As the war in Iraq enters its fifth year, and attention is focused on the additional troops President Bush has requested be sent there, the continuing campaign against the Taleban in Afghanistan is often pushed from the headlines. But some 26,000 U.S. troops are engaged in Operation Enduring Freedom, including members of the 961st Engineer Battalion of the Army Reserves. The carpenters and ironworkers of Wisconsin unit have been repairing roads and building bases in Afghanistan for the last twelve months.
That much time away has taken a toll on their families. Jackie Eisner of Whitewater, Wisconsin, says having her husband overseas was a challenge for her and her five children. "Well, the kids miss him, so they always say 'When's daddy coming home?'" She says she missed him, too. "Learning how to kind of be a single parent, managing household bills, and things like that."
Tina Meriweather of Milwaukee says she and her seven kids also found life more difficult. "You look for that spouse to help you do this and he's not there, so it's been hard, it's been hard."
But this week, the Meriweathers, Eisners and about 50 other families were together again. As two busloads of troops from the 961st pulled into a reserves base in Milwaukee on Sunday, they were met with cheers and screams of delight.
After allowing some time for the troops to get off the buses and greet their loved ones, the unit was called to attention, and Colonel Larry Waldhart told the troops to thank their families and friends. "You know, 'They also serve who stand and wait' was something a very famous person said," he noted, "and it wasn't until my own son deployed that I figured it out, so how about a round of applause for all these supporters while you've been gone?" That prompted applause and more cheering.
While his absence from Wisconsin may have been a challenge for his family, Sergeant Timothy Eisner says he's proud of his work in Afghanistan, explaining, "We actually made it better for other troops that are going to follow behind us. The living conditions are better. The force protection is there and actually I believe that we're doing a good thing with a lot of local people, because at all the bases, we hired in local people from around the area to come in and work for us."
Staff Sergeant Rob Meriweather is also satisfied with his unit's time in Afghanistan. But he predicts that dealing with an expected buildup of the Taleban and other insurgents will be difficult. "They're like eels, you know, like catching fish. [They're] slippery, you know, you isolate a group, some escape, they go somewhere else and regroup and redouble their efforts."
The remaining members of the 961st will be coming home on Saturday. But the Pentagon recently increased the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and some in the 961st could go overseas again in the next year.
While some members of the Army reserves have complained about repeated tours of duty in the Middle East, Colonel Waldhart says many have adjusted to the possibility. And, he points out, they know what to expect. "We've been at this four or five years now, and so we've got an idea of the pace and pattern and the skill set we need. So unlike the first groups arriving back five years ago, it's not quite the same." He says they're walking into it with their eyes open. He adds that the Army will be involved in Afghanistan as long as President Bush needs the troops there.