Even as US forces are packing up and preparing to end a war that has cost the lives of 4,485 of their comrades and more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians, some troops report feeling an unexpected emotion as the mission here draws to a close: dread.
It’s the fear, US military officials say, of what occasionally awaits soldiers on the home front when they return, from fiscal uncertainty to relationship woes.
Troops who deployed to escape their troubles, officials add, are increasingly grappling with the notion that as the wars wind down, they have nowhere left to go but home.
“A lot of people here dread the thought of going back – that has surprised me,” says Lt. Col. Mark Rowan, an Air Force chaplain who counsels troops returning from Iraq and Kuwait. “You’d think it would be high-fives and a happy time, but you’ll find that some don’t want to go home. Some of them left to get away from problems – financial problems, marriage problems – and now they have to face them.”
US forces must leave Iraq by Dec. 31 in accord with an agreement reached between the two countries in 2008. Commanders are aware that even for troops counting the days to the war’s end, the transition can be trickier than they expect. “It’s harder coming home than leaving –anyone will tell you that,” says Col. Michael Gaal, vice commander for the 321st Air Expeditionary Wing in Baghdad. “You think it’s going to be all cotton-candy clouds and unicorns, but it’s different.”
Relationships may be strained after years of deployments, and spouses and children – after the initial flurry of hugs and relief – often need time to readjust to the presence of their returning loved one, Colonel Gaal says.
These difficulties are increasingly compounded for troops coming home amid an economic downturn. Many service members – once guaranteed work fighting – are now suddenly worried about being out of a job.
Others volunteered to deploy specifically because they were having trouble finding work back home. "I had met people who are unemployed due to the economy – that's why they came here," says Staff Sgt. Teresa Pavljuk, a National Guardsman who supervises the military flight terminal in Baghdad.
Even those who are active-duty military are worried about job security. “A lot of them are scared, because with the bad economy, the military’s going to downsize.That means a lot of them are going to be out,” Lieutenant Colonel Rowan says.
“That’s going to be a concern for us,” adds Command Chief Master Sgt. Jerry Delebreau for the 321st Air Expeditionary Wing in Baghdad. “It might be hard for some people.”
When the Air Force announced in late October that it was cutting 157 officers from its ranks due to the increasingly strong budget pressures facing the Pentagon, some airmen took it personally.
“They are in shock. They are angry,” Rowan says. “They feel betrayed.”
The news that, not only were they out of a job, but they would also have to leave the service – along with the life and community they have known – by March 1 hit particularly hard, he adds.
The counseling of troops who were cut from the ranks becomes “basically a talk on self-worth,” Rowan says.
After fighting two wars, “some of them just want to know – what did I do wrong?” he adds. “I had one guy, he said, ‘I can’t understand what I did wrong. I can’t understand. I feel like such a loser.’
“I tell them, ‘You did nothing wrong. You’re not a loser. It’s a function of the budget – you’re being downsized,’ ” Rowan says. “You can’t give them an answer or a job, which you’d love to do.”
[Editor's note: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that Lt. Col. Mark Rowan is an Army chaplain. He's actually an Air Force chaplain.]
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