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Democrats Criticize Military Tour Extensions

April 12, 2007 at 6:25 PM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: When word came down from the Pentagon that Army duty tours in Iraq and Afghanistan would be extended, some soldiers in the field were supportive.

SGT. CHRISTOPHER SHIMA, 3rd Infantry Division, U.S. Army: Honestly, we put the uniform on because we love our jobs. And if you didn’t love your job, you’d get out. So if they wanted me back for 18 months, I’d come back for 18 months.

KWAME HOLMAN: However, the families of several soldiers already serving in Iraq were not so pleased. In a Washington Post article today, the wife of a lieutenant colonel serving in Iraq, Carolyn Crissman, said, “Fifteen months is a long time, especially if you have an infant and come back to a toddler.”

The new policy affects some 100,000 Army soldiers already in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus those set to deploy in coming months. They now will serve up to 15-month tours of duty instead of 12 months and receive $3,000 in extra pay.

The extension does not apply to the 25,000 Marines or National Guard and reservists serving in Iraq, for now.

The lengthened tours are part of the ongoing troop surge in Iraq and the bolstering of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan in anticipation of a Taliban spring offensive.

And this week, four states warned their National Guard brigades to prepare for possible deployment to Iraq late this year. It would be the second tour of duty for several thousand of the Guard soldiers.

A 'difficult but necessary' policy

KWAME HOLMAN: The announcement of the policy change was made by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Peter Pace at the Pentagon yesterday. Gates acknowledged that the two wars have spread U.S. forces thin.

ROBERT GATES, Secretary of Defense: This policy is a difficult but necessary interim step. I think that what this recognizes though is that our forces are stretched. There's no question about that.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Gates added that the Pentagon wanted to give soldiers and their families more stability.

ROBERT GATES: And it is an attempt, above all, to provide -- instead of dribbling out these notifications to units, sort of just in time when they're to deploy, what we're trying to do here is provide some long-term predictability for the soldiers and their families about how long their deployments will be and how long they will be at home, and particularly guaranteeing that they will be at home for a full 12 months.

An open-ended policy?

KWAME HOLMAN: Pentagon officials say the Army tour extension will allow for the 30,000 troop buildup in Baghdad to last for another year, if necessary.

JOURNALIST: Just to clarify, is this an open-ended policy, the 15 months? How long do you expect that to be in effect?

ROBERT GATES: I think that depends on the conditions on the ground. I've said all along, the hope had been and has been that the surge is a matter of months not a matter of years. And so we will just have to see how things develop on the ground in Iraq, in terms of when we can begin to move first back to the 12 and 12, 12 deployed, 12 at home, and then move eventually back to the one year deployed, two years at home.

'Limits to human endurance'

KWAME HOLMAN: On Capitol Hill today, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed concern over the Pentagon's plans. At a hearing, Virginia Republican Senator John Warner warned the extensions could undermine the all-volunteer force.

SEN. JOHN WARNER (R), Virginia: What studies did you undertake as a department to assess the impact on the viability of the all-volunteer force and the continuation? What checkpoints do you have in place to monitor, really, on a weekly basis, the viability of that force in the light of this very dramatic order that was enunciated yesterday?

KWAME HOLMAN: Virginia's other senator, Democrat Jim Webb, also was unhappy about the change.

SEN. JAMES WEBB (D), Virginia: In my view, the strategy doesn't justify this continuing abuse of people who have put their lives literally into the hands of our leadership. I think there are limits to human endurance, and there are limits to what families can put up with.

An all-volunteer force

KWAME HOLMAN: Today, the Army's deputy chief of staff, Lieutenant General James Lovelace, said his troops would rise to the occasion.

LT. GEN. JAMES LOVELACE, Deputy Chief of Staff, U.S. Army: We have this wonderful thing called the all-volunteer force, and that has been something that has been with us now going on the fourth decade. And the preservation of that wonderful thing called the all-volunteer force is so important.

But at the same time, that all-volunteer force is here to do one thing: It's to win. It's to win on behalf of our nation.

KWAME HOLMAN: Lovelace added that the tour duty change will ensure Army troops get a full 12 months off after a deployment and that they're properly equipped and trained.