Army Wife Distrusts Timetables

For the first year of her husband's deployment with the 172nd Stryker Brigade, Tamara Bell says she was a "good Army wife." She supported her husband's mission and trusted the military to bring him home safely—and on time. After all, Tamara, 32, grew up as a Navy brat, and she and Staff Sgt. Edward Bell have been married for 12 years, weathering several overseas deployments in South Korea, Bosnia and the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, when Edward was with one of the first units to enter Baghdad. Even during his second Iraq deployment, Tamara, waiting at home in Fairbanks, Alaska, with the couple's infant son, did everything she could to keep her spirits up. She and Edward counted the days remaining in full moons ("It seems a lot shorter that way") and communicated nonstop about their baby Nicholas, now 11 months old, whom Edward last saw at birth.

But last July, only days before Edward was to return home to Fairbanks following a year of combat duty in Mosul, Tamara learned that his infantry battalion, the 4-23, was being sent to Baghdad to quell violence in the Iraqi capital. The extension was to last four months. That was the moment she snapped, she says. "Everyone has a breaking point, and that was mine," says Bell. "He was exactly seven days away from coming home. With the extension, I said, 'Wow, I need to be a lot less trusting of what the military tells us.'" Her husband, she adds, feels his own country is using him. "They are no longer showing us any loyalty."

These days Tamara has become, by her own admission, something of an Army dissident. "If people don't speak up and say this treatment is wrong, it's going to keep happening," she says. From her home off-post in Fairbanks, Bell is more vocal than most military spouses about her unhappiness. She and a small group of likeminded family members have written to their lawmakers and to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld protesting the 4-23's last-minute extension and continued ambiguity about their return date. Others vent on a Web site http://www.bringhome172nd.org/ launched by an Air Force veteran of the First Gulf War, Travis Pittman, who says he is "appalled" by the way the military has treated the 172nd.

Such public grousing is frowned on by the Army, which stresses the importance of family support to "mission success." Soldiers with unruly spouses can expect adverse career consequences. There is also peer pressure: many wives in the 4-23, interviewed by NEWSWEEK—who say they and their children also miss their husbands terribly—say the dissidents attract an undue share of media attention and reflect poorly on the sacrifices all 4-23 soldiers and their families have made during an unbearably long deployment, now 15 months and counting. At Fort Richardson in Anchorage, where some 4-23 families are based, the Army offers free counseling and babysitting services to families who are having trouble coping. But the growing outspokenness of some family members, especially those of career soldiers such as Bell, could become a problem for the Bush administration: after all, keeping the trust and support of military families may be critical to the success of its Iraq strategy, which will require a drawn-out U.S. effort to stabilize Baghdad. George W. Bush himself, at a White House news conference on Oct. 25, obliquely referred to the 4-23's mission when the president said he was "taking new steps to help secure" Iraq's largest city.

What concerns Tamara and other 4-23 family members is that U.S. officials tend to describe the Baghdad mission in rather open-ended terms. And their patience is starting to run out—even if many of them, unlike Tamara, still keep their distress to themselves. Above all, the families are deathly afraid of another tour extension. When Tamara read this week that Gen. George Casey, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, had informed Bush it would be necessary to increase U.S. troop levels (currently at 140,000) until Iraqi security forces were fully trained, she began to worry all over again. "The last time Casey said this it was July 12," says Bell. "On July 26, they were extended. So, I'm thinking, 'What does this mean for our guys? Are they going to keep them longer?' At this point, I don't believe the generals, I don't believe the military, I don't believe the president. I will believe it with my own eyes when my husband comes home."

Bell, who says she never used to question the Army's orders, suggests that Casey's announcement may be tied to the upcoming Congressional elections. "I wonder if someone higher up is panicking and saying voters are not too happy, so maybe we need to do something to make sure it looks as though we are adapting to the situation on the ground?" Adds Rich Moniak, whose son, Michael, 26, is a sergeant with the 172nd: "If they need more [troops], will they let anyone go?"

One reason for the breakdown of trust is that both the soldiers and families of the 172nd know the Pentagon has overestimated the readiness of Iraqi forces in the past. During a meeting between Rumsfeld and family members at Ft. Wainwright in Fairbanks last August, one wife complained that her husband, the driver of a heavily armored Stryker, told her he had to get out of his vehicle regularly to sweep houses for weapons. This is one of the most dangerous urban warfare jobs, and Iraqi troops are supposed to perform it while Americans back them up. In a videotape of the meeting obtained by NEWSWEEK, Rumsfeld told the woman she was "mistaken," that Iraqi forces perform more than 90 percent of the sweeps while the Americans stand guard in their vehicles. He was promptly shouted down by several angry wives who cried "No, no, no." Rich Moniak says, "That really made people angry. We knew that was nonsense." One 4-23 wife, Jennifer Davis, a leader of the dissident family members, says she's heard stories about poor performance by the Iraqi security forces for months now. "Boots on the ground know a whole lot more than shoes on marble," she says.

As recently as Oct. 26, at a testy news conference, Rumsfeld declared that "a majority [of Iraqi forces] are already in the lead" in most security operations. But by many accounts on the ground, American soldiers are still the first ones in, especially in Baghdad where the well-equipped insurgents can easily outgun the lightly armed and ill-trusted Iraqi police forces. In an e-mail to NEWSWEEK, a 4-23 company commander, Capt. Brad Velotta, indicated that his unit was still taking the lead in securing Baghdad neighborhoods, noting that recently "we raided four mosques and a political headquarters and recovered huge caches of weapons, explosives and IEDs." Velotta added much remained to be done: "We are mentoring and weeding out the ISF [Iraqi security forces] through partnership and time together." He added that the only Iraqi Army units operating "in our neck of the woods" were stationed at the Baghdad airport. "We'd love to see IA [Iraqi Army] come to our current Area of Operations," Velotta wrote. But "I have a fan club of ex-Baathist senior military leadership that think we're the solution."

Another soldier in the 4-23, who would comment only if he were not identified, told NEWSWEEK that Gen. Casey's acknowledgement of the difficulties being encountered in Baghdad was long overdue. "It was inevitable; the plan was failed from the start inasmuch as it presupposed a level of competency and commitment of the Iraqi Security Forces which simply does not exist," he wrote, adding that there still were not enough troops available to achieve the Bush administration's goal of "clear, hold and build"—in other words, to create secure, thriving zones in Baghdad. "In a city where we're increasingly facing criminal problems, we're a police force far too undermanned for such grandiose designs." The soldier noted that morale was holding even as the unit had begun taking casualties. "That's normal—save that it's compounded, of course, by the fact that our deaths are in overtime."

When the 4-23's Baghdad deployment was first announced, Tamara says the families split into two camps. "There were those wives who sat there and smiled like the women in 'Apollo 13,' who just smiled when they were thinking 'Oh my God,' kind of like Stepford wives, and then there were those of us who said, 'This just isn't right,'" recalls Bell. Today, instead of ignoring news reports about the war—as she and other family members have been instructed to do by the battalion's rear detachment commander—Tamara has become a voracious reader and viewer of every public scrap of information. She has even set up a Google news alert that will send her Iraq-related stories from news services around the world.

Mainly, though, she's waiting to see if the Army will follow through on its plans to bring the 4-23 home by December. Last Saturday, Bell and the other 17nd families received an e-mail from the commander's wife, asking them to attend "reintegration sessions"—including lectures on PTSD, domestic violence and dealing with children's concerns—to help them prepare for their soldiers' return." However, in his news conference last week, Rumsfeld declined to put any timetable on new "benchmarks" that the Bush administration is asking the Iraqi government to meet in order to relieve U.S. forces. "I'm hearing from my husband that he'll be home by the end of November," Tamara says. "Our son's first birthday is Nov. 30 and he's saying if I miss that, I've missed everything." But she adds that his morale is still generally good, despite a certain tendency toward morbid humor. "He said: 'I might as well just change my citizenship to Iraqi, because my own government doesn't want me home.'"

With Michael Hastings

This is the latest in NEWSWEEK's series of Web-exclusive reports, " War Stories ," about the daily lives of the soldiers and families of the 4-23 infantry battalion of the U.S. Army's 172nd Stryker Brigade. Informed in late July that their yearlong deployment in Iraq would be extended for another four months, the soldiers are now fighting on the front lines of the Battle of Baghdad. The impact of this move on the troops and their loved ones was the subject of the report, " Straight to the Heart ," in NEWSWEEK's Sept. 18 issue. During the unit's extended tour, which is expected to last until December, our reporters will continue to tell the story of the 4-23 through the individual tales of a small group of soldiers and the families who anxiously await their return back at Fort Richardson, Alaska, and in hometowns across America .