'This Is Tough News': Soldiers and Their Families Brace for Extended Tours

Mindy Shanahan, wife of Col. Dan Shanahan, with son Patrick in Texas.
Mindy Shanahan, wife of Col. Dan Shanahan, with son Patrick in Texas. "It's another Christmas without my husband," she said of the extension. (By Sylvia Moreno -- The Washington Post)
By Joshua Partlow and Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 13, 2007

BAQUBAH, Iraq, April 12 -- They found out by reading exasperated e-mails from their spouses, hearing somber announcements from their platoon commanders, seeing snippets of the secretary of defense at a televised news conference: The American soldiers who thought they were staying in Iraq one year would now stay 15 months. All of them.

From Texas to Baghdad and Baqubah to the Beltway, the reaction Thursday among U.S. soldiers and their families to the news of the mass extension was akin to a collective groan.

"It flat-out sucks, that's the only way I can think to describe it," said Pvt. Jeremy Perkins, 25, who works in an engineering battalion that clears roadside bombs in the embattled city of Baqubah, about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. "I found this out today from my squad leader. I still haven't told my wife yet. I'm just trying to figure out exactly how I'm going to break it to her that 'Honey, uh, yeah, might be home before our next anniversary. Sorry I missed the last one.' "

For Perkins, as for many other soldiers in Iraq and their loved ones back home, the dismay derived not so much from surprise -- rumors of such a possibility had been circulating for weeks -- nor even from extra time in war zones. The worst was the prospect of the continued strain of missing friends and relatives.

"This is tough news; it's upsetting news for the families," said Mindy Shanahan, whose husband, Col. Dan Shanahan, is commander of the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade and has been in Taji since October. His first deployment in Iraq was for 12 months in 2004 and 2005.

"It's another Christmas without my husband, and that's hard when you have young kids," said Shanahan, who lives at Fort Hood, Tex., the country's largest Army installation, with her sons, Patrick, 9, and Kevin, 7.

Shanahan said she was particularly upset that Army families were not briefed about Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates's announcement before it was made Wednesday. There had been rumors that Fort Hood's 20,000 soldiers currently in Iraq might be deployed for more than a year.

When the news of Gates's announcement broke, officials of Killeen Independent School District, where 52 percent of the 36,500 students are the children of Fort Hood soldiers, immediately sent e-mails to the school counselors to be "extra sensitive" to children and their mood on Thursday.

The school district runs special counseling programs in every school for the military children who have had to endure not only long separations but the deaths of parents and other relatives since the Iraq war started in 2003.

Students are allowed extra days off from school when a parent deploys overseas and when the parent returns, partly because "these children never know when their dad is coming back," said Diana Miller, principal of Skipcha Elementary in Harker Heights, a community adjacent to Fort Hood.

Skipcha, like every school in the district, has decorated its halls with pictures of students' parents and other relatives who are in Iraq and gold stars for those killed overseas.

"Everyone is a little disheartened," said Spec. Edward Dubois, 24, as he waited for a chance to call his wife, Stephanie, in what he expected was a two-hour line at Forward Operating Base Warhorse in Baqubah. "It's tough on families. I think we worry more about them than we do ourselves. Having to go explain to them that 'yes, we are going to be extended,' yes, it's hard, but they understand."

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