With America's all-volunteer military facing its longest sustained combat ever, US commanders are raising the question: How far can these troops be pushed?
Some US troops now in Iraq, including marines fighting in the volatile city of Fallujah, are already on their second tour during this war. And soldiers from the Army's 3rd Infantry Division who fought their way to Baghdad a year ago are scheduled to head back within months.
Finally, there are soldiers like Sgt. Bryce Syverson, a Bradley gunner with the 1st Armored Division, who arrived in Kuwait on his way home at the end of a year-long tour - only to be yanked back to Baghdad last week along with 20,000 other soldiers abruptly ordered to stay on there.
"Hey Mom and Dad, as you know I am back in this [expletive] hole," Sergeant Syverson wrote from Baghdad, as his unit prepared to head south to put down rebellious Shiite militia. "Sounds like there will be some shootouts with the bad guys," he said, adding, "I just hope that we are the good guys."
Facing the deadliest period of fighting in Iraq since the war began, US commanders this week ordered 20,000 seasoned but war-weary US troops from the 1st Armored Division and 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment to remain in that country for three to four months to help put down Sunni and Shiite unrest that has spiraled with the approach of the June 30 transfer of power to Iraqi authorities.
US commanders say US forces are currently adequate to handle unrest in Fallujah and a potential showdown in Najaf against the militia of hard-line Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr. "Negotiations [with Sadr] are ongoing [but] they can't go on...forever," said Gen. Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who visited Iraq this week to gauge the military situation. The reinforcements will also be used to secure crucial supply routes, which have come under intensified attack from insurgents in recent days, General Myers said.
The Pentagon's abrupt decision to bolster US forces in Iraq by tens of thousands to 135,000 - rather than drawing down to 110,000 in May as planned - is deepening concerns about how far to stretch America's already overextended all-volunteer military and its readiness to address other global contingencies.
US military planners are already scheduling multiple, year-long Iraq rotations. President Bush said Tuesday that the one-year duration of the occupation so far is "a relatively short period of time." Yet he acknowledged that "it seems like a long time to the loved ones whose troops have been overseas."
The Army and Marine Corps are scrambling to identify thousands of additional forces in the United States and elsewhere who can, if necessary, relieve those extended beyond their planned year-long tours of duty.
One option would be to speed up the deployment of forces already scheduled for the next rotation into Iraq, such as the Army's second new Stryker brigade. But the Army is reluctant to hasten the return to Iraq of the 3rd Infantry Division, which is reorganizing, retraining, and refurbishing its equipment along with other units back from Iraq. That's part of a plan to create 43 to 48 modular Army brigades, along with plans to keep soldiers in units longer and reduce family moves - all of which would be disrupted by a large infusion of troops to Iraq.
Moreover, no one in the military is certain how multiple Iraq deployments will impact today's all-volunteer military, which has shrunk considerably since the cold war and relies heavily on reserve forces in times of war.
Anecdotal evidence, as well as military and independent surveys of service members and their spouses, suggest that a significant number of Iraq veterans like Syverson are deciding to leave the military rather than face the near-certain prospect of a second tour in Iraq or Afghanistan. So far US military retention figures have held up, with slippage mainly in Army Reserve and National Guard units.
The Army, especially, is watching to see "in the next year or two or three ... whether that door will open, and they will start to leave at a faster rate than they are today," Lt. Gen. Franklin Hagenback, in charge of Army personnel, told a recent hearing. "We don't have any indications at this point, and we're trying to track those trends," he said.
Specialist Timothy Monk, another 1st Armored Division infantryman retained in Iraq after being scheduled to leave Thursday, is one of those who has decided to exit the military. "He was extremely disappointed that he couldn't come home," says his mother, Vicky Monk, a Microsoft software tester from Sammamish, Wash. who spoke with her son over the weekend. "He felt that he had fulfilled his duty."
Mr. Monk had considered a military career. But after a year serving in Baghdad's Green Zone, and responding to violence such as the truck bomb that recently killed several Iraqi civilians at a gate there, he has had enough, she says. "After about two months in Iraq he said he'd changed his mind and he was not reenlisting because he did not want to be sent back to Iraq under any circumstances."
Sergeant Syverson and his brother, an experienced tank gunner, have both decided against their plan to serve 20 years, even though they are unsure about their civilian career prospects. "They are really worried about what they'll do, but reenlisting was not an option," says their father, Larry Syverson, of Richmond, Va., who is against the war although he has four sons who have served in the military.
The need for reinforcements in Iraq also vindicates to a degree the concerns of high-ranking US military officials who warned early on of the risks of the plan, favored by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, of experimenting with a relatively small occupation force in Iraq.
"Iraq was called the 'laboratory.' Well, the lab rats are getting really frisky," says one military source. "Enthusiasm got confused with capability and now the bill's come due," he says. "We're going to pay the bill, but there's a cost and the cost will be borne by soldiers."