Extended tours endanger troops


One of the great wonders of the Iraq war is the patience with which our troops have endured unanticipated extensions of their deployments and multiple deployments to the combat zone.

In some cases, they have been required to remain in Iraq or Afghanistan well beyond the date of their previously scheduled redeployments to the United States and even beyond the date of their scheduled retirements or discharges from the service.

Sometimes units have actually reached home before being immediately returned to the war. In the cruelest cases, some units were practically boarding the planes for their flights out of Iraq before being told that they would have to stay for a few more months. The disappointment for these soldiers and their families must be painful and profound.

Occasionally, soldiers will complain and a few have brought lawsuits against the service for breach of contract, but generally they do their duty with patient resignation, which is what our soldiers have nearly always done when asked to undertake our country’s hardest work.

Even in the best circumstances, as soon as he or she is deployed overseas, nearly every service member — soldier, sailor, airman, Marine — begins to think about coming home, especially if there’s a family waiting. Anything that delays the return is hard to take in a way that’s probably difficult for most of us to imagine.

I’ve had a mild taste of this: In 1970, the U.S Navy sent me to a radio transmitting station on the remote coast of Western Australia, a comparatively good duty station. The base was in the middle of nowhere, but it had a library and a movie theatre and eight films per week were flown in from the States.

Still, the nearest town was 250 miles in each direction, and before long every sailor there had created a “short-timer’s calendar” that counted down the days until it was his or her turn to catch the weekly fight back to civilization. Seventeen months, three weeks, and a day later my flight came in. It’s not hard to imagine the disappointment that an extension of only a few extra months would have caused.

Next came 18 months on a guided missile destroyer that spent 15 of those months deployed, including a western Pacific cruise. Of course this doesn’t compare to the experience of the grunts who were slogging through the rice paddies and jungles in Vietnam, which our ship kept, for the most part, well beyond the horizon. Still, it was no picnic. Watches were port and starboard, which means eight hours on and eight hours off, around the clock for stretches of 30 days at a time and occasionally as many as 43. But the food was good and, if you had time to watch it, there was an occasional movie on the mess deck. It could have been worse.

Nevertheless, eventually one young sailor arranged his shoes neatly on the deck and stepped over the side into the South China Sea. There was always talk of extending the cruise, so the sense of relief among the crew was enormous when the ship finally turned east toward home.

My relatively benign experience only hints at the anxiety and frustration that our soldiers go through in Afghanistan and Iraq. Soldiers deployed to Vietnam faced what they used to call “365 and a wakeup.” They knew that if they could survive for a year they were going home. But soldiers in the current extended conflicts have no such assurance.

Furthermore, many of these soldiers are savvy and informed. They’ve seen the news and many of them are aware of books like Thomas Ricks’ “Fiasco” and Bob Woodward’s “State of Denial.” They understand the ill-conceived nature and poor execution of the war in Iraq. I suspect that many of them are aware that they and their families are bearing an inordinate portion of the burden of this war. As always, they are doing their duty honorably. But their overuse by the administration threatens to break them down. Their admirable patience and will to do what we’ve asked of them is extensive, but I suspect that it’s not inexhaustible. They deserve better.

(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail: jcrisp(at)delmar.edu.)