The War at Home (Part I)
How are U.S. soldiers and their families struggling with the fallout of the war in Iraq?
Every time a breeze springs up, the tinny tags on the trees start to chime. The soldiers call them "dog tags," and usually they dangle around their necks.
Some carry the soldier's name, unit and date of birth. Others bear an aphorism or a verse from the Bible.
Gregory P. Sanders had engraved this: "I will be strong and courageous. I will not be terrified, or discouraged, for the Lord my God is with me wherever I go." The quotation was taken from the book of Joshua, chapter 1, verse 9.
Sanders carried the tag around his neck on the final day of his life, March 24, 2003. That day, when he was proceeding with his unit towards Baghdad, he was killed by a sniper bullet.
Sanders was barely 19 years old when his life came to an end. Now his tag is loosely wrapped around a branch of a tree — and makes noises with every gust of the wind.
Gregory P. Sanders was one of the first foot soldiers from Fort Stewart in Hinesville, Georgia, to die in Iraq. And for the time being, Staff Sergeant John L. Hartman Jr. is the last. When a few days ago the memorial ceremony for Hartman began, it was raining and freezing cold.
Another Eastern Red Bud Tree — the 318th — was planted along the "Warriors Walk." Each tree represents a soldier from the 3rd Infantry Division who has died since March 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq.
An honor guard presented the colors and Hartman's two children were trying to take shelter under a blanket while the soldiers sang "God Bless America."
As the kids were fighting the cold and their tears, a profound sadness took hold of the mourners. John L. Hartman did not have to return to Iraq for a third combat tour, but he chose to go in place of a fellow soldier with a newborn son.
When the Humvee in which he was riding was hit by a roadside bomb, Hartman was killed. He was 39 years old. "Every year the trees begin to blossom in spring, exactly at the time we captured Baghdad in 2003," says a member of Fort Stewart’s Public Affairs Office. But his remark remains as lonesome as the trees on "Warriors Walk." Nothing helps.
And the war drags on. President George W. Bush recently announced the deployment of an additional 21,500 troops to Iraq. Mr. Bush now seems to be betting all his chips on his only choice. As he sees it, this is perhaps the final military push to turn the tide.
The re-adjusted strategy is labelled "clear, hold and build" and is to be implemented by David Petraeus, the newly installed top U.S. commander in Iraq.
Soldiers are supposed to go from door to door, clear houses of terrorists and prevent the rebels from returning once the soldiers have moved on. This strategy can only work if there is substantial and reliable backup by U.S. and Iraqi troops.
But Iraqi support is more and more doubtful. U.S. Army experts are continuously shocked by the poor state of the Iraqi forces. Therefore, it is almost certain that the U.S. troops can rely on nobody else but themselves. Under those circumstances, an extra 20,000-plus soldiers is far too little. A bloody spring looms over the U.S. military in Iraq.
"Sometimes I simply switch off the TV," says Jennifer Duke. "The news from Iraq is just driving me crazy." The 28-year old carries an unborn baby beneath her heart.
It is going to be the third child for the Duke family, and once again her husband Robert will miss important milestones in his childrens’ lives.
A few months after Jennifer will have delivered the baby, Robert, a squad leader, will embark on another deployment to Iraq. He will stay there for another full year.
Whenever he will have some breathing space, he will turn on his computer and switch on the webcam. He will then watch his wife holding their baby in her arms. They will wave at each other, and they will try not to get too sentimental.
At some point, Jennifer might tell Robert of the first steps their youngest child might have ventured. For him, this experience will not be new, as he was also away in Iraq when their now four-year-old daughter Josselyn was little.
For Robert, being a soldier is not only a profession, it is a vocation. And there are some questions he would rather not ponder — at least not in public. But his wife does.
In the beginning, Jennifer says, she supported the war. But with time, her doubts deepened. "It's not clear anymore what we are doing there," she says about the war in Iraq.
And without looking at her husband who is sitting next to her she says, "He does not question his job."
Some seconds pass, and finally Robert steps in. He adds in a calm but self-assured voice: "I got nine people in my squad and they are my second family. My job is it to get them all home safe and sound."
Then, all of a sudden, he opens his heart for a blink of an eye. "Of course, I am haunted by nightmares," he confesses. "But I never bother my wife with this."
Editor’s Note: You can read Part II of this essay here.