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COLUMN ONE

Where the War Drags On

At Ft. Hood, Texas, the frazzled families of about 20,000 troops still in Iraq see reminders of the soldiers' absence everywhere.

May 31, 2003|Faye Fiore | Times Staff Writer

FT. HOOD, Texas — For the more than 6,000 military families living here, life lately is one long, wrenching haul. On a quiet cul-de-sac called Clements Circle, all the men are gone. An 8-year-old girl's grades are slipping. Her 13-year-old brother has taken over mowing the lawn. Their mother, who can't sleep, has lost 20 pounds on the treadmill.

President Bush has pronounced the war in Iraq all but over, and scenes of tanks lurching blindly through desert sandstorms have yielded to pictures of sailors bounding from the decks of aircraft carriers.

But 250,000 soldiers are still deployed in the region that stretches from middle Asia to the Horn of Africa. And for them, the struggle grinds on, testing the endurance of not just the troops but their families, one of war's most overlooked casualties.

Once, the Pentagon's goal was that no deployment last more than six months. But with the downsizing of the armed forces in the last decade and the war on terrorism draining military resources, all promises are off. Active-duty soldiers and reserves are tapped for more missions, more often. And the call to duty is falling hard on military families.

All around Ft. Hood, the Army's largest installation, the daily routine is a study in making do and doing without. A wife struggles to move into a new house. A confused German shepherd runs away. There's no money for a baby's bassinet.

Even routine chores and mishaps feel outsized: Susan Burdick's car needs an oil change. The blender blew up. The vacuum cleaner is on its last legs. She is stretching to make the truck payments that her husband's part-time job at a furniture store used to cover.

Sgt. Kenneth Burdick, however, will know none of that. Like most military marriages, theirs comes with an unspoken deal: He doesn't reveal the ugliness of the battlefield and she doesn't unload the frustrations at home.

He left Feb. 3 to join a unit searching for weapons of mass destruction in Baghdad. In their 12 years of marriage -- seven of them spent first in the National Guard and now on active duty -- he has gone away for occasional training exercises but never for so long or to a place so dangerous.

"I would never tell him that the kids are sad or not behaving and I just can't stand it anymore, that I need him home because I can't handle it," said Burdick, 31. "I just tell him things are going well and I'm keeping up the home front. He needs to be able to keep his mind on his job and his safety. He couldn't do that if he knew that back at home it was absolute chaos."

Nearly 20,000 soldiers have deployed out of Ft. Hood, home to the 4th Infantry Division and the 1st Calvary. Most left March 27, part of a second wave of troops who caught the tail end of combat and the front end of a mission to control unrest and hunt for weapons of mass destruction.

Signs of their absence are everywhere. Hell on Wheels Avenue -- a seven-mile stretch of motor pools usually teeming with tanks, Humvees and trucks -- is a chain of deserted parking lots. All three of the women who work the front desk at the new Best Western in nearby Copperas Cove are on their own. Business at Casa Ole would be dead if not for the 99-cent margaritas on Tuesdays and Thursdays; no one is much in the mood for dinners out.

The number of nights a soldier spends away from his family has shot up 300% since 1989 in all of the services, "making family separation a fact of life in the foreseeable future," according to Bruce Bell, a senior research psychologist at the Army Research Institute in Virginia.

"Deployment used to max out at 180 days, but that's been shot out of the water," said Navy Lt. Dan Hetlage, a Pentagon spokesman. "The services are doing their best to keep them home for a while before sending them out again, but there's no guarantee of that either."

Duty comes with a price. After the Persian Gulf War, Ft. Hood showed a 375% rise in divorce filings over the rate in a comparable period before the conflict, a trend mirrored near other military installations, according to a postwar study by mental health professionals.

Military psychologists and chaplains question whether the war caused such a dramatic rise in breakups, suggesting a backlog of divorces may have built up while soldiers were overseas. America's armed forces are a high-risk group for marital failure even in peacetime; many soldiers are married with children before they turn 21.

But no one disputes that deployment challenges the military family. Some are strengthened by it, others broken.

In one of the worst episodes of domestic violence in military memory, four wives were killed last summer by their soldier husbands at Ft. Bragg, N.C., home to the 82nd Airborne Division, which played a prominent role in the war in Afghanistan. All four accused soldiers ultimately committed suicide. (In a fifth case, a woman was charged with killing her Special Forces husband.)

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