The daily headlines of surging violence in Iraq -- where U.S. forces crossed the 1,000-killed threshold last month -- were also part of the stress heard in soldiers' comments.
"I think before we deploy we should be allowed to go home and see our families for five days, because some of us might not come back," said Spec. Wendell McLeod, 40, a steelworker from Cheraw, S.C. "Morale is pretty low. . . . It's leading to fights and stuff. That's really all I got to say."
The 1st Battalion of the 178th Field Artillery Regiment of the South Carolina Army National Guard marches to a final briefing before its move to Iraq.
(Photos David Moore -- Fort Dix, U.s. Army Photo)
McCarty, the commander, disagrees with those assessments. Overall, he said, the unit's morale is not poor. "The soldiers all have their issues to deal with, and some have dealt with it better than others," he said in an interview in his temporary office.
The problem, he said, is that he has to play the hand dealt him -- of assembling a new unit and getting it to work together while following a training schedule that has kept them going from dawn to long after dark, seven days a week, since mid-July.
"We are not here for annual training and then go home" -- that is, the typical schedule for National Guard units in the past -- said McCarty, assistant deputy director of law enforcement for the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources in civilian life. "We are here to prepare to go into a combat zone."
Some military leaders like to say that the best quality of life is having one -- a view to which McCarty appears to subscribe. "It is not my objective to win a popularity contest with my soldiers," he said. "My objective is to take them out and back home safely to their families."
As for the barracks lockdown, he said, "I am not going to apologize. . . . I did what I felt was necessary."
In the past, McCarty noted, members of Guard units usually had years of service together. That has enabled Guard units to compensate somewhat, using unit cohesion -- that is, mutual understanding and trust -- to make up for having less training time together than do active-duty units. But that was not the case with this battalion. "We didn't have that degree of stabilization to start with," he said.
He also contends that his case is hardly unusual nowadays. "Other units have similar problems," he said. "Ours just make more headlines." The disciplinary measures were covered by some soldiers' hometown newspapers, perhaps because it is one of the largest mobilizations of the South Carolina Guard since Sept. 11, 2001.
Sgt. Maj. Clarence Gamble, who as the top noncommissioned officer for the battalion keeps a close eye on morale and discipline, said he does not see any big problems. "I get out and see troops every day," he said. "From my talking to the troops, morale is good right now."
Indeed, some members of the unit agree with this view. "Overall, morale's good," said Sgt. John Mahaffey. "But of course you're going to have some who, no matter if you gave them their food on a gold platter, they'd still . . . whine." A car salesman from Spartanburg, S.C., Mahaffey, 41, said he volunteered to go to Iraq and is glad he did. "I'm looking forward to it," he said. The unit is essentially ready to go, he said. "If you wait till everything's perfect, you'll never get anything accomplished."
Gamble defended the lockdown that followed the fighting. "I think that what we did at the time was something that we needed to do to make sure that we had command and control of the battalion," he said. He added, "I don't think it was a detriment to morale, because it was short-lived."
He also says that unit cohesion is developing. "We knew it was going to take some time to develop the chemistry. And it's working."
As for volunteers who say they now regret it, "I think when our deployment is over, people will have different opinions."
Gamble, who at age 51 is a 33-year veteran of the Guard, said he is not worried about putting an already stressed unit into the cauldron of Iraq duty. "I haven't ever been deployed before, myself," he said. But, he concluded, "I feel like this unit will handle this well. Once we get in-country and get into missions, I think the stress will level off."