About 300 Alaska-based soldiers sent home from Iraq just before their unit’s deployment was extended last month must now go back, the Army said Monday, setting up a wrenching departure for troops and families who thought their service there was finished.
The soldiers — all from the 172nd Stryker Brigade — are among the 378 troops who had gotten home to Fort Wainwright when Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld ordered the unit to serve four more months. About 80 will not have to return to Iraq.
The commander of U.S. Army Alaska said the news was “difficult” for the soldiers and their families.
Maj. Gen. Chuck Jacoby said that the 301 soldiers, primarily cavalry scouts and infantrymen, understood that this decision made "all the sense in the world" considering their experience. They will head back to Iraq early next week.
Several family members spoke about their feelings, generally saying that the news was tough, but that they support their husbands. One woman said that her husband and his fellow soldiers were “in shock” when they got the news.
Two flights carried the 378 soldiers from the 172nd Stryker Brigade back home from Iraq to Alaska in June and July of this year. The day after the second flight landed in Alaska, the brigade was extended in Iraq.
‘Bending over backward’
Army officials have sent a team of personnel and pay experts to Alaska to help sort out all of the soldiers’ vacations, school enrollments and other plans torn apart by the decision to return them to Iraq. The unit is now being stationed in Baghdad, one of the most violent parts of the country.
Lt. Col. Wayne Shanks, a service spokesman, said the Army fully realizes the hardships triggered by the move and is “bending over backward to accommodate” the families.
The bulk of the 172nd Brigade, which has about 3,900 troops, was still in Iraq when Rumsfeld extended the deployment as part of a plan to quell the escalating violence in Baghdad.
Another 300 soldiers from the unit had left Iraq and gotten to Kuwait and were about to board flights home when they were called back.
Before Monday’s announcement, the troops who had already returned home to Alaska had been told that decisions on their fates would be made on a case-by-case basis.
Army officials said they don’t recall another time during the three-year-long Iraq war when the Pentagon so quickly recalled soldiers who had served a year on the battlefront and gotten home.
Other units have had their deployments extended anywhere from a week or two to a few months.
The logistics of redeployment
The 300 soldiers recalled from Alaska on Monday got to spend between three and five weeks at home, and will head back to Iraq in the next two weeks. Most of the brigade is expected to leave Iraq by the end of the year, although Army spokesman Paul Boyce said Monday there are no assurances the unit’s stay will not be extended again.
A second extension, however, would be very rare.
For some, the return to Iraq may mean they will miss the holidays or much-anticipated vacations. For others, it means rescheduling military or civilian college classes, or postponing long-planned moves out of state or to different Army units.
Soldiers who serve more than 365 days on the war front will receive $1,000 more per month — $800 for incentive pay and $200 for additional hazardous duty pay.
Last week eight Army officials went to Alaska to meet with the soldiers and their families to work out scheduling conflicts and other problems brought on by the sudden change. Hotlines also have been set up to assist family members.
About 50 of the approximately 80 soldiers who do not have to return to Iraq were the advance team that headed back to Alaska early to prepare for the unit’s return. They will stay in Alaska and plan for the unit’s eventual return late this year.
The other 30, said Boyce, were allowed to stay in Alaska based largely on their individual duties and needs of the brigade.
Iraq violence, military troops
Sectarian violence has rocked Baghdad, bringing it to what some believe is the brink of civil war. In response, U.S. and Iraqi military leaders have shifted thousands of troops into Baghdad, targeting four critical regions wracked by attacks between Sunni insurgents and Shiite extremists.
The new offensive has driven the number of U.S. troops in Iraq up to 135,000 — reversing a trend of declining personnel levels that had begun earlier this year. And, the increased level dampens hopes of a significant withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of the year, just as members of Congress returned to their home districts to voters growing increasingly weary of the war.
Rumsfeld must approve any deployment that is longer than a year on the ground in Iraq.