WUERZBURG, Germany -- As the first soldiers with the U.S. Army's 1st Infantry Division arrive in the Persian Gulf to patrol some of the most dangerous turf in Iraq, the families they left behind here are already asking the Pentagon's No. 2 official about the next possible tour of duty.
"My husband's going to go down [to Iraq] for a year," Bonnie McCarty told Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, who was here for a one-day visit Saturday before flying to Baghdad, where he arrived today. "But when he comes back, is he going to go back again for a year because of the size of the Army?
"We don't want to have to keep going through this," added McCarty, whose husband is a command sergeant major with the 1st Infantry, "or you're going to have a hard time getting people in the Army. We need to share the 'wealth.' "
Such concerns underscore the plight of a U.S. military that is stretched thin and increasingly demanding more of its troops. The McCartys and other military families have learned from the experiences of others, such as the members of the 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton, who are preparing for a second year long tour after helping capture Baghdad in April. They also have learned from the Ft. Stewart, Ga.-based 3rd Infantry Division, which marched toward Baghdad with the Marines. The infantry members had been told more than once that they would be going home, only to have their stint extended.
Those concerns are among the reasons Wolfowitz stopped to thank the families of troops and to reassure them that senior Pentagon strategists were aware that military families feel more stressed by duty abroad than at any time in recent memory.
"The goal is to get deployment levels down to something more sustainable than what you've just described," he told McCarty. He added, "Now, there is a great deal of uncertainty."
Many of these 1st Infantry families first learned through television reports in the fall that their spouses and children would be sent to Iraq. Now they speak of a "trust gap."
"We need to build back the trust so families believe what is said in the Pentagon and elsewhere," McCarty said.
Ginger Chun, whose husband will leave for Iraq soon, was blunter. "I don't think people believe our soldiers will be back in 365 days," she said.
Even Michelle Batiste, wife of the division commander, expressed concern.
"We just want some predictability, some stability. It's very stressful on families constantly saying goodbye," she said. "We don't want to go there, but we know our world is going to be a better place for our sacrifice."
Arriving just weeks before the first anniversary of the war, the first 15,000 incoming troops, the vanguard of a replacement force of about 120,000, are part of one of the most massive military turnover operations in U.S. history. The changeover is occurring even faster than the prewar buildup of last winter.
The 1st Infantry has undergone urban training and has packed its last ship for travel. Many Humvees and other vehicles have been armored to withstand roadside bombs, and hundreds more are to be fitted as the troops undergo further preparation in Kuwait.
The division will be deployed in and around Tikrit, in the heart of the Sunni Triangle in central Iraq, home to thousands of Sunni Muslim loyalists of Saddam Hussein. The deposed president was captured near Tikrit, his hometown, in December.
The 1st Division's commanding general, Maj. Gen. John Batiste, said that peacekeeping and rebuilding would have to be done at the same time.
"On the one hand, we will be killing and capturing terrorists and foreign fighters, those kinds of people," he said. "Simultaneously, we've got our work cut out with respect to stability and support operations, to set conditions for Iraqi civilian and military self-reliance."
The 1st Division, dubbed the Big Red One, had a storied role in World War I, World War II, Vietnam and the 1991 Persian Gulf War. It remains both the most heavily deployed Army unit in recent years — with stints in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and now Iraq — and the unit with the highest retention rate, officials at its base in Germany said.
As the 1st Infantry arrives, it will overlap with the outgoing 4th Infantry, resulting in a temporary doubling of U.S. forces in the region. That will enable the two divisions to strike simultaneously if guerrillas seek to take advantage of any confusion during the troop transfer.
The security situation remains tense.
"We understand how difficult it is, but it's an enormous service to your country," Wolfowitz told military family members. "It is unavoidable."
On a grim note, he told of wounded soldiers he has visited at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. "We hope that doesn't happen to anybody you know," he said. "But of course, it's a real possibility."
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times