SANTA ROSA, CALIF. — In Iraq, there were the days that ran together in a never-ending stream of patrols, mission after mission that left him cursing the superiors who sent him out into the teeth of the insurgency. There were the nights when mortars crashed nearby, close enough to smell the sulfur. And there was the question that went unanswered every time a friend was ripped by shrapnel or cut down in an ambush: Why are we fighting this war?
Yet when the time came for Sgt. Jason Waits to decide what he would do when his tour in the Army National Guard ended, he barely paused. Before he even left Iraq, Sergeant Waits reenlisted. And if he is sent back, he "won't have a problem."
It is a glance at one of the most unexpected developments of the war in Iraq. Even as the conflict drags on, undermining recruiting efforts and testing the patience of the nation, American soldiers are so far continuing to reenlist at levels that surprise the Pentagon and pundits alike. To the head of the National Guard, this is the legacy of America's "next greatest generation": a band of soldiers more sophisticated than any before in history, which has been asked to adapt to a new style of warfare and often serve multiple tours - all as a volunteer force.
At a time when Army soldiers are under international scrutiny for roadside shootings and prison abuse, comparisons to the generation that landed on the shores of Normandy might seem curious, but they are more than mere rhetoric, analysts say. The American soldier's commitment to the cause in Iraq and Afghanistan has been historic and decisive, allowing the United States at least a measure of success in an engagement for which it was not prepared.
"The design of the all- volunteer force [after Vietnam] was to make this kind of [open-ended] commitment difficult," says Thomas Donnelly, a military expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "But there have been some extraordinary levels of motivation going on, in terms of serving the country in a time of crisis."
The motivation is different from what it was 60 years ago, to be sure. The clear menace of the Axis powers has been replaced by the specter of terrorism, as indefinable as it is dangerous. Today's soldiers are more likely to patrol an Iraqi neighborhood in an armored Humvee than to take a far-off hill at a huge loss of life. As a result, the shift in threat has meant a shift in national response - while nearly 1 in 10 Americans served in World War II, only about 1 in 500 is fighting the war on terror.
"To compare our generation to the World War II demographic would be grossly misleading," says Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.
But the task of this generation of soldiers, he says, is "every bit as demanding, and they're doing it as volunteers."
What is perhaps most significant is that they continue to volunteer. In a normal year, the Army National Guard expects 18 percent of its soldiers to leave because of retirement, injury, and death, or because they do not reenlist. This year, the attrition rate is only 18.9 percent. Meanwhile, reenlistment rates for the Army and Marines are either exceeding goals or are within a few percentage points of them. Some data even show that reenlistment rates are higher for units deployed overseas than for those that have remained at home.
In some ways, this is the first prolonged test of the all- volunteer military, so experts didn't know what to expect. But clearly, the response has exceeded expectations. "It's a little bit surprising, frankly," says Mr. Donnelly.
Particularly for the National Guard - not only because members of the Guard have to balance their military service with civilian lives, but also because the Guard was the first force called into action after Sept. 11, 2001, and has been continuously deployed since.
In the three years since he joined the California National Guard, Sgt. Dennis Sarla has already finished two deployments: one for guard duty at a chemical weapons plant in Tooele, Utah, and another for a one-year tour in Iraq.
Yet, like Waits, he reenlisted for another six years before he left the Middle East. For both, there is the understanding that six more years in the National Guard will move them closer to a military pension and a more secure retirement. There is also the $15,000 tax-free bonus that each will receive for reenlisting. But there is also something beyond a new truck or a refurbished kitchen - there is a sense of duty, a feeling of belonging, and a deep love of the job.
"I reenlisted not only for the retirement," says Sergeant Sarla, who spent eight years in the active Army before leaving in 1983 to raise three children, "but it is a way of life I like ... the discipline, the camaraderie."
"There is a satisfaction in putting on the uniform," adds Waits.
Waits still can't explain the geopolitics that led A Company of the 579th Engineers to Iraq, where three members of his unit were killed. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly attributed Waits's comments.] But he remembers the day the company returned home to Santa Rosa, Calif., accompanied by a police escort and greeted by throngs of well-wishers.
"Seeing little kids and old guys salute as we came back made me feel so good," he says. "It made me feel that I was doing something that was important and good for the world."
This is Lt. Gen. Steven Blum's "greatest generation." The chief of the National Guard Bureau has used the phrase repeatedly, and he is convinced that this generation of soldiers - especially members of the Guard and Reserve - are worthy of the title. Without their commitment, the war in Iraq would be all but impossible. Some 45 percent of the troops in Iraq are members of the Guard or Reserve, giving them an unprecedented share of the war effort.
Some, like Sergeant Sarla, joined after Sept. 11 and are motivated by it. Others, like Waits, left the active Army as the military shrank at the end of the cold war, lending the Guard and Reserve an invaluable core of experienced soldiers. The trends have created a unique Guard and Reserve, where many are willing and capable of taking on responsibilities that have traditionally fallen to the active services. In this conflict, that means adjusting to developments that seem to have caught the US by surprise.
Originally, the 579th was supposed to rebuild bridges and schools in Iraq - the sort of mission befitting an engineering corps. Instead, they spent the entire year as "international cops," Waits says, patrolling Iraqi roads and raiding houses where no one spoke a word of English. "The type of soldiering that's being done right now is PhD-level work," General Blum told Congress last month. "That man or woman has got to be a combat soldier in a moment's notice, and then the next minute he may be a goodwill ambassador, a social worker."
For now, American soldiers are adapting to the task. "This is the best trained set of soldiers we have ever sent to war," adds Blum in an interview. But some experts and military officials wonder if the military can sustain such retention levels, suggesting that dependence on the experience and commitment of the citizen soldier is a worrisome way to wage a war.
"I still think this is a potential point of failure," says Donnelly. "You can't expect people to do extraordinary things."