GIs in Iraq Choosing to Re-Up
Sunday, December 18, 2005
BUHRIZ, Iraq -- It was nearing midnight as Pfc. Nicholas Outen and his platoon moved silently down an alley in this Sunni enclave of canals and palm groves, on a night of raiding houses with the Iraqi police. The patrol paused, and Outen had just crouched at a street corner when a large blast threw him backward.
"I saw a flash and a boom and was smashed against the wall," recalled Outen, 20, of Baltimore. His shoulder was ripped by shrapnel from a bomb that exploded 15 feet away, killing an Iraqi policeman. Five in Outen's platoon were wounded, including his team leader, Sgt. Nathan Rohrbaugh, who lay bleeding on top of him.
The Nov. 17 attack would draw together an already tightknit platoon, now on its second tour in Iraq. For Outen, it was doubly significant: On the same day that he became eligible for a Purple Heart, he reenlisted in the U.S. Army.
Across Iraq, U.S. soldiers risking their lives daily in combat are also re-upping by the thousands, bolstering the Army's flagging manpower at a time when many young Americans are unwilling to serve. Since 2001, the Army has surpassed its retention targets by wider margins each year, showing an unexpectedly robust ability to retain soldiers in a time of war. While the force is facing a shortfall in recruitment of new soldiers, it raised its retention goal this year by 8,000 people and still exceeded it, with nearly 70,000 soldiers, or 108 percent of the target, choosing to stay in the Army.
On palace rooftops and pockmarked streets, GIs are reenlisting in rituals that range from dramatic to harrowing. Soldiers have taken the oath in gaudy former residences of Saddam Hussein and in the spider hole near Tikrit where the gray-bearded fugitive was captured in December 2003. One cavalryman reenlisted on a median of Baghdad's treacherous airport road; others made the pledge during a lull in fighting in the battle for Fallujah in November 2004.
More than 4,000 soldiers from Outen's 3rd Infantry Division have reenlisted in the past year, including 117 who raised their hands together at a mass ceremony north of Baghdad in April. The division, whose tanks spearheaded the U.S. invasion in 2003, was the first to serve two tours in Iraq. Even so, this year it chalked up the highest retention rate among the Army's 10 active-duty divisions, hitting 137 percent of its goal.
To be sure, the hardship of repeated, year-long combat tours away from families is discouraging some soldiers, and retention is likely to slip among lower-ranking officers and enlisted soldiers, who bear the brunt of grueling overseas assignments, according to Army officials and military analysts. To compensate, the Army this year offered new deployment bonuses and career incentives for soldiers who chose to stay, doling out tens of millions of dollars in tax-free payments. Meanwhile, sergeants tasked with persuading soldiers to re-up are working overtime to meet bigger quotas.
"You tell the career counselor to get aggressive," said Sgt. Maj. Scott Kuhar, the Army's senior reenlistment sergeant. "He just rucks up and does it."
Despite the risk and long months away from home, many soldiers such as Outen say serving in Iraq gives them a powerful sense of purpose, a chance to use their skills and cement a bond with fellow soldiers who become like an extended family. Outen's infantry unit, Bayonet Company of 2nd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment, has lost three soldiers and received more than a dozen Purple Hearts and awards for valor. Yet the company of about 150 men met its retention goal two months early in 2005.
At a dusty base in Baqubah, a city on the Diyala River just north of Buhriz, Outen tended to his wound and reflected on his reasons for staying in the Army. "I'm only good at a few things -- camping in the woods and shooting a weapon. So I figure I can use my talents," said Outen, a member of his high school marksmanship team.
"The pay is decent, you have benefits, they help you with legal problems," he said. "It's kind of like having a big brother watching out for you all the time."
Outen knows "without a doubt " that he will be back in Iraq. But he manages to find a bright side even to being wounded. As a Purple Heart recipient, "I'll get free license plates for life."