Long, vexing vigil for families at home

One base strains for composure - worrying, wondering, waiting, as deployments wear on.

While their boys wile away dusty days in Fallujah, Angie Peterson and Junelle Gasaway say they're lucky to have found something unexpected in the soldiers' absence: each other.

While some wives from the 3rd Infantry Division (Mech.) lash out at the brass for constantly changing homecoming dates, Ms. Peterson and Ms. Gasaway - one a mom, the other a wife - have settled into work-a-day life in the dog days of summer at this Army outpost on the Georgia coast.

Having weathered three delays for the return of the 162nd Scouts, 2nd Brigade, the women check up on each other, shop together, and gripe as tension builds. "It's not all fun and games anymore," says Ms. Peterson in a thick German accent.

The shift from hope to disappointment, raw frustration, and despair has proved harder than expected on the home front here. Many soldiers anticipated a return once they'd taken over Baghdad. Instead, they're on the new frontlines, targets of an increasingly organized guerrilla offensive as they bear the brunt of peacekeeping in still-volatile Iraq. And for families who make their homes beneath palm fronds in these steamy cul-de-sacs of ranch houses and split-levels, that nagging awareness of peril, a raucous rumor mill, and a lack of international support has made Fort Stewart a hotbed of discontent. Experts say the home-front lobby is gaining power - and compensation. More broadly, though, its ire is testing an Army with ever more commitments, marching toward a new era of journeyman GIs.

"The last decade has really been a baptism for the Army in the whole art of deploying ... without a set return date," says Jay Farrar, a former Marine Corps officer and an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "But this is the first time in a long time that it's really coming home to roost."

One of the first divisions into Baghdad and key to peacekeep-ing, the 3rd has taken 39 casualties at last count - more than any other division. First promised a June return, most troops will now come back in September - or, worse, "sometime this fall," according to American Forces Press Service. By that point, many of the tank gunners and tread mechanics will have been gone for more than a year.

In the bomb-pocked reaches of the base they've left behind lies a snapshot of war at home. Parade fields stand vacant; road signs announce tank crossings, but herald empty streets; a few men linger outside one barracks with towels slung over their shoulders, others lean against pay phones.

The latest delay brought a volley of complaints, even a protest staged outside a Kmart on Saturday, where women called for their husbands' return. And for many, new questions about intelligence failings and the reasons for war niggle and nag at a festering doubt. "Some wives are starting to question why we're there in the first place," says Claudia Barnett, an Army wife shopping for provisions on the base.

To be sure, malcontent GIs are a fixture of conflict, from weeping Aeneus to the Napoleonic Wars to homesick troops at the Battle of the Bulge. But now there's new sting, and sternness, to their discontent: Last week, Commanding General John Abizaid warned troops to keep doubts to themselves after a soldier in Iraq suggested that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld resign - a breach of military edicts forbidding open censure of superiors.

"Soldiers always have this cynical ... attitude, but it's a little different in an Ernie Pyle column than on the nightly news," says Joyce Raezer, a spokeswoman for the National Military Family Association in Alexandria, Va..

That concern was paralleled in a letter published Saturday in the base paper, The Frontline: Anita Blount, wife of base commander Maj. Gen. Buford Blount III, wrote to spouses, acknowledging concerns but warning families that outward hostility only emboldens Iraqi insurgents alert to the US media's portrayal of war.

Experts suggest that while the Army was trying to quiet the rumor mill by announcing possible departure dates, ensuing postponements have backfired with all the force of a jammed M-16. Even in a 2001 survey, only 24 percent of military families said they'd deal well with deployments of indefinite length. Part of that gulf of expectation, experts say, is how the military has defined itself since becoming an all-volunteer force in the 1970s.

"The problem we've got ... is this idea that we can go and conduct an operation, finish, and get out, with minimal casualties, in a short period," says Mr. Farrar in Washington. "That's not real life."

Steeling families for long absences and readying troops and spouses for the return can be a formidable feat of emotion as well as logistics, as was tragically clear in last summer's murders by returning soldiers at Fort Bragg, N.C.

That, says Ms. Peterson, is exactly why she's hawking T-shirts here in front of the commissary. After stitching homemade T's with stars, hearts, and the "Hooah" yell, Peterson and Gasaway are raising money for a Family Readiness Group they say is "busted" - a crucial void as Army families adjust to a war that doesn't abide by holidays, birthdays, car-maintenance schedules, or the pages of a calendar.

"Dealing with that kind of unpredictability ... is something new for the Army," says Ms. Raezer. "Since 9/11, fewer soldiers have had end dates for deployments, and the Army's going to have to come to grips with what that change means in how it informs and supports families."

But despite letters punctuated with curses and imbued with hints of fading morale, a realistic streak is setting in, at least for troops. For Ms. Gasaways's husband, a brief return to the States left him itching to get back to his unit. To alleviate boredom at home, he'd toted a hand-held DVD player. "It's like they have two families: One's at home, the other's the Army," says Gasaway. "Sometimes you wonder if they care more about the Army."

One young Army wife, pushing her son on a swing, takes solace in her husband's stalwart demeanor. "My husband's trying to keep his spirits up," she says. "He knows he's doing a job." And though complaints are loud and lengthy, many spouses say the Army is doing more for soldiers and families these days. Even as portions of the 3rd came home in a motorcade of buses last weekend, many heard from those still abroad via new satellite phones. A slew of videophones are making their way to desert camps. And to boost morale, a scuba-diving trip to Qatar is in the offing for troops in the desert for nearly a year.

Still, sand and static are small comfort in what many spouses see as an increasingly fluid, prolonged war. Says Raezer: "The Army is going to have to do some funny figuring to work this out."

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