FALLOUJA, Iraq — They're hot, they're cranky, and they're not leaving any time soon. Spc. Steven Outen has phoned his parents in Dalton, Ga., twice since his original six-month tour in the Persian Gulf was due to end in March to say his stay had been extended. This week, he didn't bother to call after he was again told to remain, this time through September. They expected it, he said.
"I didn't like it at all," he said.
Between bites of a breakfast of eggs and sausage in heat already topping 110 degrees, Spc. Joseph Lynes added, "Going home for me isn't even reality anymore."
Their exhausted outfit, the 3rd Infantry's 2nd Brigade, will have completed a full year in the Persian Gulf in September. Tens of thousands more U.S. soldiers are expected to face equally long deployments. The U.S. Central Command is expected to announce as soon as next week that deployments to Iraq will now last a year, military officials said on condition of anonymity.
And the duty is dangerous: Early today a U.S. soldier was killed and two others wounded in an apparent bombing west of Baghdad, witnesses said.
Griping by soldiers is as old as warfare itself, but military officials say longer stays for soldiers such as Outen and Lynes, whose brigade stormed Baghdad in early April and played a major role in toppling Saddam Hussein's regime, are a symptom of an Army that is stretched too thin. At a time when Pentagon strategists are considering cuts in the overall size of the Army, a broad range of soldiers -- from senior brass in Washington to ground-pounding GIs in Fallouja -- think that the Army should instead be growing to take on the expanding tasks the Bush administration has handed it.
Anecdotal evidence indicates that retention rates are already beginning to suffer in the face of the grueling Iraq duty, Army officials said on condition of anonymity.
There simply aren't enough soldiers for the job as it is, Army insiders argue.
"You've got to take an appetite suppressant, or you've got to size the force appropriately," an Army officer serving in Iraq said on condition of anonymity, adding that peacekeeping commitments posed a greater strain on the service than fighting wars. "If anything, this war shows we need a larger Army."
The office of Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) says it has fielded hundreds of calls and letters from angry families at Ft. Stewart, Ga., which is the headquarters of the 3rd Infantry Division. Other lawmakers have expressed similar concerns.
Military experts said that such significant numbers of soldiers or entire units have not been asked to serve in combat for such an extended period of time since the Vietnam War.
"For major combat units, this is clearly the longest sustained combat deployment since Vietnam," said Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution.
The Pentagon routinely deploys troops overseas in peacetime for months at a time but rarely without their families.
Although a single unit is often continuously deployed, individual soldiers rotate in and out to keep the unit fresh and keep the careers and training of the troops from stagnating.
The well-publicized woes of the 3rd Infantry Division appear to have given the nation's oldest armed service an edge in a battle within the Defense Department. Pentagon officials are expected to drop consideration of a plan to cut the size of the Army from 10 divisions to eight, at least for the foreseeable future, defense officials and military analysts said.
Army leaders complain privately that they have been punished for defeating Iraq more quickly than Pentagon strategists had anticipated with about half the troops that Central Command chief Gen. Tommy Franks had initially sought.
After a series of clashes with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki left in June with a parting shot at Rumsfeld, whom Army officials accuse of doing too much with too few soldiers: "Beware the 12-division strategy for a 10-division army."
Rumsfeld has not decided whether to trim the overall number of GIs, a senior aide said recently, but Army officials say that before the war, senior Pentagon leaders showed an inclination to cut. The defense secretary is openly criticized by privates and officers alike in Fallouja, where soldiers face rifle fire, mortar shells or rocket-propelled grenades almost daily.
"People say Rumsfeld needs to get out of office," one soldier said, to nods from two fellow GIs.
Lawrence Di Rita, a Pentagon spokesman, said Monday that the plan was still to bring the 3rd Infantry Division home this fall and that there had been no change in the overall plans for the division. He said Pentagon officials were focused on ensuring an orderly redeployment of forces.