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.

February 2004By Comments

“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 day, the group of Army wives stepped into the bright winter sunshine to talk about the gratification they found in their husbands’ successes. As they spoke, with toddlers in tow, the strain of the past nine months was apparent.

“You’ve got five more months until your husband comes home,” the Daily Herald’s Stevenson said to one young woman, a mother of three. “Does Saddam’s capture ease your mind a bit?”

“Knowing that my husband still has to go out there and do his patrols every day, I’m going to worry,” the woman said. She glanced down at her baby and laughed nervously. “Fear of the unknown.”

“Has your husband seen the little one?” Stevenson asked, gesturing toward the two-month-old.

“No,” she said, shaking her head. “Just pictures.”

“You’ve had to go through a lot while he’s been gone,” Stevenson said. “Has Saddam’s capture given you a feeling that it’s been worth it?”

The young woman held her baby close as she searched for the right words. “My husband loves the Army, he loves this country, and he loves his job,” she said with a picture-perfect smile that wavered for only a moment. “Knowing that he’s happy makes it all worth it to me.”

Fort Hood is one of the largest military installations in the world, a place so vast that its size is roughly equivalent to the city of Dallas. Before the war, the post vibrated with the sound of American military might. Fleets of humvees and M1 tanks and Bradley armored personnel carriers barreled down its roads, and Blackhawk helicopters hovered above the bleak expanse of prairie. Now, the post is quiet. Most of its 42,000 or so soldiers are either in Iraq or preparing to deploy there, and along Tank Destroyer Boulevard and Hell on Wheels Avenue, where combat vehicles once parked by the hundreds, only the empty blacktop remains. The landscape around the World War II-era military post is brown and barren, with a scattering of utilitarian buildings laid out along a grid. To the east, beyond its concertina-wire border, lies a tangle of pawn shops, tattoo parlors, topless bars, loan shark outfits, used-car lots, Korean and Vietnamese restaurants, cheap motels, and gun shops, all of which prominently display “We Support Our Troops” signs. Military families stick closer to the chain stores and fast-food joints along the main thoroughfare that runs through town, U.S. 190, where businesses managed to stay profitable during last year’s deployments. The working-class subdivisions south of the post are filled with men and women in fatigues and look as impermanent as a carnival.

At Shoemaker High School, just south of Fort Hood, more than three quarters of its 2,100 students have a parent who is stationed in Iraq or who is preparing to deploy there. This is a community visibly altered by war; at football games last fall, the stands were largely absent of fathers. In the guidance counselor’s office, where the TV is always tuned to CNN, Iraq is never far away. “I just found out my friend’s dad was almost killed,” one senior told a counselor after Hussein was found. “He was in a convoy, and an explosive device went off next to him.” Between talk of SAT scores and homework and the prom, reminders of the war are everywhere. Before the moment of silence that starts off the school day, the name of a parent or relative on active duty is read over the school loudspeakers. The latest attacks are whispered about in the halls. From the ceiling hang blue and silver cardboard stars, each one bearing the name of a parent or relative who is in Iraq or who is headed there. They now number more than one thousand. For students with parents at war, Hussein’s capture has stirred false hope. “Kids are saying, ‘This means my dad will be coming home!’ and, ‘It’s over!’” said Rodney Leary, who teaches U.S. government and economics. “But it’s not over.”

“The possibility of death is very real to these kids,” said principal Nelda Howton. “Almost half of our teachers have spouses in Iraq or deploying there, and they’re scared too.” Nothing at this high school is more dreaded than the unexpected knock on the front door. Within hours of a casualty, the Army dispatches one of its officers and a chaplain to the home of a soldier’s next of kin. Although the “notification team” has a suggested script to follow—“The Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret …”—words are rarely needed; the sight of two soldiers in dress greens is sufficient. In October a notification team visited the family of one Shoemaker student after her father’s convoy came under attack. On the morning of the funeral, more than five hundred classmates lined up outside the high school in a show of solidarity, each one holding a miniature American flag. “When the family drove by us, you could have heard a pin drop,” said Howton. “Every kid out there saluted that family. For a lot of students, I think that’s when the reality of this really hit home.”

As the stress of war has spilled over into the classroom, discipline problems have risen sharply and grades have plunged. Some students have less time for homework because of greater responsibilities at home; they must look after younger siblings, cook and clean, and serve as the remaining parent’s emotional support. “You have a lot of one-parent households now where kids are acting out and Mom is falling apart,” said head counselor Barbara Critchfield. “Dad doesn’t want to be the disciplinarian; he’s busy fighting a war. One mother wanted her husband to write a letter telling their son that he needed to shape up, but her husband refused to do it. He said, ‘I don’t want that to be the last letter my kid gets from me.’” Mothers are not the only ones left at home during deployments that can stretch on for up to fifteen months. As more women go to war than ever before, men are picking up the slack, like teacher Rodney Leary. When his wife, Sharon, a battalion commander in the 1st Cavalry, deploys this spring, Leary will be the sole caretaker of their nine-year-old son and five-year-old daughter. “I can shop and cook and clean just fine,” said the fifty-year-old Leary with a good-natured grin. “But sometimes with kids, Dad just doesn’t cut it.”

Leary knows the drill; a retired infantry officer, he did three tours in Korea. “As a soldier, I understand better than anybody why she’s going,” he said. “But as a husband and father, I’m concerned. This is my wife. This is the mother of my children. The husband in me wants her home. I try not to think about it, but I know that she might be injured or killed. As a man, I hate to admit this, but there are going to be times when she’s over there that will be hard on me.” Like most military spouses, Leary has made preparations. “We’ve filled out lots of paperwork in case anything should happen. We’ve drawn up our wills. We’ve lined up secondary child care. But my wife and I haven’t really dwelled on it. It’s too painful.” Other spouses have had more-candid discussions. After watching a TV news program together about soldiers who were coming home from Iraq as amputees, Beth Blevins turned to her husband, a sergeant first class who was then preparing to deploy with the 1st Cavalry. “We talked about what could happen to him in the war, and I said, ‘If you come back and you’re different than you were before, I will love you just the same,’” she recalled. “These things must be said.”

Once soldiers leave, their spouses have little choice but to wait, tethered to the TV for information. The 24-hour cable news cycle is as much a curse as a blessing. Many spouses have become consumed with watching CNN for breaking-news alerts. “As soon as I would wake up, I’d run downstairs and get on the computer,” said Sarah Jefferies, whose husband was stationed in Iraq last year. “I’d read everything that had happened since I’d gone to bed the night before, until I was sure Perry was safe. Then I could breathe and have a day.” E-mail, if soldiers are lucky enough to have access to it, provides a link. Otherwise, spouses must rely on occasional, brief “morale calls,” which make for awkward conversation because the satellite transmissions are patchy. Despite long separations, there are attempts at keeping romance alive. During deployments, the local Victoria’s Secret does a brisk business with Army wives who slip lingerie into care packages bound for Iraq, along with the requisite cartons of cigarettes, instant coffee, and pork rinds. During war, life goes on, with fathers missing children’s births, first steps, first words. “You can’t feel sorry for yourself,” said Blevins. “Your kids are watching you to see how to react. You have to hold it together even if you feel like falling apart.”

Around Fort Hood, reevaluating the pluses and minuses of Army life is a constant topic of conversation. Because of U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, soldiers are facing significantly longer rotations overseas, with less time home between deployments. Fort Hood is making a concerted effort to reach out to spouses, offering them everything from marriage counseling and anger management classes to a vast support network called Family Readiness Groups. “When she feels better, he feels better,” said Peggy Stamper, the director of the post’s volunteer center. “If things aren’t going well at home, that soldier isn’t mission-focused. We want women to feel a part of the team. This is a sisterhood. They’re all living the same anxieties.” The week before Christmas, a support group for women with husbands deployed in Iraq met at a chapel on the post. Three young mothers—Lily, Nina, and Teresa—sat and talked as their children played tag in the background. The conversation shifted from the upcoming holidays to the power of prayer to the day that their husbands left for Iraq.

“I cried uncontrollably when my husband left,” said Lily. “It was just me and the baby in this great big world. Then the sewer backed up, and the truck broke down. My husband stopped calling for a while so he could distance himself and do what he needed to do.”

“I miscarried while my husband was away,” said Nina. “It was hard, but I got through it.”

“You get used to being alone,” said Teresa. “When your husband’s back, you don’t know what to do with him.”

The women laughed and then fell into silence.

“You think about getting that knock on the door,” Lily said.

Teresa nodded. “Every day.”

This spring, the 4th infantry will return home after a year’s rotation in Iraq. How long its soldiers will remain in Texas is unclear right now, as is the level of difficulty they will face reintegrating after months of sustained combat. “People are permanently changed by war, and when there are daily patrols and raids where the enemy can strike without warning, the changes can be much more dramatic,” said Army chaplain Brad West. “How post-traumatic stress disorder is going to play out in this community is an unknown quantity right now.” Not all homecomings for returning soldiers will be easy ones. Spouses may feel estranged from each other. Children who are under the age of three may not recognize the parent who has been absent. To the soldier, American culture may seem foreign. “It’s disorienting to come back to the U.S. and see TV commercials for things like cleaning products when all you’ve seen for months is people sleeping on dirt floors,” said West. “That disparity—between reality at home and reality over there—can make soldiers feel isolated. Some will tell their spouses, ‘You’ll never be able to understand what I’ve been through.’”

“When I first came back to Fort Hood, I would scan the overpasses on highway 190 for snipers,” said first lieutenant Chris Sauceda, a platoon leader with the 4th Infantry Division, who sustained shrapnel wounds to his legs and face when his convoy was ambushed in September outside Tikrit. “I’d study the occupants of other vehicles as they drove by. I’d reach for my M16 and realize it wasn’t there. Little things would startle me, like driving over potholes or hearing a car screech its tires up the block. For the first few weeks I was back, I couldn’t sit still long enough to watch TV. I ran a few red lights because I was used to being in a convoy, and a convoy doesn’t stop for anything.” Sauceda, who is 24, is currently in rehabilitation at Fort Hood for his injuries. His hypervigilance has faded with time. “I’ve lost my edge,” he said with a grin. “I’m not looking around the room to make sure the doors are manned anymore.” Sauceda survived the attack on his convoy only because his platoon had acquired an armored humvee four days before, which shielded him from the full force of the bomb that detonated about ten feet away from him. “I’m lucky to be alive,” he said. “There’s no reason why I should still be in one piece.”

Sauceda has grown frustrated with what he believes is undeservedly negative news coverage of the war. “There is so much good that happens in Iraq that is never reported,” he said. “When I was there, we put sonogram machines and medicine and syringes into hospitals. We got paper and pencils for kids, and we painted their schools. I can’t even count how many lives we saved. We got medicine for sick children, and IVs for people who were dying of dehydration. But you never hear about those stories on the news.” Before he was injured, Sauceda visited one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces in Tikrit. Inside the spectacular entrance hall—adorned in gold, marble, and mahogany—Sauceda turned to say something to his two translators, only to find them in tears. “They saw how Saddam had lived while their country had been so poor,” Sauceda said. “That day made everything we were doing worth it to me.” But when he returned home, he was surprised to find just how oblivious civilians were to the war. When he went to Dallas to attend the Texas-OU game, he ran into acquaintances from college at a noisy bar who asked him why he was walking with a cane. “I’d explain, ‘I was injured in Iraq,’ and they’d say, ‘You were in a wreck?’” he recalled. “I’d have to say, ‘No, Iraq. I was in the war.’”

Like Sauceda, most soldiers and their families at Fort Hood believe that the great personal sacrifice they make each day is unquestionably worth it. But privately, some grumble about the fact that no weapons of mass destruction have been found. Shannon Sharrock, whose husband flies Blackhawk helicopters in Iraq for the 4th Infantry, is careful to preface her opinions by explaining that she does not speak for her husband and that she unconditionally supports U.S. troops. She is a former soldier herself; a West Point graduate, she was on active duty for four and a half years as a Chinook helicopter pilot. “We should never send one single American soldier into a foreign country to risk his or her life with anything less than infallible intelligence, because it is not worth that sacrifice,” she said. “Weapons of mass destruction have not been found, and that was the justification for this war. I don’t want one more soldier to get so much as a paper cut in Iraq without us first getting some answers. Soldiers are doing beneficial things for the people of Iraq, but a soldier’s job is not to rebuild schools. It’s to defend the United States and to win wars. And we have won this war. It’s time to relinquish control to the United Nations and bring our soldiers home.”

But five days after the capture of Saddam Hussein, there were no family reunions, only good-byes. A brisk wind blew across the parade grounds outside the 1st Cavalry’s headquarters, where a farewell ceremony for its first deployment of soldiers to Iraq was under way. The roughly 17,000 troops who make up the division would be deploying through March to the Sunni Triangle, as the 4th Infantry returns. On this winter day, 3,000 soldiers in desert fatigues stood at attention, silently, for as far as the eye could see. In the stands, wives clutched camcorders and toddlers, who tried to wrestle out of their arms; a large American flag billowed above them. There were speeches and an inspection of the troops by the major general and an old-fashioned cavalry charge, after which a bugler played with great flourish. “We say farewell and Godspeed,” the announcer told the troops. The children grew restless, chasing one another around the bleachers, while a few women wiped away tears. Some looked on stoically, lips pinched together. Others slid on sunglasses even though they sat in the shade. The troops marched by, their young faces flushed from the cold. Their expressions were solemn, their chins held high. They would have two weeks of leave. Then they would go off to war.

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