Troops Cuts: Which Unit Leaves First?

In endorsing Gen. David Petraeus's recommendations on Iraq, President George W. Bush said Thursday night that at least 21,500 U.S. combat forces, plus support troops, could leave Iraq and come home by next July. Curiously, the first military unit designated by Petraeus to return is the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit based at Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, Calif., north of San Diego.

But the 13th MEU, a support unit that has been in Iraq on its current tour for about three months, was already scheduled to return home from Iraq on Nov. 17. Their new date of arrival under the drawdown plan? Still Nov. 17. Other Marine units have been in Iraq as much as three times longer than the 13th MEU, and some active-duty Army soldiers are serving 15-month tours, the longest of the war. Relatives of the 2,000-member 13th MEU, most of whom have known for more than a month that the unit was coming home, are collectively a bit confused by the inclusion of the 13th MEU in the announcement of troop cuts, and some are even angry.

"I think General Petraeus is using normal circumstances and turning them into some kind of big deal," says Melissa Hurt, 24, wife of a 13th MEU Sgt. Andy Hurt, 24. Originally from Minnesota, the couple has been married for four years and they have a 9-month-old son. "I don't understand how this can be called a troop reduction since Andy was already scheduled to come home in November and was not scheduled to return to Iraq. There are guys who've been in Iraq for more than a year. They should bring them home first. I know my husband agrees with me."

Wendy Foulis, whose husband, Gunnery Sgt. Gerald Foulis, is a member of the 13th MEU but was with other units previously and is completing his third tour in Iraq, says she has "absolutely no idea" why the general singled out her husband's unit. "It's the general's decision, I won't presume anything, but we've known our guys were coming home for more than a month," she says. "This wasn't a surprise. But since they were part of the surge, and since this unit is not designed for the type of work they did in Iraq, I guess it has something to do with that."

Thee 13th MEU is typically a ship-based support unit sent to handle embassy problems, natural disasters and other situations as they occur anywhere in the Western Pacific. When it left Camp Pendleton for its deployment back on April 10, the troops were told they were headed for a port of call in Thailand and then to do ocean-based training with other coalition forces in that area. But that mission soon changed and the unit was diverted to Iraq as part of the surge that Bush initiated at the beginning of the year. The unit ended up in the eastern part of the Anbar province and based its ground force about 10 miles north of Karma, a relatively rural area that had not been occupied up to that point but was being used by insurgents as a place to manufacture and store bombs.

The U.S. military says the 13th MEU is leaving first because it is completing its mission first. "It was sent into Iraq to perform a particular short-term mission," says Army Maj. Bradford E. Leighton, a spokesperson for Multi-National Force—Iraq. "That mission was to clean up a pocket of Al Qaeda north of Fallujah and then allow the Iraqi Army to replace them. They were already scheduled to rotate out but will not be replaced by another unit. Hence, the overall troop numbers will fall."

Sgt. Andy Hurt, who spoke to NEWSWEEK from Iraq, says his unit has acted these past three months as a roadblock of sorts to intercept the insurgents' delivery of bombs between Fallujah, Karma and Baghdad. "We didn't encounter many insurgents here—there were fewer than 10 insurgents killed—but we seized more than 100,000 pounds of homemade explosives that presumably would have been used to kill Americans and quite possibly civilians in Baghdad," says Hurt. "We've saved countless lives here." Hurt adds that six members of the 13th MEU were killed in action during this deployment.

The sergeant is a bit more diplomatic than his wife regarding speculation on why his unit is first to depart. "It makes sense because we are part of the surge force, and we did our job well," he says. "But it's pretty easy to push us out of here; we were leaving anyway."

One Marine from the unit, who asked not to be identified for fear or reprisal by his superiors, has a more cynical view. "Seems to me we're just being used as political pawns by the Pentagon and the White House," he says. "They're pleasing the Democrats with this announcement, I guess, but we've been here a short time compared to other units. In my personal opinion, the general is playing off our regular deployment schedule and our success here, knowing we're scheduled to come home anyways. It's totally political, and I think it's deceptive."

Kristy McFarland, 29, who's married to S/Sgt. John Mundy, 29, a 10-year veteran of the Marines and a member of the 13th MEU, was "dumbfounded" when she heard her husband's unit named as the first to be sent home as part of the troop reduction. "I was kind of disgusted, to be honest," says McFarland, a business consultant. "They made it sound so great for this unit. I exchanged an e-mail about this with my husband already, and we both just had a laugh about it. He's been in the Marines a long time, and he loves his job, but when it comes to the politics of it all, we both just have to roll our eyes and roll with it. It's just politics."

Retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor, a defense analyst in Ashburn, Va., who supported the invasion of Iraq and the removal of Saddam Hussein but is critical of the current strategy, shares the skepticism about the troop reduction and why the general chose this particular Marine unit. "It's deceitful and ultimately destructive to the credibility of the military and the Bush administration," he says. "To pretend that this plan is a product of some real decision-making by General Petraeus is appalling, and I'm sure the Marines in this unit and their families are not happy about being used."

But the U.S. military spokesman denies that there was any politics involved. "The reason that they are leaving first is because their mission will be completed first," Major Leighton tells NEWSWEEK. "It was a mission suited to their particular assets and capabilities. Other units have longer-term missions. The military does take into account the number and length of previous deployments in deciding what units to send to Iraq and then rotate out, but those are two of many factors. Others include unit capabilities, equipment, troop numbers, job specialties—in other words, can they accomplish a particular mission that needs to be accomplished?"

And not everyone affiliated with the 13th MEU is skeptical of Petraeus's plan. Toni Pierce, wife of Navy religious-program specialist Jonathan (Adam) Piece, who's a petty officer assigned to the Marine unit, defends the general. "There's a lot of pressure on him from all sides, and I think it's a lot to expect of one man to speak for this entire war," says Toni, a teacher who lives in Oceanside. "I do believe what we are doing in Iraq is making America safer. Maybe not in the short term, but in the long run. And I really liked what [Ambassador Ryan] Crocker told Congress about how we are making progress and that leaving now would be the worst thing we could do. This war is hard, especially for family members like me who have spouses over there, but I do believe we need to be there, and we need to stay there. Those people we are fighting are crazy; they don't think the way we do. We need to make sure they don't attack us again."