What do troops and families think of the new Iraq plan?


Published: Sunday, January 14, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 13, 2007 at 11:57 p.m.
Cpl. Michael Hubert, 22, will see war for the first time in April. The corporal is part of the infusion of troops being poured into Iraq under President Bush's new plan, and as he weighed his coming departure at Galloping Gertie's, a soldier-thick watering hole outside Fort Lewis, Wash., he was brimming with confidence. ''We're going to go over and change things,'' Hubert said.
In eastern Pennsylvania, as Heidi DeBlock absorbed the implications of the president's words during his televised address, she said she felt otherwise: ''numb.''
''I could write a book about how I feel, but he's OK with it,'' DeBlock said of her husband, Sgt. Andrew DeBlock. Bush's new approach means that Andrew DeBlock, 41, a member of the New Jersey National Guard (the Blocks recently moved to Pennsylvania from New Jersey), will have his Iraq stay extended by four months.
Andrew DeBlock, home on a brief break, chose to ignore Bush as he spoke on television. He busied himself vacuuming the house.
The decision to increase the U.S. military presence in Iraq is being greeted with a blend of optimism and anxiety among U.S. soldiers and their families, those most directly affected by the change. Unlike in congressional corridors and across the civilian landscape of the country, there seems far more support than outrage, more cheer than cheerlessness, and a hope that maybe this will do it.
At the same time, especially among relatives of National Guard members dispatched to battlefields, there is plentiful disappointment and even anger at the prospect of prolonged disruptions in lives that have not been normal for a long time.
The expansion calls for more than 20,000 additional troops, including five active-duty combat brigades, to be sent to Iraq in the next few months. Some National Guard units will have their tours lengthened. The Pentagon has also relaxed the rules for mobilizing Guard members, so that units will return to battle quicker than anticipated.
The fresh troops will include nearly 4,000 members of the 2nd Infantry Division, 4th Brigade, a front-line combat unit based at Fort Lewis. They leave in April, about a month earlier than previously planned.
Fort Lewis, the nation's third-largest military installation, has already felt the price and pain of the war. It has had 89 soldiers die in Iraq. A ''Word of the Month'' is posted at one of the base's exit, succinct wisdom for departing replacements. This month's word is ''risk.''
Hubert, 22, a reconnaissance specialist, said the troop increase made sense. ''It seems like they're really starting to have a stronger focus and to embed troops, which I like to see,'' he said. ''It's more aggressive and more supportive.''
Sgt. James Mayotte, an infantry leader in the 4th Brigade who was visiting Galloping Gertie's the other morning, was more restrained. ''If it works, it's a great idea,'' Mayotte said. ''I don't personally like having anyone over there, but if it's good for the country . . .''
At Fort Benning, Ga., where several combat units are returning early to Iraq, soldiers generally seemed supportive of the change.
''I think we have to do something about what's going on in Baghdad,'' said 1st Lt. Jonathon Draper, 28, who has already spent a year in Iraq. ''We'll get the job done, whatever the president says.''
Staff Sgt. Shwon Brooks, 29, who has yet to go to war, said, ''I kind of figured it was going to happen, but I thought it was going to be in the summer.''
Sgt. Kyle Cullen finished a deployment to Iraq a year ago and is not happy about returning. ''I think sending more troops is not the way to go,'' Cullen said. ''That will just be adding more to get killed.''
Cullen enlisted for four years, and said he planned to leave the Army when he returned.
The new approach has a pronounced impact on National Guard members, who must vacate civilian jobs to serve. Protocol had been to limit Guard members' mobilizations to no more than a cumulative total of 24 months every five years, but now reservists who have been deployed within the last five years can be summoned again, though the intention is to keep a new tour to no more than a year.
At the Manor Road Armory in the West Brighton section of Staten Island, N.Y., members of the 41st Infantry Division offered competing views.
''I think they should let them all come home; they're over there for no reason,'' said Pvt. Diana Ware, 20. ''I know I don't want to go. I joined the National Guard to go to college.'' Ware's goal is to become a nurse.
Spc. Douglas Block, 40, a father of four, saw things otherwise. ''The more troops you have, the better it is,'' Block said. ''If they would have done this from the beginning, we'd be out of there by now.''
Under the new thrust, various Guard members already fighting in Iraq will remain months longer; they include a reconnaissance unit of the 117th Cavalry of the New Jersey National Guard. Its members had been slated to return by early April, after a year's service, but now are likely to stay until sometime in July.
Salvatore DelRosario, of Staten Island, whose brother, Sgt. Ronald DelRosario, is in Iraq with the 117th Cavalry, was dispirited by the news. ''It all seems for naught,'' DelRosario said. ''It would have been nice to have him home sooner, but he's doing what he wants.''
DeBlock, the Pennsylvania resident whose husband's stay will be extended by four months, said - as other Guard families did - that the extended assignments, and the lost income involved, complicated their lives.
DeBlock has had to battle her heating-fuel company, which wanted cash up front, and her husband's cell phone provider, which will not let him out of his contract, even though he is off fighting a war.
The Minnesota National Guard brigade of Spc. Isaac Pratt, 22, is having its active duty tour extended by about four months. Pratt called his parents a week ago, excited about coming home soon, only to find out a few days later that everything had changed.
''He's disappointed,'' said his father, John Pratt. ''But at the same time, he senses that you can't just leave Iraqis high and dry over there.''
For parents of children killed in Iraq, the war tears in different ways.
Debi Qualtieri, a registered nurse in Norwalk, Conn., said she always believed in the war, and still does, though her son, Sgt. Jonathan Lootens, of Lyon, N.Y., was killed in Iraq in October.
Qualtieri said she supported the escalation in troops, and had in fact been hoping for it. ''I wish they had done it earlier, having spoken to my son when he was there,'' she said. ''He thought they needed more troops.''
Annette Brown has supported the war from the beginning, and continues to do so, but with reservations. Her son, Lance Cpl. Donald Brown, a Marine, was killed at the end of October, and another son, Kenneth Brown, 24, has served three tours with the Marines in Iraq. He returned home last September.
Brown said she agreed with the troop increase ''if it would settle things down over there so the guys can come home.''
But she does not want Kenneth to be part of it, and when she recently spoke to him, he told her he did not want to go back. Brown, a bank supervisor who lives in Succasunna, N.J., said, ''I told him I'll do whatever I have to so you don't have to go back.''

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