Military desertion also skyrocketing:
"In the 2006 fiscal year, the Army reported that 3,196 soldiers had deserted, compared with 2,543 in fiscal year 2005 and 2,357 soldiers in fiscal year 2004. In the first quarter of the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, 871 soldiers deserted"
Sunday July 15, 2007
Even as Loved Ones Fight On, War Doubts Arise
By IAN URBINA
Welcome home banners, new and old, hang from the fence of a government housing facility near the Marine base at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina (Jeff Topping for The New York Times)
FORT EUSTIS, Va., July 11 Cpl. April Ponce De Leon describes herself and her husband as “gung-ho marines,” and in two weeks she deploys to Iraq, where her husband has been fighting since March.
But she says she stopped believing in the war last month after a telephone conversation with him.
“He started telling me that he doesn’t want me to go and do the things he has been doing,” said Corporal Ponce De Leon, 22, speaking by telephone as she boxed up her belongings in their apartment near Camp Lejeune, N.C.
“He said that ‘we have all decided that it’s time for us to go home.’ I said, ‘You mean go home and rest?’ And he said, ‘I mean go home and not go back.’
“This is from someone who has been training for the past nine years to go to combat and who has spent his whole life wanting to be a marine,” she continued. “That’s when I realized I couldn’t support the war anymore, even though I will follow my orders.”
In voicing her shifting view on the war in Iraq, Corporal Ponce De Leon is not alone. In the past few weeks, President Bush has faced defections within his own party over his handling of the war by Republicans who have cited a growing weariness among military families as having played a central role in changing their opinions. At a news conference last week, Senator Pete V. Domenici, Republican of New Mexico, who had been a staunch supporter of the president’s handling of the war, said he had sensed a shift among some military families. He recounted how a father he spoke to recently said his son was proud to serve.
“But then this man said, ‘I’m asking you if you couldn’t do a little extra to get our troops back,’ ” Mr. Domenici said, recalling the conversation. “I heard nothing like that a couple years ago.”
Experts cite three causes of eroding morale among military families: longer and multiple deployments, the continued chaos in Baghdad, and the growing death toll April, May and June were the deadliest three months for American troops since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
Among military members and their immediate families who responded to a national New York Times/CBS News poll in May, two-thirds said things were going badly, compared with just over half, about 53 percent, a year ago. Fewer than half of the families and military members said the United States did the right thing in invading Iraq. A year ago more than half held that view, according to the a similar poll taken last July. The May poll had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 7 percentage points.
Recruiting efforts are also suffering. Despite granting more waivers for recruits with criminal backgrounds, offering larger cash bonuses, loosening age and weight restrictions, and accepting more high school dropouts, the Army said it had missed its recruiting targets in May and June. Pentagon officials say resistance from families is a major recruiting obstacle. Membership is also increasing among antiwar groups that represent the active military and veterans. Military Families Speak Out, one such group, which was started in the fall of 2002, now has about 3,500 member families. About 500 of them have joined since January.
Nancy Lessin, a founder of the group, said it was noteworthy that about a hundred military wives living on bases had joined in the last three months. Wives living on bases, she said, are more reluctant than parents of soldiers to speak out.
Beth Pyritz, an Army wife in Virginia, has joined an antiwar group (Steve Ruark for The New York Times)
For Beth Pyritz, 27, who recently joined the group, the turning point came last month when her husband, an Army specialist, left for Iraq for his third deployment.
“I voted for Bush twice,” said Ms. Pyritz, seated with her five children in their home at Fort Eustis near Virginia Beach. “I backed this war from the beginning, but I don’t think I can look my kids in the eyes anymore, if my husband comes home in a wooden box, and tell them he died for a good reason.”
She said her views began changing late last year as the administration seemed slow to release information about the chaos unfolding in Baghdad and crystallized when military deployments were extended to 15 months from 12 months.
Paul Jones, 51, a social worker who for three years has been counseling members of the National Guard and Army Reserve, said he had seen a growing number of troops who were angry and on edge, which is fueling dissent within military families.
“The soldiers have come home from a war zone with a whole different perception of how things are,” said Mr. Jones, 51, who did not want to divulge the base where he works to protect the soldiers’ confidentiality.
In the past six months, he said, among the units he counsels there have been 14 drunken driving incidents involving military members, compared with two incidents a year ago; four soldiers per unit divorcing, compared with two a year ago, and six soldiers per unit struggling to interact appropriately with their children, compared with one case a year ago.
Although some military members return from Iraq with a renewed sense of focus, he said, “a lot of them have what we call ‘the thousand mile stare.’ ”
He continued, “A pothole gets them jittery because it reminds them of potential bombs. They wake up with night terrors and shove their spouse out of bed while still partially asleep.”
The military has taken steps to try to deal with the growing strain among the troops. Some who are re-enlisting have been given the option of picking locations outside Iraq, including the United States, Europe and Korea, and others are allowed to choose a military school for retraining in a different job classification.
Many military families still support Mr. Bush and his handling of the war. Outspoken dissent from soldiers overseas is rare. Dissent, including among some members of the military and their families, was wider spread during the Vietnam War, in part because of the draft. Although soldiers have varied views on the war and on the Iraqis’ ability to resolve their differences, most focus on dealing with the threats they face, staying alive and carrying out their orders.
On Tuesday, the Army chief of staff, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., said the Army would soon announce plans to give more money to programs that help family members of deployed soldiers cope with the long deployments.
Penny Preszler of Phoenix, whose son is on his second tour of duty in Iraq, says she no longer wears red on Fridays in support of the Iraq war (Jeff Topping for The New York Times)
Ms. Preszler holds a photograph of her with her 24-year-old son, Skyler, who is an Army infantryman, and her daughter, Montana (Jeff Topping for The New York Times)
For some, the Army’s efforts have come too late. Penny Preszler, 46, a furniture refurbisher in Phoenix, said she had stopped wearing red on Fridays as she had done for the past year to honor the war effort. “It was when my son started saying he wished he could be injured so he could come home,” Ms. Preszler said.
“There was no pride left in his voice, just this robotic sense of despair,” she said, describing a telephone conversation with her son, Skyler, 24, an infantryman on his second tour of duty in Iraq. “Mom, we killed women on the street today. We killed kids on bikes. We had no choice,” she recounted his saying.
The same week, she said, her son told her he thought he had seen the worst when he had to pick up the body parts of his dead buddy, but then he saw an Iraqi boy picking up what was left of his dead father.
Jaine Darwin, a psychologist and a director of Strategic Outreach to Families of All Reservists, said many families she counseled said they felt trapped.
“Some of them say they fear we can’t leave Iraq because the job isn’t done,” said Ms. Darwin, whose organization, which is apolitical, offers free mental health therapy to military families. “But they still feel like it’s time to get out.”
Their frustrations have led some soldiers to take drastic steps.
Iraq Veterans Against the War, started in July 2004, has grown to 500 members, with 100 joining in the past two months. The Appeal for Redress Project, which since last September has been advising active duty military members and reservists on how to write to their representatives in Congress expressing their opposition to the war, has about 2,000 members, almost half of whom have joined in the past six months.
Michelle Robidoux, an organizer with the War Resisters Support Campaign in Toronto, which advises Americans who have deserted or crossed the border to avoid military service, said in recent months the group has received calls that included two Army sergeants and a Navy chief petty officer.
In the 2006 fiscal year, the Army reported that 3,196 soldiers had deserted, compared with 2,543 in fiscal year 2005 and 2,357 soldiers in fiscal year 2004. In the first quarter of the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, 871 soldiers deserted.