WASHINGTON – About 300 Alaska-based soldiers sent home from Iraq just before their unit's deployment was extended last month must now go back, the U.S. Army said, setting up a wrenching departure for troops and families who thought their service there was finished.
The soldiers — all from the 172nd Stryker Brigade — are among the close to 380 troops who had gotten home to Fort Wainwright and to Fort Richardson when Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld ordered the unit to serve four more months. The remaining 80 will not have to return to Iraq.
Army officials sent a team of personnel and pay experts to Alaska to help sort out all of the soldiers' vacations, school enrollments and other plans torn apart by Monday's announcement to return them to Iraq. The unit is now being stationed in Baghdad, one of the most violent parts of the country.
Maj. Gen. Charles Jacoby, commander of U.S. Army Alaska, said 301 soldiers will be returning to Iraq, and most are either infantry troops or cavalry scouts needed for the Baghdad mission.
"From a military standpoint, it makes all the sense in the world," said Jacoby, speaking to Pentagon reporters from Alaska, where he was surrounded by a few soldiers and family members affected by the decision. "The brigade needs these soldiers back."
Mary Cheney — no relation to the U.S. vice president — was sitting nearby and said she was not happy when she learned her husband, Staff Sgt. Anthony Cheney, would be in Iraq for another four months. But she said she knew when she married him that things like this could happen.
"I would never question his dedication to his career," said Cheney, who had a baby just a few weeks ago and has three other children. "His heart is with his family, but his mind and his dedication" are with his extended family of fellow soldiers.
The bulk of the 172nd Brigade was still in Iraq when Rumsfeld extended their deployment as part of a plan to quell the escalating violence in Baghdad. Overall, the brigade has about 3,900 troops.
Another 300 soldiers from the unit had left Iraq and gotten to Kuwait, and were about to board flights home when they were called back.
Before Monday's announcement, the troops who had already returned home to Alaska had been told that decisions on their fates would be made on a case-by-case basis.
Army officials said they recalled just one other time during the three-year-long Iraq war when the Pentagon so quickly recalled soldiers who had served a year on the battlefront and gotten home.
Other units have had their deployments extended anywhere from a week or two to a few months.
The 300 soldiers recalled from Alaska on Monday got to spend between three and five weeks at home, and will head back to Iraq in the next week or so. Most of the brigade is expected to leave Iraq by the end of the year, although Army spokesman Paul Boyce said Monday there are no assurances the unit's stay will not be extended again.
A second extension, however, would be very rare.
For some, the return to Iraq may mean they will miss the holidays or much-anticipated vacations. For others, it means rescheduling military or civilian college classes, or postponing long-planned moves out of state or to different Army units.
Soldiers who serve more than 365 days on the warfront will receive $1,000 more per month — $800 for incentive pay and $200 for additional hazardous duty pay.
Sectarian violence has rocked Baghdad, bringing it to what some believe is the brink of civil war. In response, U.S. and Iraqi military leaders have shifted thousands of troops into Baghdad, targeting four critical regions wracked by attacks between Sunni insurgents and Shiite extremists.
The new offensive has driven the number of U.S. troops in Iraq up to 135,000 — reversing a trend of declining personnel levels that had begun earlier this year. And, the increased level dampens hopes of a significant withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of the year, just as members of Congress returned to their home districts to voters growing increasingly weary of the war.
Rumsfeld must approve any deployment that is longer than a year on the ground in Iraq.