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By Kari Huus Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 10/15/2007 10:56:05 AM ET 2007-10-15T14:56:05

While generals and politicians debate strategy and funding for the Iraq war on Capitol Hill, the cost of the conflict is tallied in places like this quiet subdivision, where Kelly Bridson each night listens to her 10-year-old son’s bedtime prayers for his stepfather’s safety: “The light of God surrounds you. The love of God enfolds you. The power of God protects you. …”

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Army Spc. Joe Bridson is stationed in the volatile city of Samarra, Iraq, about 80 miles north of Baghdad. The prayers could well be goodnight hugs if not for the vagaries of military service in the era of the volunteer army: Joe Bridson is now in the 14th month of what originally was to have been a four- to six-month deployment in Iraq.

Bridson’s situation is hardly unique. Scores of readers of msnbc.com’s Gut Check America project wrote of loved ones in similar situations, either repeatedly deployed to the combat zone or languishing there months after their deployments were to have ended.

Their stories put a human face on stark statistics showing that the U.S. military — a small force by historical standards — is stretched thin after more than four years in Iraq and six in Afghanistan. Repeated deployments of active military members and reservists and diminishing “dwell times” between postings to the war zone have taxed soldiers and taken a growing toll on the home front.

“Families are truly exhausted,” says Patricia Barron, who runs youth programs for the National Military Families Association. “They are starting to feel the stresses of separation more acutely.”

Kelly and Joe’s story is but one of thousands that illustrate how the lack of resolution plays out on a personal level.

Fears rise when the phone calls stop
Kelly waits anxiously for each phone call from her husband. They come almost daily and trigger fears of the worst kind when they don’t. That often means that someone in his company has been injured or killed and the military has cut off phone access until the next of kin has been notified. That’s when Kelly starts looking out the window, fearing the worst.

“There have been times when we’ve gone seven, eight days,” says Kelly. “After 48 hours, you know it’s not yours. … And I know it sounds terrible, but then you think, ‘Thank God it’s not mine.’”

When the phone finally rings, Kelly sinks into the crimson-and-rust cushions of her sofa and listens as Joe describes his days on patrol.

While it is a relief to hear his voice, their conversations raise other concerns. Joe’s moods are unpredictable, ranging from tenderness to rage.

“I never know who I’m going to get on the phone,” Kelly said. “He’s really been in the thick of it. … He worries that he won’t be the same person when he gets back.”

The couple had been together about six months when Joe learned he would be deployed to Iraq in August 2006 with the rest of the 3rd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., as a machine-gunner for his squad in Charlie Company.

It was a blow, though not entirely unexpected. And the separation seemed manageable. Kelly had spent years as a single mom and built a successful career as an insurance agent.

They decided to get married when Joe was on a short leave in December, even though his deployment was coming to an end — or so they thought. Young Chase, Kelly’s son from a previous marriage, was a beaming best man in the ceremony.

“We knew it would be tough,” Kelly said.

‘The guessing ... makes you crazy'
But extensions of his unit’s tour of duty and the uncertainty of how long he would be in Iraq made it worse.

“One month (extension) stretched into two, two months stretched into three,” Kelly recalled. “… The unknowing, the guessing, that makes you crazy. It makes the soldiers crazy.”

The war has not slowed for the 150 soldiers of Charlie Company, who have conducted hundreds of missions over the past year trying to root out insurgents in Samarra, a city of 200,000.

Samarra has been hit by two major insurgent attacks in recent months. In June, a bomb destroyed the minarets of a sacred Shiite site, the Golden Dome mosque. In August, dozens of gunmen raided the city’s police station, killing three people.

Eleven members of Charlie Company have been killed and 40, including Joe, have been awarded Purple Hearts for battle wounds. He was shot in the forearm last month but was back out on patrol three days later. Kelly says he’s also suffered two concussions — one from an IED and another from a grenade blast.

Still, what may have been the worst moment of the war for Joe and Kelly came in April, when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced that U.S. Army tours would be extended from 12 months to 15.

Joe heard the news not from his commander, but by phone from Kelly. She said he couldn’t believe it would include his company.

“His exact words were: ‘It better not be us. I will f---ing lose it,’” recalled Kelly. “And I thought, ‘Oh my God, is something in his brain going to snap?’”

The strains of long immersion in life-and-death situations are familiar to anyone who has had loved ones serve in an armed conflict. But experts say the uncertainty and fear felt by family members in this war are amplified by how few people are being called on, and to what extent.

Measuring military's load
Joe’s time in a combat zone already is longer than most soldiers in Vietnam served.

Indeed, the whole approach to providing manpower for this conflict differs from that of the Vietnam War, from 1964-1975. Then, a much larger active military — 8.7 million troops — was bolstered by a draft that added 1.7 million more soldiers to the ranks, according to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. More than 640,000 of the draftees served in Vietnam, constituting about one-quarter of the total U.S. force there, the VFW said.

But the draft ended in 1973, and the active military now numbers about 1.4 million, according to the Department of Defense.

In order to sustain troop levels in what has become a much more prolonged conflict than originally anticipated, the military has relied on repeated deployments, and a far heavier use of “weekend warriors.” More than 434,000 National Guard and Reserve members have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, about one-quarter of them more than once, according to the Pentagon. In comparison, about 340,000 Guard and Reserve troops were deployed during the Vietnam conflict.

Extended tours of duty in the combat zone — some as long as 18 months — also are a departure from the past. In Vietnam, the standard tour of duty was 12 months. If a soldier was to be redeployed to the combat zone, Army policy mandated a 24-month period of recuperation or retraining between tours, said Larry Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank.

‘The idea was ... you'd reinstate the draft'
“The task of sustaining or increasing troop levels in Iraq has forced the Army to frequently violate its own deployment policy," Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense and now a harsh critic of the Bush administration’s conduct of the war, told a congressional hearing on July 27. That has meant sending soldiers and reservists to combat zones two, three and even four times, and "short-cycling" units back into combat with as little as nine months between deployments, he said.

Korb and other military experts argue that the volunteer military, the Army in particular, was never intended to be stretched this far.

“The idea was that if you needed to, you’d reinstate the draft,” he said.

While military families’ views of the war vary, many feel that too few are being asked to sacrifice too much — a prominent theme among those who shared their thoughts with msnbc.com.

“If this "War on Terror" is the "War of this Generation" and Washington is not going to change that mission, then … Washington needs to mobilize this nation through national service (conscription),” wrote a Gut Check America reader in Baton Rouge, La., who asked that his name be withheld because of concern that his remarks might cause trouble for his son, now in his second deployment to Iraq. “To have 1 percent of this nation's citizens bear 100 percent of that burden is morally reprehensible. ‘Support the Troops’ needs to be more than words to the other 99 percent of this nation's citizens.”

“Our experience is that it’s two different worlds — the one for everybody else, and the one for military families and service people,” agreed Laura Stranlund of Amherst, Mass., whose son, Army Sgt. 1st Class Jonathan Miller, is on his third deployment since 2001. “Unless you’ve got skin in the game or know someone who does, it just doesn’t seem to matter. America is at the mall.”

General: Burden on troops will ‘inform’ policy
Despite discussion of a gradual drawdown in troop levels, the burden is unlikely to shift soon. Speaking on Capitol Hill last week, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said he would not be making a decision about significant withdrawals for another six months.

“I will … take into consideration the demands on our nation’s ground forces, although I believe that that consideration should once again inform, not drive, the recommendations I make,” he told Congress.

And on Sunday, Defense Secretary Gates said he would urge President Bush to veto a measure introduced by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., that would give soldiers more time at home between deployments. Gates described Webb's measure as "a back-door effort" to speed up troop withdrawal from Iraq.

Meantime, for those with “skin in the game” the impact of the long-running conflict is only beginning to become clear.

As in the aftermath of Vietnam, combat veterans and their families are grappling with the sometimes puzzling and frightening behavior of returning combat veterans. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is on the rise, as are behaviors traced to traumatic brain injury (TBI) caused by concussive blasts from explosives.

After a flood of damning press about treatment of returning soldiers, the military medical bureaucracy is only now ramping up to handle these conditions and other injuries, according to American Legion spokeswoman Ramona Joyce.

“They were not prepared for the number and type of injuries,” she said.

The American Legion continues to lobby Congress for additional funding for studying and treating PTSD and TBI. But Joyce said the military establishment is becoming more proactive about post-combat hazards.

“For the first time, they really are stepping forward to study (PTSD),” said Joyce. “And they are really trying to get rid of the stigma” associated with the disorder so that soldiers and families seek help when they need it.

Son's suicide drives parents' involvement
For some, like Joyce and Kevin Lucey, the help comes too late. Their son, 23-year-old Jeffrey, killed himself in June 2004 after he suffered hallucinations, depression and anxiety following his deployment to Iraq. The Luceys now spend their time reaching out to other families who may be witnessing the symptoms of post-traumatic stress. They have also launched a lawsuit against the Department of Veterans Affairs alleging that their son's case was mishandled.

The suicide rate among soldiers hit a 26-year high in 2006, according to a Pentagon report released in August.

The report said the numbers suggest a correlation between suicide and the number of days served in Iraq or Afghanistan, though failed personal relationships and legal and financial problems also were identified as factors.

The effects of long deployments in the combat zone may be the most pronounced for National Guard and Reserve troops, many of whom do not return to military communities and therefore lack the support network of those in the active military.

“What about the guy from the middle of Nebraska?” said Joyce. “When he gets back, his neighbors don’t get it.”

Kids often don’t get it, either, and that can translate into a range of behavioral problems when parents deploy and after they return, said Patricia Barron, the youth program leader with the National Military Families Association.

Why is dad ‘so different’?
“Sometimes teens will stay away from home because they don’t like the way home feels,” she said. “Or they don’t understand why dad has come back so different.”

Barron’s organization is focused on the needs of children who have had one or both parents deployed — an estimated 155,000 American kids. Among its initiatives is Operation Purple — 34 free summer camps around the country designed to help children deal with deployment and the return of injured parents.

As the war in Iraq wears on, this type of support appears to be growing, with large organizations and grass-roots groups launching efforts tailored for military families.

In July, Congress approved nearly $2.9 billion in the Defense Appropriations Bill for family assistance, including Army housing, counseling, child care and education for dependents, more than $558 million more than the administration’s budget request. It also increased spending on medical treatment for wounded soldiers.

The American Legion also is extending its reach, offering help ranging from child care to grocery shopping to military spouses and launching Heroes to Hometowns in 2005, a program designed to provide severely injured veterans with all the services they need after they return.

One California-based high-tech entrepreneur used his own money to launch a social networking site for returning soldiers in need of a job.

“The military guys are in this world that is completely isolated, … and the civilian society loses touch with its military,” said Dan Caulfield, founder of Hireahero.com and himself a veteran. “The good news is that social networking really can solve this problem … especially if you come from outer space, which is what the military is.”

For Kelly and Joe, normal life on hold
For Kelly and Joe, the issues surrounding resuming a normal life remain in the future. They now expect that Joe will be coming home around the end of October.

Kelly knows they will have to adjust — a process that promises to be wrenching. She doesn’t have a plan yet but has pondered counseling and getting more involved in their church to ease the transition for Joe and the strains on their relationship.

Joe is slated to complete his military service in January 2009. In theory, he could be redeployed to Iraq a second time if the conflict continues as it is. A stop-loss policy now in effect also prevents troops from leaving the battle until the end of a deployment, even if their military commitment should be ending.

But Kelly is adamant that it will not happen, though she isn’t sure what can be done to avoid it.

“He won’t go. We’ve already decided as a couple. We will not do this again,” she said. “We can’t.”

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