For Army, it's Operation Stretch

As the military rushes to reorganize in a race against time, the 3rd Infantry steels itself for a second deployment.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Soldiers shift uneasily in rows of plastic folding chairs in a warehouse-like tent, watching as Command Sgt. Maj. Clarence Stanley lays a medal on the helmet-and-rifle shrine. A salute of gunshots cracks the air.

No one has died here. But the awkward rehearsal for fatalities in Iraq weighs on the minds of the 3rd Infantry Division troops. The armored force that led the thrust into Baghdad in 2003 will in January become the first division to return to Iraq for a second, year-long tour.

Sergeant Major Stanley and his fellow soldiers know the ache of losing comrades, and none is so naive as to believe it won't happen again. "I had two guys die in my arms. I was a wreck," recalls the gruff veteran from Nescopeck, Pa., running a hand over his shaven head. The memorial at a Louisiana training camp is one more way to ready his troops - some still dealing with nightmares and other scars of major combat.

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Mentally and physically the 3rd Infantry is marching into uncharted territory, as the "long, hard slog" envisioned by the Pentagon in Iraq and Afghanistan tests America's all-volunteer Army as never before.

For decades, the Army has sized, arrayed, and trained its forces to sprint to victory in a conventional war against opposing states. Thursday, for the first time since Vietnam, it faces a marathon of protracted deployments against dogged insurgents - with no end in sight.

Many of the strains are already showing as the 3rd Infantry trains in the Louisiana backcountry for another Iraq tour, grappling with an abrupt reorganization, an influx of new troops and equipment, and veterans with combat stress.

Army leaders admit that at current levels they must rotate troops into war zones at a rate that is unsustainable in the long run. Warning of a force not yet "broken" but "bent," they are rushing to add 30,000 soldiers to the 482,000-strong active-duty force and increase the number of active brigades - from 33 when the Iraq war began to 43 by 2006, with another five possible by 2007. Only then might the Army hope to shorten tours to about six months every two years, which soldiers say is more bearable for them and their families.

"I don't see any rest in the next two to three years," says the Army vice chief of staff, Richard Cody.

While fighting on multiple fronts, the Army is also rapidly transforming, adding technology, and shifting its mix of forces to better confront today's threats. It's a race against time that General Cody likens to "building an airplane in flight."

Nowhere is this urgent change - and accompanying risk - more evident than in the 3rd Infantry. The division will soon put to the test in Iraq the Army's bold experiment to create more effective fighting forces.

* * *

From the window of his C-12 jet, Maj. Gen. William Webster traces the contours of the Red River as it winds through the woods of his native Louisiana. To the north is Shreveport. To the west lie the swampy training fields of Fort Polk, where he cut his teeth commanding a tank company as a young West Point graduate in the mid-1970s.

On this November morning, General Webster is heading back to Polk as commander of the 3rd Infantry Division (3ID) to appraise the Army's newest brigade. Cobbled together in just eight months, with scores of recruits arriving to fill out its ranks this summer, the 4th Brigade is undergoing final training before shipping out to Iraq early next month.

For Webster, the visit caps more than a year of frenzied activity since he returned from duty as deputy operations commander in the Iraq invasion to take charge of the 3ID in September 2003.

"In the midst of a war, we knew we had to change in eight to 10 months versus eight to 10 years," he says, drinking black coffee from a thermos. "The chief [Army chief of staff, Gen. Peter Schoomaker] said, 'I think we can create 15 new brigades. You guys figure out how to do it.' We just had to run through this thing on the fly."

Webster's task was daunting. Not only did the 3ID have to prepare for a rapid return to combat - honing its skills in seven major training exercises and repairing equipment that included thousands of sand-encrusted vehicles. It also had to keep one brigade ready at all times to deploy within hours for a crisis in Korea or around the globe - an indication of the military's lack of a strategic reserve.

Above all, the 3ID had to serve as the catalyst for the Army's biggest experiment in reorganization in decades: a bid by General Schoomaker to create more powerful, uniform, and autonomous brigades that the Pentagon can quickly shift around the world and snap into different commands like so many Lego blocks.

The urgent shift is a matter of strategy and survival for the Army - strategy, because today the Army fights in brigades of 3,000-plus troops rather than divisions of 16,000, a trend underscored by the Iraq war; survival, because only by increasing the pool of brigades by at least 10 can the Army shorten overseas rotations and lengthen time back home.

The change has affected virtually every element of the Georgia-based 3ID. Its ranks have swelled by 3,300 soldiers to a total of 19,000, straining housing. The division has reconfigured each of its three existing combat brigades and built from scratch a new one, the 4th Brigade. Each brigade more tightly integrates infantry, armor, and engineers at lower levels as well as specialized units such as intelligence and reconnaissance troops.

With thousands of his soldiers destined for the teeming and violent streets of Baghdad, Webster sees the more lethal brigades and robust intelligence capabilities as vital to targeting a shifting enemy.

Yet to swiftly reinvent the 3ID, Webster has had to wage his own quiet insurrection against a slow-moving military bureaucracy. "It's like guerrilla warfare," he says, describing tactics he's used to skirt the constraints of budgets and regulations to secure vital weaponry, personnel, and equipment. Several times in the past year, Webster has confronted obstacles so severe he called them "war stoppers."

"At one point, I didn't have enough rifles to give to all the soldiers, or radios to give to the leaders, or armored vehicles. That's a war stopper," he says. "So by hook or by crook we got what we need." That meant, for example, using artful accounting to spend $11 million on add-on armor for 885 Humvees.

Meanwhile, the Army's wartime bid to redesign itself is generating turmoil and risk, as soldiers with diverse skills must quickly learn to work together and operate new gear.

"The doctrine of the Army hasn't kept up with the redesign," explains Lt. Col. Bob Roth, commander of 4th Brigade's 4-64 battalion, which has an unusual combination of light infantry and tanks. "We got a list of people and a list of equipment" and "had to figure out how it should work," he says. "You can imagine the chaos that creates at lower levels."

At Fort Polk's sprawling urban training center, for example, Colonel Roth is trying to educate his foot soldiers about the tactical and psychological advantages of a ground-shaking, 60-ton vehicle. "You have this big thing called a tank, so bring that in first and work around it," says the career armor officer from Park Hills, Ky.

For his part, Roth admits he was "clueless" about the skills of the infantry and sniper teams he now leads. In August, he spent two hours grilling a trainer on the fine points of using a four-man team to storm rooms.

One of the most radical - and criticized - innovations within the Army's new brigades is an umbrella unit called the Brigade Troops Battalion (BTB) in which a diverse group of soldiers - including military intelligence, police, and explosive ordinance disposal teams - are led by engineers. BTB executive officer Maj. David Hurley says he's still learning to "speak the language" of soldiers in the unit, while also fixing bugs in a new Army satellite communications system that the 3ID is the first to field.

With only a few weeks before deployment, Major Hurley's main hope is "to find out where the system breaks down" in the backwoods of Fort Polk - rather than on the battlefields of Iraq.

* * *

Pvt. Frank "Doc" Lenar pulls on his helmet and sits in the back of a Humvee, waiting to head out on another infantry training mission. Fresh from boot camp, the Fort Worth, Texas, enlistee still can't believe he's in the mud with GIs instead of working as a medic in a hospital, which his recruiter promised last October.

As the 3ID expands by 3,300 troops, it has filled out its ranks with a large influx of young soldiers like Private Lenar who arrived straight from basic training - and often not by choice. They call 3ID "the black hole."

"The Army turned the faucet on us so any infantryman going anywhere [went to 3ID]," says personnel officer Capt. Stephen Gifford. The result is a major leadership challenge in some new units such as Alpha Company of 4-64, which is composed of 30 percent untried recruits.

"I'm the only one in the company with a 3ID combat patch," says the commander, Capt. Steve Wood, a 12-year Army veteran from Woodbridge, Va. Started in May, the company gained 20 to 30 men a day until it reached 170. Experience was not all the troops lacked: Initially they had "no weapons, no vehicles, and no place to train," Captain Gifford says.

The novice force is aggressive and benefits from "no bad habits," Captain Wood quips, and it is sponging up lessons for Iraq. Indeed, some in Alpha Company chose 3ID. "I want to serve my country at a time of need," says Pfc. Ryan Castle from Frederick, Md. "Plus," he says with a grin, "you get to play with a lot of cool toys and go on helicopters."

Yet such boyishness makes veterans like Wood wince as they remember their own naiveté.

"There's a perception in the movies, and I fell victim to it," he recalls, his face dusty and hair matted with sweat from a 15-hour day. "There's an idea that war is full of glory, and then you see your first casualty, and your first medevac, and your first experience with the carnage smacks you in the face.... It's a horrible thing."

* * *

The soldiers approach chaplain Lt. Lee Harms quietly, but once they begin to talk, the words cascade, often for hours.

As they pack their duffels for Iraq a second time, some soldiers are still struggling to cope with nightmares, flashbacks, and anxiety from their last ordeal at war.

Lieutenant Harms of 4-64 says he has a number of soldiers in counseling or group therapy, many of whom are troubled by grisly episodes from their days with tank units in Iraq. He also observes subtler, almost Darwinian maneuvers by combat veterans to form teams of stronger soldiers to boost their chances of survival. "They are dealing with serious issues of trust," he says.

A full 50 percent of the division's soldiers have already served in Iraq or Afghanistan. While few are eager to return to Iraq, most have accepted the idea and are dedicated to their jobs - in fact, 3ID is exceeding many reenlistment goals.

Yet with more than 15 percent of soldiers in the Iraq war screening positive for traumatic stress, according to a December 2003 report chartered by the Army's surgeon general, it is not surprising that the looming deployment is highly troubling to some 3ID veterans.

Army psychologists aren't sure how those with combat fatigue will react to returning. "We're into really new territory," says division social worker Capt. Ronald Whalen. He says some soldiers are in aggressive treatment aimed at "finding out where [their] recovery has stalled out."

Meanwhile, senior enlisted men are monitoring the soldiers to ensure they are not a threat. "Wednesday, I spent two hours talking with a guy who is still having a hard time," says Stanley, sergeant major of 4-64. "I ask them straight out: 'Will this cause you a problem that could hurt another soldier?' They say 'No, sergeant major, I just need to get my head right.' "

As with any deployment, a few soldiers have sought a way out - citing family concerns and health problems and even faking pregnancies. But Harms says he must be strict in granting reassignments.

"Once you let one go, it opens the floodgates," says Harms, a new chaplain who himself did not choose to be assigned to 3ID. "I'm not excited to go to Iraq and leave my wife and kids," he admits. "But I look at these soldiers in the face every day and tell them they need to keep their promises, so I take my oath seriously." Indeed, one of the soldiers' biggest concerns is the immense hardship that year-long absences place on their families.

On the tree-lined streets of Hinesville, Ga., where much of the 3rd Infantry Division is based, posters are still up from the unit's homecoming less than 18 months ago. "Welcome Home 3rd Infantry Division - Thanks!" reads one sign at a local gas station. Now, Army officials are preparing families to say goodbye again, urging soldiers to complete their wills and make sure spouses can change the car oil and balance the checkbook. "If we can survive, we can help the soldiers survive too," says 3ID deployment expert Bess Stone.

Yet Army commanders know that if families are separated too long, too often, even the most devoted soldiers will quit. "I have extraordinarily talented people who come and tell me, 'Sir, I love the Army, but ... I'm not going to abandon my family,' " says Roth, the 4-64 commander. In surveys, 3ID soldiers say deployments of eight months every two years would be more tolerable. "We have to get as close to that as we can," says Webster.

For now, though, all that's visible on the horizon is another grinding year in the desert. Resigned but not despondent, many 3ID veterans whose bold charge to Baghdad began the war share a single hope: that they might help end it.

"My daughter just left for basic training, and I'm petrified," says Command Sgt. Maj. Gary Coker, a 30-year Army veteran from St. Petersburg, Fla., who ended his last Iraq tour in Fallujah. "I don't want there to be an OIF 5 [a fifth rotation to Iraq]," he says. "Maybe we can fix it."

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