By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 5, 2009
FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- As the fight in Afghanistan transforms from a "forgotten war" to the U.S. military's top priority -- with tens of thousands of soldiers and Marines headed there this year -- overstretched ground troops are voicing unexpected enthusiasm about the new mission.
Afghanistan represents for some service members a far more palatable war than Iraq, one that enjoys more support among Americans because of its strong ties to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "It's the just war," said an Army officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record, and who has deployed several times to Afghanistan and Iraq. "People are more positive about it."
Long overshadowed as an "economy of force" effort, the Afghanistan war is gaining the attention it deserves, according to interviews with senior Army and Marine Corps leaders, midlevel officers and rank-and-file troops.
"For many of us serving there . . . as the sideshow for Iraq, we felt we were the other war and couldn't understand why," said Craig Mullaney, a former Army captain who served in Afghanistan and later advised the Obama campaign on that war. "I think a lot of us are encouraged by reallocating resources to Afghanistan."
For soldiers and Marines drawn to combat, Afghanistan is also viewed as the more challenging and sought-after duty as insurgents heighten fighting in the rugged terrain, according to several officers.
Marine Corps leaders and troops have long advocated shifting their mission from Iraq's Anbar province to Afghanistan. "The ones in Iraq are saying, 'Hey sir, when are we going to Afghanistan?' " said Lt. Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., Marine Corps deputy commandant for operations.
"I had more intense missions the year in Afghanistan than both tours I had in Iraq," said Sgt. 1st Class Peter Rohrs, 33, a flight medic who received the Silver Star for a harrowing rescue mission in eastern Afghanistan in November 2007. "It was rewarding to fly in such an intense environment, and it was a good use of our skills," he said.
"Iraq is looked at as the second-string mission now," said one Army officer who will soon go to Iraq and who was not authorized to speak on the record. "My buddies are shooting it out in Afghanistan, and I will go to meetings and work on the sewer -- that is mission envy."
Yet the military's planned withdrawal deadline for combat forces from Iraq -- August 2010 -- and the ongoing growth of the Army and the Marine Corps are also prolonging the strain on many service members.
"I expect the demand on our forces will continue to be high for the foreseeable future," said Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, Army vice chief of staff. The biggest challenge, he said, is the shortage of support forces such as aviation, military police and logistics units. "We are building capacity in these areas, but it will take some time," he said.
Afghanistan poses a greater challenge for the military than does Iraq in some ways: harsh geography; undeveloped highways and infrastructure; and a decentralized, tribal society. Such conditions mean a demand for more engineers to build roads and bases, medical personnel to treat the wounded, intelligence experts to target insurgents, bomb-clearing teams and helicopters to move troops around the battlefield.
Army aviation units -- now facing their highest demand since 2001 -- epitomize the pressure created by the buildup. Helicopters are needed to speed the evacuation of casualties as well as to transport troops and supplies over bomb-laden roads, officers said.
"We have always had a strain on the aviation there," said Maj. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, which will take charge of the U.S. military in eastern Afghanistan this spring. He called the addition of another brigade a "significant step."
Col. Paul Bricker commands the 2,800-member 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade, which will deploy to southern Afghanistan this month. "In Afghanistan, helicopters are the coin of the realm because it allows us to cover a lot of ground in a short time," said Bricker, whose brigade has more than 100 attack, reconnaissance, cargo and medical evacuation helicopters.
"The IED threat in the south has literally been killing them," said Lt. Col. Ed Brouse, the brigade's executive officer, referring to the growing threat in the south from "improvised explosive devices." "The British and Canadians take a lot of casualties down there," but the risk will be curtailed once the brigade arrives to ferry more troops, he said.
Similarly, the brigade brings more medical evacuation crews able to cut the amount of time required to transport troops to combat hospitals -- about two hours in Afghanistan, compared with one in Iraq -- a lag that can mean the difference between life and death.
But the Army's effort to ensure that aviation units such as Bricker's are ready to deploy has been a struggle in terms of training, equipment and especially manpower.
The brigade had been scheduled to leave for Afghanistan in the fall, but its departure was moved to this month.
Manpower has proved the toughest problem, Bricker said. The brigade will deploy with 90 percent of its personnel and shortages in certain job skills. As a result, it must cross-train some soldiers in different jobs and continue to get new recruits. "Because of our early deployment, it's been a challenge to get the right skill set," said Command Sgt. Maj. Larry Farmer, the brigade's senior noncommissioned officer.
In their living room near this sprawling military base, Staff Sgts. Sophia and Steven Horne listened to their five children fret about what life will be like after their parents leave for Afghanistan this month.
"I'll have more stuff to do," said Shanelle, 11, who as the oldest will help fix breakfast and get her siblings to school. Joy, 6, and Jordan, 8, said it will be "hard" and wondered what it will be like talking with their parents on a webcam. Devon, 10, worried that with his Cambodian aunt arriving, all he will eat is rice.
The Hornes already have three deployments between them to Iraq and Afghanistan, but as experienced noncommissioned officers, they see no relief ahead.
"We are begging for soldiers every day," said Sophia Horne, who is needed to fill two jobs.
About 65 percent of soldiers in the brigade have prior deployments. But retaining them meant 65 soldiers had to be "stop-lossed," or ordered to serve beyond the date they were scheduled to exit the Army.
As an Afghanistan and Iraq veteran and a Black Hawk pilot, Chief Warrant Officer 5 James Myers, 50, is on stop-loss. "I don't think any soldier is truly excited to go to war," he said. Still, for him, the mission is vital: "I am there fighting terrorists that invaded this country."
First Sgt. Anthony W. Faubus was going to retire Aug. 31, but when his company -- a headquarters unit of the aviation brigade -- received orders to deploy early, his commander decided to retain his "right-hand man." Faubus was put on stop-loss and will depart next week.
Faubus is concerned about leaving his family for his fourth tour. "I don't know if my parents will make it through this deployment," he said.
Faubus's wife, Clarixsa, said she feels unhappy, yet she is powerless to change the deployment. She ticks off the anniversaries and birthdays he will miss, when she and their daughter Jennifer will celebrate.
"There is an empty space there, almost," said Jennifer, who turns 16 in May. While she said she understands the need to sacrifice, she said she thinks her father has done his share. "A few weeks ago I realized they were serious [about the deployment]. . . . I was like, 'No, you're supposed to retire.' "