Earlier this year, as Sgt. Alexander Garcia’s plane took off for home after his tense year of duty in Iraq, he remembered watching the receding desert sand and thinking, I will never see this place again.
Never lasted about 10 months for Sergeant Garcia, a cavalry scout with the First Armored Division who finished his first stint in Iraq in March and is now preparing to return.
The change is leaving its emotional mark on thousands of military families. Some family members say the repeated separations have been like some awful waking dream, holding their breath for their soldiers to make it home safely, only to watch them leave once more. Some families who have lost loved ones on repeat tours of duty said they felt a particular ache – a sense that the second trip pushed fate too hard.
Among some of the soldiers themselves, the thought of returning to Iraq carries one puzzling quality: Unlike so many parts of life, in which the second try at anything feels easier than the first, these soldiers say that heading to Iraq is actually more overwhelming the second time around.
“The first time, I didn’t know anything,” Sergeant Garcia said. “But this time I know what I’m getting into, so it’s harder. You know what you’re going to do. You know how bad you’re going to be feeling.”
Greg Rund was a freshman at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in 1999 when two students shot and killed a teacher, a dozen of their fellow students and themselves. Mr. Rund survived that horror, but he wasn’t able to survive the war in Iraq. The 21-year-old Marine lance corporal was killed on Dec. 11 in Falluja.
The people who were so anxious to launch the war in Iraq are a lot less enthusiastic about properly supporting the troops who are actually fighting, suffering and dying in it. Corporal Rund was on his second tour of duty in Iraq. Because of severe military personnel shortages, large numbers of troops are serving multiple tours in the war zone, and many are having their military enlistments involuntarily extended.
Troops approaching the end of their tours in Iraq are frequently dealt the emotional body blow of unexpected orders blocking their departure for home. “I’ve never seen so many grown men cry,” said Paul Rieckhoff, a former infantry platoon leader who founded Operation Truth, an advocacy group for soldiers and veterans.
“Soldiers will do whatever you ask them to do,” said Mr. Rieckhoff. “But when you tell them the finish line is here, and then you keep moving it back every time they get five meters away from it, it starts to really wear on them. It affects morale.”