country is at war.

Tomorrow, we'll visit Shoemaker High School in Killeen, Texas, where nearly all the students have parents in the military, many of them deployed in Iraq. We'll hear how they're coping tomorrow on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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