By Ann Scott Tyson and Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 12, 2007
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced yesterday that all active-duty soldiers currently deployed or going to Iraq and Afghanistan will see their one-year tours extended to 15 months, acknowledging that such a strain on the war-weary Army is necessary should the ongoing troop increase be prolonged well into next year.
The decision -- coming three months after President Bush put forth his new security plan for Iraq, including the deployment of at least 28,000 additional troops there -- reflects the reality that the new strategy is unfeasible without introducing longer Army tours.
The across-the-board extension will affect more than 100,000 active-duty soldiers and will result in the longest combat tours for the Army since World War II. It will also mandate for the first time that active-duty soldiers spend more time at war than at home.
"This recognizes . . . that our forces are stretched. There's no question about that," Gates told reporters at the Pentagon.
Calling the longer tours "difficult but necessary," he said that all active-duty Army units in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Horn of Africa -- as well as those deploying there -- will serve up to 15 months, effective immediately, with the exception of two brigades that have already been extended. He made it clear that most units should expect 15-month tours.
"This decision will ask a lot of our Army troops and their families," Gates said. But he said it will make the rotations "fair, predictable and sustainable" in contrast to prior ad-hoc decisions to extend individual units serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. The move will also allow the Army to ensure that active-duty units have at least 12 months at home.
Families of deployed soldiers reacted to the news with disappointment and resignation.
"I was praying for a year" deployment, said Audrey Frohnhoefer, whose husband, Capt. Tom Frohnhoefer, is serving his third tour in Iraq with the 3rd Infantry Division, based in Fort Stewart, Ga. "The worst part about the whole thing is that we know what to expect, and we don't want to do it," she said in a telephone interview from her home in Savannah, Ga., as her infant and toddler daughters cried in the background.
Gates said the longer tours will give the Pentagon the capability to continue the troop increase in Iraq for "at least a year." But he said the progress of the war will determine whether that happens, as well as how long the policy of extended tours will last.
"This decision today does not predict when this surge will end. What it does is allows us to provide to the nation, if needed, the amount of force that's currently deployed for a sustained period of time," Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the Pentagon news conference.
Most active-duty Army units have been spending one year at home between 12-month deployments. However, U.S. commanders in Iraq have recently warned their soldiers to plan on tours as long as 18 months.
"Every smart commander is telling their troops to expect longer tours -- there is no way to do this without longer tours," one senior military officer said in an e-mail from Iraq before Gates's announcement.
Congressional Democrats railed yesterday against the decision to extend Army tours, calling it a further buildup of a war that has no end in sight. They called on Bush to change what they termed a "failed strategy" in Iraq that continues to stress U.S. forces to the breaking point.
"The Army has attempted in vain to stabilize a rotational scheme for an unstable and open-ended strategy," said Carl M. Levin (Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Once again, the failures of this administration are being underwritten by our troops."
Rep. Ike Skelton (Mo.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said the new policy will have "a chilling effect on recruiting, retention and readiness."
Two Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee, John W. Warner (Va.) and Susan Collins (Maine), who co-sponsored a resolution in February opposing the troop increase, said the extended tours could pose risks to the all-volunteer force. Collins said they underscore "the urgent need to increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps."
Military experts said the Army has held up better under the strain than many predicted, but they agreed that the unusual step of extending standard combat tours to 15 months could finally undermine the force. "They have set in motion a process that could easily break the Army over the next couple of years," said Edwin Dorn, a professor at the University of Texas and a former undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. "It is setting the Army on a descending spiral. You make the job harder, you make the tours longer, you put additional stress on families -- all of which makes it harder to recruit new people," he said.
Gates, citing solid recruiting and retention numbers, said the escalating demands do not mean the Army is "broken." But senior Army leaders have said it is approaching that point.
"Clearly, it's going to have an unpredictable impact on the retention of mid- and senior-grade noncommissioned officers. It already is having an impact on company-grade officers, the captains," said retired Lt. Gen. Theodore G. Stroup Jr., who was a personnel chief.
Indeed, an overriding concern recently voiced by mid-level Army officers is that they are being asked to shoulder a disproportionate share of the nation's burden. "I don't know whether the American people have figured it out or not, but . . . the Army and Marine Corps -- the land forces of the United States -- are all in, all their chips are in," said retired Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, president of the Association of the U.S. Army and a former Army chief of staff.
The tour extensions come as the Bush administration is casting about for new leadership for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The White House is seeking a high-powered military czar to issue directions to the Pentagon, State Department and other agencies but is having difficulty finding candidates willing to take the job, The Washington Post reported yesterday.
For some Army families, the change will have dramatic consequences -- from postponed weddings to, inevitably, the loss of loved ones. For all, it will mean dragging out already painful separations. "Fifteen months is a long time . . . especially if you leave an infant and come back to a toddler," said Carolyn Crissman, the wife of Lt. Col. Doug Crissman, who is in Iraq.
Some families had braced for longer separations. Tracy Gee, whose husband, Staff Sgt. Wendell Gee, left in January for his third tour in Iraq, said she had grown so resigned to delays in his return that she had told their three children that he would not be home until July 2008.
"They were extended again and again and again, so finally no one believed them," she said. She decided to expect a long absence because "it's a lot easier to get happy than be upset." Still, she said, "I'm just ready for it to be over."
Staff writer Rick Atkinson contributed to this report.