FORT HOOD, Tex., July 3 — Luisa Leija was in bed the other morning, she recalled, when her 9-year-old daughter bounded in the room, saying, "Mommy, mommy, there's a man in uniform at the door."
Ms. Leija, the wife of a young artillery captain in Iraq, threw on a robe and took a deep breath. She dashed to the door, thinking: "This is not happening to me. This can't be happening to me."
A soldier in full camouflage was on the doorstep. It was a neighbor locked out of his house.
Ms. Leija is still upset. The panic has passed, but not the weariness. Or the anger. Anger that her husband, Capt. Frank Leija, has not come home yet, even though President Bush declared two months ago that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended." Anger that the end of that stage has not meant the beginning of peace, that the Army has assigned new duties for her husband and his men that have nothing to do with toppling Saddam Hussein.
Wives of Fort Hood soldiers in Iraq, from left, Luisa Leija, Kim Franklin and Winter Travis, with their children. They want their husbands home.
(NYTimes Photo/Taylor Jones)
And anger that the talk in Washington is not of taking troops out of Iraq, but of sending more in.
"I want my husband home," Ms. Leija, a mother of three children, said. "I am so on edge. When they first left, I thought yeah, this will be bad, but war is what they trained for. But they are not fighting a war. They are not doing what they trained for. They have become police in a place they're not welcome."
Military families, so often the ones to put a cheery face on war, are growing vocal. Since major combat for the 150,000 troops in Iraq was declared over on May 1, more than 60 Americans, including 25 killed in hostile encounters, have died in Iraq, about half the number of deaths in the two months of the initial campaign.
Frustrations became so bad recently at Fort Stewart, Ga., that a colonel, meeting with 800 seething spouses, most of them wives, had to be escorted from the session.
"They were crying, cussing, yelling and screaming for their men to come back," said Lucia Braxton, director of community services at Fort Stewart.
The signs of discomfort seem to be growing beyond the military bases. According to a Gallup poll published on Tuesday, the percentage of the public who think the war is going badly has risen to 42 percent, from 13 percent in May. Likewise, the number of respondents who think the war is going well has dropped, from 86 percent in May to 70 percent a month ago to 56 percent.
The latest poll was based on telephone interviews with 1,003 adults. It has a sampling error of three percentage points.
News this week has not helped. Today, eight American soldiers were hurt in hit-and-run attacks, and an enraged crowd of Iraqis stomped a burned Humvee.
"The soldiers were supposed to be welcomed by waving crowds. Where did those people go?" said Kim Franklin, whose husband is part of an artillery unit, 3-16 Bravo, also known as the Bulldogs, commanded by Ms. Leija's husband.
In the postwar and pre-peace phase, it is not Green Berets or top-gun fighter pilots who are being killed. The casualties have been mostly low-ranking ground troops who are performing mundane activities like buying a video, going out on patrol or guarding a trash pit.
Those are the types of missions that the Bulldogs are on. With major battles over and little use for field cannon that can shoot 15 miles, the unit has been running checkpoints and searching houses north of Baghdad, rarely firing a shell.
The Bulldogs took up their assignment in April along with 20,000 other soldiers from Fort Hood. Yellow ribbons now droop from the trees where they used to meet at dawn and stretch before exercises. The grass is long and dead. The blacktop that once echoed with roll call and the stomp of a thousand combat boots is hot, quiet and empty.
Army bases can be drab places in the best of times. Fort Hood right now is downright depressing. Even on the Fourth of July.
"I tried every trick in the book to get out of this," said Maj. William Geiger, the commander of the rear detachment for the artillery soldiers who has remained here.
There is not much glory in helping single mothers have their cars repaired or overseeing insurance benefits. But that is the work of the officer left behind, and in the last few weeks, that effort has become harder.
"The anxiety is way up there," Major Geiger said.
Seven soldiers from Fort Hood have been killed. More and more people are dreading that knock on the door. But there are other worries, too. War can find the weakest seam of a military marriage and split it open. After the Persian Gulf war, divorce rates at certain Army bases shot up as much as 50 percent, an Army study showed.
"That's my biggest fear," Valerie Decal, the wife of an artillery sergeant, said. "That my husband will come back different. Even if you're G.I. Joe, if you have to kill someone, that's not something you just forget about."
Ms. Decal is stumped about what to do when the doorbell rings and her 19-month-old son runs to answer, saying, "Dada, dada."
"What do I tell him?" she asked.
Yeshica Padilla, wife of an artillery lieutenant, said her toddler daughter threw a tantrum the other day, saying she wanted to eat pizza on the floor "with Daddy."
And Ms. Padilla keeps having the same dream.
"I can see my husband, but he is hiding from me," she said.
No Bulldogs have been killed, but their wives are constantly bracing for it.
" `Names pending release, names pending release' — I hate that expression," Ms. Decal said of the way the military announces casualties and being told who they are.
The women console themselves by making bracelets for their husbands and sending care packages. Ms. Padilla included a Best Buy circular in a recent box at her husband's request. Winter Travis shipped the latest issue of Parents magazine, not at her husband's request.
Ms. Travis is seven months pregnant and married to an artillery sergeant.
"And whether he likes it or not, he's coming back a daddy," she said.
Great efforts are made to stay upbeat. On a recent day, a group of Bulldog wives chatted in Ms. Leija's living room, popping cheese cubes in their mouths and swigging lemonade.
But things are becoming more intense, they said. The widening chaos in Iraq means that their husbands will stay longer, and the women do not need a poll to tell them that public opinion is shifting.
"When my husband first deployed, the people at work were so sweet, giving me days off, saying take whatever time I need," recalled Ms. Franklin, who answers telephones at a financial institution near the fort. "But it's not like that today. Now they look at me kind of funny and say: `Why do you need a day off now? Isn't the war over?' "
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company