As a gray dawn broke, hundreds of 3rd Infantry Division soldiers gathered on a Georgia marching ground this month and listened to a long list of names of fallen comrades. Taps rose mournfully above rows of young redbud trees planted for each of the division's 317 soldiers who have died in Iraq.
Col. John Charlton, commander of the division's 1st Brigade, which next month begins its third Iraq tour in four years, stepped forward. "Be thankful for your families, your health, and for every day that you're alive," he advised. The brigade's mission, he said, is to bring peace to Iraq's volatile western Anbar province and its capital, Ramadi, which he said despite progress remain "a dangerous area, a very dangerous area."
"Take this time . . . to be thinking about those soldiers represented behind or in front of you," he said, "and as you'll notice, there's still some space on the sidewalk there for more trees."
This week, U.S. troops will have been fighting in Iraq longer than they did in World War II, with no relief in sight. Soldiers from 1st Brigade preparing at Fort Stewart for their third Iraq tour have been spending as much time in Iraq as at home. The rotations -- a year in Iraq followed by a year at home -- dictate soldiers' most intimate decisions: They mandate when troops can marry and have children. They sever relationships that cannot sustain the stress of absence or danger. And they lead some couples to pray for the war to end.
After the memorial service, Lt. Col. Doug Crissman gathered his 1st Brigade soldiers and sent them on leave with a warning not to get hurt, go to jail or go AWOL.
"You're all a little bit nervous. Hell, I'm nervous," said Crissman, of Burke, Va., who commands the 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment. "The Army is asking us to do some tough stuff."
Then his voice softened as he nudged his troops to be attentive to their families. "I need you to think about this visit a little differently," he said. "Spend time with them. . . . Tell them you love them."
In the living room of his Savannah home, Capt. Thom Frohnhoefer tumbled with his daughter Maggie, 2, as she jangled and waved his metal dog tags.
"She's the one I had after the first deployment," Frohnhoefer said. "It will be harder this time because she knows Daddy is leaving."
From courtship to parenting to divorce, the time away at war is having a profound impact on the families of active-duty soldiers, according to interviews with dozens of soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division and their relatives. The division spearheaded the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and returned for a second, year-long tour in January 2005.
For 1st Brigade soldiers such as Frohnhoefer, having children poses a wrenching choice: Leave your wife alone in pregnancy and birth, or miss your newborn's first year.
Frohnhoefer and several others in his brigade opted to start pregnancies soon after returning in January, creating a mini baby boom. Frohnhoefer's second daughter, Haley, was born three weeks ago. Another soldier in the unit had a baby last week.
"We take a lot of pictures," said Frohnhoefer, 28, of Queens, N.Y., as his wife, Audrey, quieted Haley with a pacifier. His biggest fear, he said, is "my kids not knowing me if something were to happen to me."
Sgt. 1st Class Jonathan Harper, 37, of Wichita, has two children and wanted more, but his wife gave him what he calls "the ultimatum": He had to be home for the pregnancy and beyond. The result: no more kids. "With me being gone, it's too much of a burden," he said.
For single soldiers, finding a spouse is difficult. Spec. Christian Brown, 25, of New Smyrna Beach, Fla., is afraid that when he leaves next month he will lose the girlfriend he met earlier this year. "She doesn't know if she can handle me being gone," he said, adding that he no longer plans to reenlist.
Other soldiers are arranging hasty marriages before they leave -- for added benefits and to provide for their spouses if they die -- a trend officers discourage because they say it makes soldiers more vulnerable to divorce.
Capt. Neil Johnson, 25, of Crystal River, Fla., said that he wed in November 2004 but that the uncertainty and fear surrounding his Army job led to his divorce in June. "If I had been in Florida, I'd probably still be married," he said. Army divorce rates surged after 2001 and remain elevated, although they fell somewhat last year. Johnson sees more divorces coming. "It seems normal," he said. "No one is surprised."
Anxiety, depression and psychological trauma from repeated exposure to combat add to the stress, affecting 15 percent to 20 percent of soldiers, said Maj. Christopher H. Warner, a 3rd Infantry Division psychiatrist. Those factors contribute to drinking, drug use and domestic violence among a small percentage of soldiers, officers said.
While some GIs grow more resilient to combat stress, others get worse, Warner said. One soldier attacked by gunfire and bombs repeatedly at Iraqi bridges found himself afraid to drive through underpasses at home. Some soldiers under treatment for combat stress return to war but are screened to see if they pose a risk, Warner said.
Still, the bulk of psychological problems for soldiers relate to home-front issues such as separation and infidelity, he said.
Many soldiers doubt civilians can understand the pressures they face, and they see a widening gap between Army life and what some call "the outside world." "There are times you feel like, 'Why is it us?' " Audrey said. Civilians, she said, "don't have a concept of what we go through."
A changing Army
Sgt. 1st Class Kevin Bullock takes a break from loading up Bradley Fighting Vehicles and other equipment for shipping to Iraq. A divorced father of two, he had custody of his children all summer but was so busy he saw them for just two weeks. Next year he will not see them "unless luck is there and I get R and R in the summer."
Life for the roughly 3,800 soldiers of 1st Brigade is almost as hectic at Fort Stewart as it is in the desert, because their unit has only a year off the battlefield to rebuild lost manpower and equipment, train, and get ready for another deployment.
Escalating violence has kept troop levels in Iraq at more than 140,000, scuttling the Army's plans to shorten tours or give active-duty soldiers two years at home between combat duties. Given the size of today's active-duty Army compared with the high demand -- at least 17 out of 36 available combat brigades are in Iraq or Afghanistan -- the Army cannot keep all its units steadily filled with people and gear but instead "turns on the tap" for brigades first in line to deploy.
Last spring and summer, 1st Brigade began receiving hundreds of new soldiers and pieces of equipment and had to rush to complete a year's training in four months. An additional 100 soldiers will arrive next month just in time to deploy and train in Kuwait.
"We had to train on weekends, train on many a night," Crissman said. The pressure to meet deadlines was so great that the division commander, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, ordered that soldiers take off certain hours each week to spend with their families.
The stress is fundamentally changing Army culture, some officers say. "I am worried . . . you will see a more single Army, very combat-focused, 'get on the team or get out,' " a senior officer said.
Worried soldiers, worried families
Staff Sgt. Wendell Gee, 29, of Knoxville, Tenn., has had his share of close scrapes in Iraq. During the invasion, an Iraqi T-72 tank fired a round through Gee's Bradley.
Asked last week what helps him get through the deployments, the father of three answered: "Not dying has helped get me through it."
Even the most stoic soldiers, like Gee, who reenlisted on his most recent tour, say the Army cannot keep up this pace. The Army is not big enough, and the quality of new recruits has dropped, they say. Many worry pressure to pull out of Iraq will spell chaos and mean their comrades died in vain, but other soldiers and their spouses now say the war was a mistake.
"I look at this as a duty. You're in it for the long haul," said the brigade commander, Charlton. "Are we able to do this for the next 10 years? I don't know."
Gee's wife, Tracy, grows misty-eyed recalling hearing that the brigade would return to Iraq so quickly. "We cried. . . . We just weren't ready," she said over a fast-food lunch. Tracy, who juggles a 1-year-old and two older children with a job selling vacuums, said she has asked her husband to leave the Army.
What most disturbed her, she said, was when her 12-year-old son, Christopher, wrote in a school paper that he wanted to be just like his dad. "I don't want him to do that," Tracy said, tears welling in her eyes. "Hopefully, the war will be over by the time our children are grown."