After 42 months in Iraq, soldier still feels guilty he's not there

Command Sgt. Maj. Philip Johndrow.
Command Sgt. Maj. Philip Johndrow. Nancy Youssef / MCT

FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan. — As Command Sgt. Maj. Philip Johndrow was getting off the airplane at the end of his third tour in Iraq, his wife, Vickie, simply said: "We have to talk."

Johndrow had served 42 months, about three-fourths of the Iraq war at that point, on the ground, more combat time than almost any other American soldier. Between tours, he and Vickie had moved their U.S. home twice, because of his promotions. Half his 23-year marriage had been spent away, either in a war zone or training for one, and she was having anxiety attacks.

Couldn't he find a job in the military that would keep him home longer, she asked, in an ultimatum couched as a plea.

That's what landed him at Fort Leavenworth, the military's academic hub, where he serves as an adviser to the commander here, Gen. William Caldwell IV, whom he met in Iraq during his third tour.

His position as command sergeant major is a crucial one in the military, informing Caldwell about what his subordinates are doing and advocating on behalf of soldiers. He is the highest-ranking noncommissioned officer in his unit. But here, Johndrow is simply "the 42-month guy," the symbol of a soldier's commitment to the mission and his comrades. His service in Iraq lasted almost as long as the U.S.'s commitment in World War II. But he seems uncomfortable with the "42-month" moniker.

"I didn't go there to have 42 months. I went there to be with the soldiers," said Johndrow, an Army brat who now calls Townsend, Mont., his hometown. "I heard someone say once that if the good guys didn't stand up, the bad guys would win. I just did my job."

Soldiers here say that only Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, is also in the running for most months served there. They joke that if the ever-competitive Petraeus found out, he'd extend his tour in Iraq. (Petraeus, who's now served 41 months, is due to leave Iraq this fall.)

Yet Johndrow, 49, feels anxious that his job will keep him away from Iraq for about two years. This fall, the 1st Cavalry Division is scheduled to head back to Iraq without him.

"It sounds strange, but you feel guilty," Johndrow said. "You want to see it through the end."

Thousands of soldiers have served three tours in either Iraq or Afghanistan, but most served 12-month rotations. In Johndrow's case, the military extended two of his three tours. He should have had a year between tours, but he had only six months after the first tour and eight months after the second.

His time in Iraq blends together, and he remembers life events by tours, not dates. His children left the Army and decided to stay in Texas during his first tour. His father died during the third, three hours after he flew back to see him. He first learned about his wife's anxiety attacks between the second and third tours.

Ask him about his most dangerous experience in Iraq, and he says only that every day was dangerous.

Before Iraq, Johndrow served in Kuwait, in late 1996.

His first Iraq tour began in March 2003 as the battalion command sergeant major for the 3rd Squadron 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, based out of Fort Polk, La. A year later, when he was supposed to leave Baghdad, his battalion moved south to Najaf and the Army extended his tour for four months.

He was promoted to brigade command sergeant major and moved to Fort Riley, Kan., where he was supposed to have a year off. But his predecessor retired, and by January 2005 he was in Taji, Iraq, working with the 3rd Brigade 1st Armored Division.

"That tour was only a year," he recalled.

He returned to the U.S. in January 2006 and was promoted again, this time to division command sergeant major. He moved again, this time to Fort Hood, Texas, where the 1st Cavalry Division is stationed. It deployed to Baghdad that October to help lead the largest division ever sent to Iraq. Four months later, more forces arrived as part of a "surge" and the military announced that all troop tours would be extended to support the buildup.

Johndrow's last tour with the 1st Cavalry Division became the most personal, he said. As the division command sergeant major, he attended every memorial service. Much of that tour marked the deadliest period for U.S. troops, and many days he went to more than one. Before he left Iraq, he helped unveil a memorial at Camp Liberty for the 466 service members who'd been killed during most of his third tour.

"Thanks to the sacrifice of these brave men and women, sectarian violence has been reduced, and the citizens of Iraq enjoy greater peace," Johndrow said at the unveiling.

He left for the last time in December.

Seven months later, Johndrow remains unimpressed that he's viewed as the informal record-holder for time in Iraq: "Forty-two months is not a big deal. Someone will soon serve more."