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Soldiers, family members say they feel the strain

FORT BENNING, Ga.—As President Bush began to sell his troop increase Thursday to a skeptical public, many of the soldiers he'll be sending back to the battlefield, as well as other veterans, said the notion of "sacrifice" is being seriously tested.

Bush acknowledged the hardship that his decision would impose on soldiers and their families during a visit to Fort Benning, a training facility for the Army infantry. Some members of the post's 3rd Brigade were notified Thursday that their spring deployment would be moved up from late May or early June to March as a result of Bush's plan.

"It's going to require sacrifice, and I appreciate the sacrifices our troops are willing to make," Bush told soldiers and their families.

A night earlier, the president warned that the Iraq war, which has already claimed more than 3,000 American lives, would continue to be "bloody and violent" in 2007.

Many of the troops at Fort Benning have already served two tours in Iraq. At least 34 Fort Benning soldiers have died there.

As they and others like them across the country digested the troop buildup news and its promise of longer or additional deployments, soldiers serving now and their families—as well as veterans of previous wars—reacted wearily.

Current soldiers said they were prepared to undertake the extended mission, even as they acknowledged the hardship it presented. Others were more skeptical. Even if they once supported the war and were prepared to sacrifice life and limb, they're not so sure the sacrifices they're making are being shared widely.

At Fort Benning, Spc. Paul Todd, a small-arms repairman from Oklahoma City, said that while opinions in the Army are mixed, "we will still do what we're supposed to do."

Yet Todd said he sometimes has doubts about the war.

"My patience is growing thin," he said. "I have to do a gut check myself. I know it will work. It's going to take time."

Others aren't so sure.

Bobby Muller, a Vietnam veteran who founded the activist group Veterans for America, said the escalation will run into an intractable problem: "We just don't have the manpower," he said. "It's literally that simple. ... I'm scared to death about what's going to happen in three months, when this incremental increase here proves not to reverse this. Can the president come back and say, `Now I need 40,000 additional troops'?"

Soldiers' families also said they feel the strain.

They're people such as Joseph P. O'Marrah of New Lenox, Ill., a disabled Vietnam veteran who has a son who's already spent 30 months in Iraq.

His son, Jeffrey O'Marrah, 33, has been on three tours to Iraq—for six months, nine months and recently 15 months. He's due to go back again in May, his father said.

For a father who himself served 11 months and 11 days in Vietnam, that seems too much.

"The first two times it wasn't bad," Joseph O'Marrah said. "But the last time he was in Baghdad, a lot of people in his battalion got killed or wounded. My son is more afraid of being wounded than killed. If he's wounded, who's going to take care of him the rest of his life?"

The job the president is asking of his military, O'Marrah believes, "is impossible. How are they going to control 8 million people? He's just sending these kids in there to show that America is powerful."

Views within the military, of course, are all over the map, and the military is generally more likely to support the commander in chief than is the population at large. Even so, a recent large poll from the independent Military Times group of newspapers shows that slightly more military members disapprove of the way the president is handling the war than approve of it.

"It's hard on the families," said Sgt. Tyrone Berry, a military trainer from Houston, now at Fort Benning. "A soldier is going to do what he's told to do. What else is he going to do? Go to jail?"

Sgt. Christopher Martin of Tallahassee, Fla., a military driver who has served three six-month tours in Iraq, said he would gladly go back to help carry out the president's plan. On one of his tours, he missed the birth of a son.

"We have a job to do in the Army. I'd follow the president through anything. He's the commander in chief. He signs the paycheck," Martin said.

Muller of Veterans for America said the president's words this week about sacrifice underscored the hollow reality that the sacrifice is being borne by a very small sliver of the population, as the same soldiers go back to the war zone again and again.

"There's an increasing bitterness among military members about the disconnect between American society itself and their experience of war," Muller said. "They're putting their lives on the line—sometimes day after day—but for society at large, it's like there's no war going on. You have such a limited number of people who are being churned, so you're asking a hell of a lot from a very small population."

Recent Iraq veteran Jonathan Powers, who works at Muller's organization, said, "Soldiers look for meaning in their wars," but what the president called "the decisive ideological battle of our time is not being shared by the rest of the country."

That's substantially different than it was in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, where those serving were drawn from a far wider population base, said David R. Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland.

In those prior wars, "everybody knew somebody who was there," Segal said. Now, only a small fraction of the population knows a soldier who has been killed or wounded in Iraq, he said. Many people know nobody who has been, while people from certain small towns near military bases might know dozens.

"People in uniform are being asked to sacrifice, but the rest of the nation is not," Segal said.


(Hutcheson reported from Fort Benning, Adams from Washington.)


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


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