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.
FORT POLK, LA.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.
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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.