Life During Wartime

By this spring, nearly 40,000 troops will have been deployed to Iraq from Fort Hood. For the military spouses left behind, time passes. They raise their kids, wait for breaking news, and pray whenever they hear a knock on the door.

“This is a time of war—and yet these Americans did not die on a foreign field of battle,” President Obama said on Tuesday, at the memorial service for the thirteen soldiers who were gunned down at Fort Hood on November 5, 2009. “They were killed here, on American soil, in the heart of this great American community. It is this fact that makes the tragedy even more painful and even more incomprehensible.”

I visited this great American community in December of 2003, when a different mood prevailed. The 4th Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team—which hailed from Fort Hood—had just captured Saddam Hussein, and many people believed that the end of the war was near. Still, the fear of an unexpected knock on the door was palpable at the time; this close-knit community was sustaining, on average, one casualty per week. From the PX (where military wives stocked up on discounted clothes) to Shoemaker High School (where three-quarters of the students had a parent serving in Iraq or on the way), the families who were left back at home tried to stay upbeat. Often, though, the conversation circled back to a friend or an acquaintance who had recently received a visit from a “notification team,” who always followed the same script: “The Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret…”

Thirteen families heard these same words last week, after Major Nidal Hasan opened fire on their husbands, brothers, and daughters. These thirteen soldiers, said President Obama, “were not able to escape the horror of war, even in the comfort of home.” He urged Americans to think of these soldiers on Veterans Day. “It is a chance to pause, and pay tribute—for students to learn of the struggles that preceded them; for families to honor the service of parents and grandparents; for citizens to reflect upon the sacrificed that have been made in pursuit of a more perfect union.” —Pamela Colloff, November 11, 2009

At Fort Hood, the sprawling military post forty miles southwest of Waco, news of a casualty usually arrives with an unexpected knock on the door or a phone call that comes too early in the morning. On December 14, telephones across the post started ringing before dawn. The sudden sound erupting in the silence was enough to provoke fear—of a helicopter downed in Iraq or a convoy ambushed. Startled awake, Army wives reluctantly reached for the phone, but there was only jubilation on the other end of the line. “Turn on your TV!” cried voices still groggy from sleep. “Saddam’s been captured!”

For military families, the arrest of Saddam Hussein provided a much-needed dose of good news. It was Fort Hood’s own troops—the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division—who had discovered the former Iraqi dictator hiding in a hole in the ground. His capture was a deeply personal triumph here, since Fort Hood has become all too familiar with the cost of war; its troops have sustained one death per week since first entering Iraq in April. In the Sunni Triangle, the northern Iraqi region considered to be the most hostile to U.S. troops, its soldiers have become targets for rocket-propelled grenades, mortar rounds, and improvised explosive devices. Around Fort Hood, patriotism and pride mix with worry, and the conversation often touches upon another guerilla war. “There haven’t been knocks on the door like this since Vietnam,” said the Killeen Daily Herald ’s military reporter, Debbie Stevenson, herself a longtime Army wife. “There hasn’t been sustained combat like this since Vietnam. The stress level among families is very high. At the same time, we believe in this mission. We may be war weary, but we haven’t lost our resolve.”

The capture of Saddam Hussein eleven days before Christmas lifted the spirits of this Army town. “Our Guys Got Him” boasted a Dairy Queen sign. “The World Thanks You!” read another sign. “Job Well Done.” Civilians driving past Fort Hood that day honked their horns in appreciation, and at Sunday church services around Killeen, parishioners gave thanks to God. After the initial rejoicing, though, the mood on the post was subdued. “We’re happy that we caught Saddam, but it’s just one less thing on our to-do list,” explained Command Sergeant Major Stanley Small, with the 1st Brigade’s 1st Cavalry Division. “A lot of work still needs to be done. It’s business as usual for us.” There were no victory speeches that day, no rounds of toasts at the officers’ club; regardless of Hussein’s arrest, troops were still going off to war. Fort Hood’s 1st Cavalry Division—around 17,000 soldiers—was preparing to deploy to Iraq, where many would be stationed until the summer of 2005. “We can’t let our guard down just yet,” said Beth Blevins, the manager of the post’s Army Family Team Building program. “It’s still very dangerous there. Saddam’s capture is not going to prevent my husband from being deployed to Iraq, and it’s not going to bring our soldiers home.”

At a hastily arranged press event at Fort Hood the day after Hussein’s capture, a dozen women with husbands in the 4th Infantry Division talked to the media about their reactions to the story making headlines around the world. The arrest of the former Iraqi dictator marked a sudden reversal of fortune for the division, which had been sidelined at the start of the war. Turned back last spring, when Turkey refused its troops entry, the 4th Infantry had been unable to invade Iraq from the north. With its tanks stranded at sea, its troops could not join the march toward Baghdad; by the time they finally reached the capital, via Kuwait, the Iraqi military had already collapsed. After the indignity of being forced to sit out the first phase of the war, the arrest of Hussein had transformed the division’s soldiers into the heroes of the day. They provided an irresistible narrative for the media, who descended on the post en masse. At the last-minute press event that

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