Long Stints in Iraq Fracture Families

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 26, 2006

FORT STEWART, Ga. -- As a gray dawn broke, hundreds of 3rd Infantry Division soldiers gathered on a Georgia marching ground this month and listened to a long list of names of fallen comrades. Taps rose mournfully above rows of young redbud trees planted for each of the division's 317 soldiers who have died in Iraq.

Col. John Charlton, commander of the division's 1st Brigade, which next month begins its third Iraq tour in four years, stepped forward. "Be thankful for your families, your health, and for every day that you're alive," he advised. The brigade's mission, he said, is to bring peace to Iraq's volatile western Anbar province and its capital, Ramadi, which he said despite progress remain "a dangerous area, a very dangerous area."

"Take this time . . . to be thinking about those soldiers represented behind or in front of you," he said, "and as you'll notice, there's still some space on the sidewalk there for more trees."

This week, U.S. troops will have been fighting in Iraq longer than they did in World War II, with no relief in sight. Soldiers from 1st Brigade preparing at Fort Stewart for their third Iraq tour have been spending as much time in Iraq as at home. The rotations -- a year in Iraq followed by a year at home -- dictate soldiers' most intimate decisions: They mandate when troops can marry and have children. They sever relationships that cannot sustain the stress of absence or danger. And they lead some couples to pray for the war to end.

After the memorial service, Lt. Col. Doug Crissman gathered his 1st Brigade soldiers and sent them on leave with a warning not to get hurt, go to jail or go AWOL.

"You're all a little bit nervous. Hell, I'm nervous," said Crissman, of Burke, Va., who commands the 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment. "The Army is asking us to do some tough stuff."

Then his voice softened as he nudged his troops to be attentive to their families. "I need you to think about this visit a little differently," he said. "Spend time with them. . . . Tell them you love them."

Strained Relationships

In the living room of his Savannah home, Capt. Thom Frohnhoefer tumbled with his daughter Maggie, 2, as she jangled and waved his metal dog tags.

"She's the one I had after the first deployment," Frohnhoefer said. "It will be harder this time because she knows Daddy is leaving."

From courtship to parenting to divorce, the time away at war is having a profound impact on the families of active-duty soldiers, according to interviews with dozens of soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division and their relatives. The division spearheaded the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and returned for a second, year-long tour in January 2005.

For 1st Brigade soldiers such as Frohnhoefer, having children poses a wrenching choice: Leave your wife alone in pregnancy and birth, or miss your newborn's first year.

Frohnhoefer and several others in his brigade opted to start pregnancies soon after returning in January, creating a mini baby boom. Frohnhoefer's second daughter, Haley, was born three weeks ago. Another soldier in the unit had a baby last week.

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