Families Ask Why

The women--wives of officers with the Third Infantry Division on duty in Baghdad--listened impatiently to the speeches at a "redeployment meeting" at the base. They all had the same question--when is my husband coming home?--but the Army had other messages. Here's some of the advice they received:

Don't have too much beer in the fridge; he's in no shape to get drunk.

Put away the sexy negligee; he probably won't be in the mood.

Don't have a list of chores waiting; he will be physically and emotionally spent.

"I found it a little galling," says Jennifer Veale, married to a Black Hawk helicopter pilot. "They micromanage our husbands' lives; why do they have to micromanage ours as well?"

One more piece of advice: don't get your hopes up. A few days after the meeting in May, the homecoming was postponed, and later postponed again; the Third ID is now scheduled to return in September. And a final thing: if you're unhappy, keep it to yourself. In an e-mail to family members, a Second Battalion's rear-detachment commander cautioned them against contacting elected officials or the press "in a negative manner regarding the military and this deployment of their loved ones."

It didn't work. The Pentagon's public- relations effort, which had been masterful during the actual fighting, was beset last week by a ragtag insurgency of frustrated wives, anxious parents--and hot, thirsty, bored and disgruntled troops. In and out of uniform, military family members are speaking up--about the mounting casualties, the hardships of the occupation and, above all, the ever-lengthening deployments. History may record the killing of Saddam's two sons as a turning point in the campaign, but it barely came up in dozens of conversations NEWSWEEK reporters had last week with military families. Neither did Jessica Lynch's triumphant homecoming. For the relatives of service members in Iraq, the big news was that three soldiers from the 101st Airborne were killed Thursday in an ambush. On Saturday, three soldiers from the Fourth Infantry and a fourth from the Third Infantry were killed, bringing to at least 47 the number of combat deaths since May 1.

The news resonated particularly in the suburban Pittsburgh home of Nancy and Bob Cannon, where the Christmas tree still stands, awaiting 19-year-old Bob Jr.'s return from Iraq. A private first class with the Third Infantry, he had been preparing to come home in early July, but his orders changed and he was redeployed to Kuwait. As she drove to work Thursday morning, Nancy got a call from Bob Jr., whose unit had been ordered back into Iraq. "I woke up hearing three soldiers were killed, then I got a call from my son, who tells me goodbye, he loves me, he's going back in," she says. "It was a rough day in a rough week."

The other big news was the Pentagon --announcement that most of the troops who saw action in the invasion--notably the Third Infantry and the First Marine Division--would return home in September. Troops who arrived later would generally serve a year in Iraq. This was disheartening news to units like the Fourth Infantry, which now appears to be stuck in Iraq until spring, while their relatives jump anxiously every time the doorbell rings. President George W. Bush's bellicose challenge to "bring them on" played badly with military families, even gung-ho ones like Charles Hoffman, a former Army staff sergeant and Vietnam veteran. "If he [Bush] were sitting in a Humvee getting his butt shot at," says Hoffman, whose son Justin serves with the Fourth ID, "I don't think he'd be saying something like that." It was better news to the Third ID families, who now have an official date to look forward to. But, says Denise Gonsales, wife of a Black Hawk helicopter pilot, "I'll believe it when I see it."

The sense of mistrust is compounded by smaller annoyances that leave the families feeling as though no one in authority cares about them. A number of wives mentioned paychecks that were delayed or mysteriously smaller than expected. Letters take up to a month to arrive. Troops complain about missing conveniences, including fresh water and food. (Insect repellent is one of the most frequently requested items.) A Pentagon spokesman, who didn't want to be identified, acknowledged that some of these complaints are probably genuine, but said the incidents were isolated.

To be sure, neither the troops nor their families want to be seen as whiners. They know that millions of Americans went off to war in 1942 and didn't return for three years--or ever--in an era before cell phones, e-mail or live coverage on CNN. But that was a war for America's survival; even supporters of the Iraq invasion recognize (increasingly) that it was a fight we picked. Going to an all-volunteer military was supposed to defuse antiwar sentiment. But as the Army turned into a career, troops became older and more likely to have families. (Up to 65 percent of non-commissioned officers and 40 percent of the grunts have spouses, the highest in at least a generation.) And the military is growing more reliant on its Reserves, including National Guard troops, who typically expect to fight hurricanes, not guerrillas--and who often have careers or businesses they can't easily afford to leave. The very ubiquity of electronic communications can have a surprising downside, notes Richard Kohn, a military historian at the University of North Carolina: a wife becomes accustomed to frequent e-mail from her husband, until he can't get to a computer. And then her anxiety increases.

All the grumbling falls far short of a full-fledged antiwar movement. An organization called Military Families Speak Out, now dedicated to bringing the troops home as soon as possible, has only about 600 members. (There are about 147,000 American troops in Iraq.) The Pentagon insists morale isn't a serious problem. "Soldiers will gripe," said an official who didn't want to be quoted by name, "but they're lining up in the field to re-enlist." Maybe so, but if the ones now serving in Iraq are still there next summer, the gripes are going to get a lot louder--and in an election year, a lot more people will be listening.