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January 19, 2006
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NOW Transcript - Show 303
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Transcript - January 19, 2006

BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW.

It was in a speech to the cadets over there at the U.S. Military Academy where President Bush first announced his doctrine of "pre-emptive war."

That was four and a half years ago. Since then, more than three thousand American servicemen and women have died in the 'preemptive war' in Iraq, including forty officers who graduated from west point . In fact, the army is now grappling with a shortage of officers.

It's just one of the many strains that the war—and the administration's new surge-and/or-escalation strategy—is putting on America's armed services. We visited another major military installation—Fort Stewart, Georgia—over the past two months where thousands of soldiers were preparing to leave for Iraq for yet a third tour of duty. Senior correspondent Maria Hinojosa and producer Brenda Breslauer have our report.

HINOJOSA: Ft. Stewart Georgia is home to the army's third infantry division...20,000 soldiers. The 3rd I.D. has been on the frontlines of combat since World War I. In 2003, it led the ground battle in Baghdad and captured and secured the Baghdad airport. The unit returned to Iraq again in 2005. Two months ago, the 3rd I.D. learned it would be mobilizing yet again to Iraq, making it the first division to ever return for a third tour of duty.

CHARLTON: The mood is fine, you know. There's always anxiety before deployment. We have soldiers that are going back for the second and third time, like myself.

HINOJOSA: Colonel John Charlton commands the first brigade of the third i.d. He's responsible for the safety and morale of the 4000 men and women deploying this month.

HAVEN: Everytime they tell us that there's a deployment coming up, be prepared, then my heart sinks a little bit cuz then I have to break the news to my wife.

GAMBLIN: It's easy to get down and if you let yourself get down now, and this is what I tell her...make ourselves miserable now and I'm still here. And so I try not to do that. Try to enjoy it now, and be miserable when I leave.

CHARLTON: I've been asked how long can the army do this? And you know my response is we'll go as many times as we need to, as many times as we're asked to.

HINOJOSA: But the question is, are we asking too much of our soldiers? How long before the army reaches a breaking point?

KREPINEVICH: I served 21 years in the army and—not too long ago, my wife said to me, "I'm not sure that we could sustain ourselves in the kind of environment that these young men and women have to deal with today." Where if you are not in a combat zone—you are getting ready to go back to a combat zone.

HINOJOSA: Andrew Krepinevich is a retired Lt. Colonel. He now runs a research group that studies military policy.

KREPINEVICH: A friend of mine went out recently to talk to a group of officers at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. And during the course of his—presentation, he said, "The United States is at war." And at that point, one of the officers cut him off and said, "No, sir. The United States Army's at war. The United States of America's at the mall."
And—the other officers began to nod their heads. And—there is that sense that—somehow, we—the American soldier—soldiers. We are over in Iraq. We are in Afghanistan. We are risking our lives for you. And—and somehow the country is detached.

HINOJOSA: So to try to understand what it means to serve in today's military, we followed the First Brigade during its final month before deployment. These are the faces of those who will be fighting on the ground in Iraq for the next year...men and women, veterans and first-timers, husbands and fathers...
They are riflemen, gunners, members of tank crews. Foot soldiers who often face the enemy eye to eye. They'll soon serve in one of the most violent regions in Iraq....the Anbar province. The area is almost entirely under the control of the insurgency. More coalition forces have been killed here than in Baghdad.

Ft. Stewart. The tank range. December 13th, less than a month before deployment. GAMBLIN: So to tankers, or tank crewmen, this is the most important thing. This is our Super Bowl.

HINOJOSA: Tank crews consist of four soldiers...a driver, a gunner, a loader to put ammunition into place and a tank commander. They must qualify as a team to show they can work together in war. But the first brigade has to surmount two obstacles. One: they're working on borrowed equipment because their tanks are on the way to Iraq. And two, training this year has been much shorter than in the past.

GAMBLIN: It's very accelerated. It's very accelerated.

HAVEN: There had to be some concessions with the training calendar. We haven't taken anything away from the quality of training. It's just the quantity of the training. It's not as much as it would normally be.

HINOJOSA: 34-year-old staff sergeant victor haven is the battalion's master gunner. He's been a soldier for fifteen years and is on his way to Iraq for the third time. The military calls the mission Operation Iraqi Freedom, or OIF for short.

HAVEN: When we came back from OIF3 we didn't have any vehicles here because we had to turn 'em all in 'cause they were gettin' kind of old. And we didn't draw new vehicles to train on until July. We had no Humvees, nothing. Once we started getting 'em, it was, "Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up," because we had less than six months to get all of the training requirements prior to deployment done.

HINOJOSA: There's been more training on simulators, less with live ammunition:

HAVEN: Yeah, we—we definitely used—simulators a lot more this time. We had no choice.

HINOJOSA: The truncated training schedule affects army newcomers the most. Like private james beck who left college just last year to join the army.

BECK: I was—I was at Fort Knox in ten days ready for basic training. So, it was quick.

HINOJOSA: Private Beck is from California. He arrived at Fort Stewart this past spring.

Got my tanker boots. I was exciting to get those. Everyone always talks about them, you know. Cause only tankers wear them. So people see them, they know you're a tanker, you know. It's something to be proud of.

HINOJOSA: On the battlefield in Iraq, he'll be the one loading heavy ammunition in the tank.

BECK: We came out Sunday, assigned for our tanks. Monday, we did our dry runs, and Tuesday, today, we're live-firing. It was that quick.

So, I—I haven't been out here that long. But I mean I've—I've come a long way in the last two days, you know, from what—what I was doin'. I—I've learned a lot, and I'm getting a lot better. So—I'm pretty prepared on the tank.

HAVEN: Shorter amount of training time for him is not ideal. I mean it's—it's not the way you wanted it to happen. It's not common to have just a couple of—couple of days and then all of a sudden you have to start shooting. But we knew that he was the type of soldier that could accomplish that.

HINOJOSA: The gold standard for training to get ready for Iraq is this desert location in California, Ft. Irwin. The setting is ideal because the terrain is similar to the Iraqi landscape. Typically, the troops do a major mission rehearsal here

HAVEN: Fort Irwin's a big, wide open space so you can put a lot more vehicles out there. Shoot a lot more live bullets if if need be.

HINOJOSA: But instead of the desert, the First Brigade trained here this year in the pine forests of Georgia to save time and, the army says, to keep soldiers close to families.

HAVEN: it was more restricted maneuver area. So that—that kind of diminished some of the—the levels of training that you could actually do. But we still did it.

HINOJOSA: And it's not just training. Retired Lt. Colonel Andrew Krepinevich says this protracted war is also taking a toll on equipment.

KREPINEVICH: A lot of equipment we've taken to Iraq has been either destroyed or used at a rate that is far above what we anticipated.

HINOJOSA: So, what is the status of the equipment that these troops have right now? Is it ready?

KREPINEVICH: Well, right now, the army is spending over 17 billion dollars, this year, to try and replace equipment that's been destroyed. Or damaged in Iraq

HINOJOSA: Some of that money is being spent here at the Anniston Army Depot. Tens of thousands of damaged tanks, machine guns and other equipment are now repaired here each year.

But it's a race against time. With the war showing no signs of ending, staff here is working double shifts, six days a week to get this equipment back into use.
While officials assure us that troops end up with all the training and equipment they need by the time they get to Iraq, the strain is becoming so widespread that army generals, not usually ones to complain, are speaking out:

SCHOOMAKER: Frankly, we entered this war flatfooted.

HINOJOSA: General Peter Schoomaker, the army's Chief of Staff and top General, warned Congress last month of the looming danger of burning out the active duty army.

SCHOOMAKER: Investment accounts were under-funded by approximately $100 billion, resulting in nearly $56 billion in equipment shortages across the Army. At this pace, /we will break the active component.

While our Soldiers are responding with extraordinary commitment, particularly in the face of adversity and personal hardships, we cannot allow this condition to persist

HINOJOSA: And the demands are growing.

BUSH: So I've committed 20,000 troops to Iraq.....

HINOJOSA: Just last week, the president issued a controversial call for more troops.

KREPINEVICH: To request more troops is to put additional stress and additional strain on an army that's already stressed and strained. And nobody wants to cross that red line, nobody wants to cross that line where you begin to see—a real breakdown in the effectiveness of these units. At some point you begin to wonder, when do you hit that wall?

HINOJOSA: By the army's own standards, to be most effective, soldiers should deploy for a year and then be home for two. But in today's army, Soldiers spend more time at war than at home.

HAVEN: I leave for a year, and she misses me greatly. I miss her. And when we get back together, it's reacquaintence for at least 3-5 months. It's not a regimented time schedule, but it's how long it takes us.

TASHA HAVEN: By the time we adjust to adjust to each other, we gotta go again. That's the bad part.

HINOJOSA: Tasha and Victor haven have been married for seven years.

TASHA HAVEN: But, I have to pull back a little because I know he's not gonna be here. There's no Vic. I can't turn to Vic and ask Vic. That kinda hurts. 'Cause that's my right hand man.

HINOJOSA: The army says it's doing everything it can to support families and we witnessed that on base....family time was built in to soldiers' schedules. There were holiday parties..... Mandatory down time...free daycare.....and family readiness groups.

It's just before Christmas....And the clock is ticking. This is a pre-deployment briefing.

We met Josh and Misty Stephenson here. Josh got back from Iraq last January and now they are expecting their first child.

MISTY STEPHENSON: We've been joking that we call it "army family planning."

HINOJOSA: 30-year-old Stephenson, an army captain, is returning to Iraq for the third time. He is scheduled to depart the week after his baby is born.

JOSH STEPHENSON: Missing holidays and birthdays. Anniversaries. That's kind of part of the job.

MISTY STEPHENSON: I think I worry about how—how we're gonna make sure that she knows her father. Is he gonna come back and she's gonna be scared of him or nervous around him because she doesn't know his voice, or know what he looks like? .

HINOJOSA: So they've gotten a teddy-bear that plays a message for the baby from her dad.

BEAR: Good night sweetie. Daddy loves you a lot. Have good dreams and have fun in Viking Land.

JOSH STEPHENSON: Hopefully that'll leave some sort of imprint.

MISTY STEPHENSON: It's kind of scary because you don't ever plan where you get married to be a single mom, which is almost what it's like for the first year, you know. I'm going to be raising her by myself.

HINOJOSA: They've bought children's books that try to explain a soldier's absence:

JOSH STEPHENSON: Now at breakfast Mommy started to cry. Daddy gave her a hug and a kiss. I asked Mommy, 'Why are you sad?' Mommy said, 'I already miss him.' And then Daddy hugged me hard and said, 'I'm sorry I have to go. Someday when you're grown, you'll understand. It's because I love you so.'

MISTY STEPHENSON: I knew he would deploy. I didn't expect it to be again and again and again.

HINOJOSA: It's now nine days before Christmas. First Brigade soldiers must do their final paperwork and medical checks before they leave. There are briefings....

ARMY MAN: The anthrax vaccine is going to become mandatory again.

HINOJOSA: Hearing, dental and vision tests....and vaccinations:

BECK: I have to get small pox and anthrax for sure.

HINOJOSA: And 22-year-old private Beck has a few other things on his checklist. He plans to ask his girlfriend to marry him on New Years Eve. Just two weeks before he heads off to Iraq.

BECK: We'll probably hold off a—a year or two for marriage obviously 'cuz the deployment and everything. But I'm really excited, really nervous. You can tell when I started to talk about her, I just kind of didn't know what to say. I was just really nervous. Yeah, I'm more nervous for the proposal for sure than Iraq.

HINOJOSA: 28-year-old Mike Obert, a tank mechanic, has been in the army nine years. Now he's being sent back to Iraq for a third time.

MIKE OBERT: I don't know, I was a little upset that I was going again so quickly. But it was—it—it ended up being alright.

JUEL OBERT: My biggest worry is him not coming back. I try not to think about that.

HINOJOSA: Mike's wife Juel will be at Ft. Stewart raising their four children alone. Between deployments and training, mike's been away six of the nine years they've had kids.

JUEL OBERT: He had missed large parts of their lives... how do you replace that time with them

When he left the first time I thought, Okay, maybe once. Okay well maybe twice. But never thought he'd be gone this much.

HINOJOSA: While Juel supported the war at the outset, now she has her doubts.

JUEL OBERT: I felt that there really was something that was needed to be done. I still feel that there's a lot of work to be done there. But I don't know if it's our job to do that work any longer. And I'm looking at it from a point of view where it's my husband that's gone. I'm kinda—I'm tired of it. I would like him to be here. But—you know—I know it's his job. He's gotta do it.

MIKE OBERT: You get used to being deployed; yes. I don't think you get used to leaving.

HINOJOSA: And then there's the fear. Soldiers don't usually talk about it but it's there.

MIKE OBERT: I'm—I'm mostly worried about for—my family and I having—no one to look after them if—like the ultimate thing happens to me, you know, if I die.

HINOJOSA: Specialist Michael Murphy, twenty-three, is returning for his second tour to Iraq. But this time is different. He leaves behind a new baby girl.

MIKE OBERT: I think my biggest hope for—this next year in Iraq is just go quickly and smoothly. I don't want—nothing major to happen to any of my guys.

HINOJOSA: But the reality is, some soldiers won't make it back.

CHARLTON: For people that wear the third infantry division patch, you know, this is sacred ground.

HINOJOSA: This is Warrior's Walk. It is the third infantry division's memorial to the dead. Each of these 317 trees is a living monument to those soldiers who fought and died in operation iraq freedom.

CHARLTON: The reality is there may be some more trees out there. And as you can see, there's still some space left—for additional trees.

HINOJOSA: The holidays have come and gone. Over the break, Pvt. Beck proposed to his girlfriend and she said yes. The Stephensons had a healthy baby girl. Josh has only five days to spend with her.

STEPHENSON: Yeah, I feel—I feel really just fortunate that the timing worked out that I could be here. If I got to tell her one thing—that I knew she'd understand before I went, it's that—it's probably that Daddy loves her very much. And I'd be good with that.

HINOJOSA: Monday morning, January 8th. Soldiers deploy this week. It's 6 am and pouring. This is the last time the brigade will be together before heading off to hostile territory. Colonel Charlton delivers a pep talk.

CHARLTON: You have done about a years worth of training in 6 months and done it superbly.

HINOJOSA: The following night, things are busy at the Obert house as Mike prepares to leave the next day.

MIKE OBERT: Well this bible it's been to Iraq with me twice. Can you tell it's a little beat up. Probably shouldn't be superstitious but it's helped me out in those other times so I'm taking it with me now.

HINOJOSA: 19 month old kylie is his youngest child and only girl.

MIKE OBERT: She was born while I was in Iraq last time and she was premature. She's was in the NICU for awhile and we were a little concerned over whether she was gonna make it and she did. And when I got home and got bonded with her and now it's time to go.

HINOJOSA: The next morning, deployment day for Mike. Everyone knows what's coming and the house is oddly quiet.

JUEL OBERT: This is routine for them... you know, they've been gone so many times that it's just about every other year that he leaves and for their whole life . But yeah, unfortunately it's probably gonna be same way with her.

HINOJOSA: With just a few minutes till the school bus arrives, mike hugs his boys, then, a final goodbye. By the time they get home, Mike will have left.

JUEL OBERT: I'm just not sure, I'm not sure it has really sunk in yet what today is and what's going on.

HINOJOSA: Later on that morning, the last of the bags are loaded.

There are the difficult separations. It sets in now. The brigade will be gone a year.

And then it's time to go.

As of this week, the last of the First Brigade is on its way to Iraq.

JOSH STEPHENSON: If I could have a camera. And—and—and beam pictures to 250 million people every day. I think they would see what our soldiers are doing. And be very proud.

MURPHY: My biggest concern also is just make it home back with ten fingers and ten toes.

JUEL OBERT: He's my best friend. I'll miss talking to him. And—and just spending time with him and having him be the father of my children.

GAMBLIN: —ask for anything but time, right? Yeah. More time would be nice. But—you gotta do what you gotta do.

BECK: I'm patriotic. And so, it's a volunteer army. And to keep it volunteer army, you know, people like me have to you know, go out and volunteer.

HAVEN: And we're gonna bring is—everybody back home. That's the goal. Everybody leaves. Everybody comes back together.

TASHA HAVEN: I'll be here when you get back, baby. I love you. You know I'm not goin' nowhere. I'll be right here. And I got your back. No matter what.

BRANCACCIO: And that's it for NOW. From West Point, I'm David Brancaccio.



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