Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Army Capt. Derek Bennett was among the first soldiers to enter liberated Iraq in April 2003. His battalion of the 1st Armored Division was told that its deployment would last about 90 days.

"We were just going to do some peacekeeping, do some patrolling, and then we'd be going home," Bennett said. "At the 90-day mark that summer, we were told it was looking more like six months. . . . About six weeks later, they finally published an order that said, 'Okay, it's 365.' . . . An entire year. It's difficult to wrap your mind around."

When it was over and his bags were packed, Bennett was extended again. The year became 15 months. This week, after finishing his second tour, he will leave the Army for good.

A small-town Michigan boy, he was the first in his family to finish college. West Point, Class of 2000. Now, as he ends his military career at Fort Bliss, Tex., he isn't sure what to do next. Maybe business school or a corporate job, or perhaps work on Capitol Hill.

He is 30 years old and single. "It's hard to meet somebody and spend a couple of months and then say, 'I'll be gone for a year, but don't worry, I'll have e-mail.' "

Many of his soldier buddies think he has let them down. "In Army culture, if you're not wearing boots until you die, you've cheated the country," he says. "If you get out at the five-year mark . . . you're just about a terrorist. If you get out at 20, you're just a communist or a traitor."

In a plum job for much of last year on the staff of Gen. David H. Petraeus, "I got the opportunity to see every career path available to me 30 years down the road," Bennett said. If he continued in the Army, "I was going to spend a lot of it in Iraq" or "making PowerPoint slides."

His first night back for his second tour, in the fall of 2006, the 120-soldier company he commanded went on an after-dark mission in Mosul. They had four uparmored Humvees, were short of weapons and ammunition, and their radios didn't work. "It's that little ankle-biter that saps at your confidence, when you don't even have ammunition."

Later, "I started looking around and talking to Iraqis and realized that since I left in July '04 -- I'm not blaming anybody -- the same problems remained. The same shortages of electricity and fuel and arms for the Iraqis. They still had trash and sewage in the street. You just wonder: What have we been doing?

"This isn't like World War II. There's no VJ Day, no sailor kissing a girl when he comes home. This is somebody saying that trend lines indicate a sustainable level of violence. That's not a great feeling."

-- Karen DeYoung

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