As the world waits for the findings of U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq, soldiers and their families at Fort Drum in upstate New York are paying special attention. The light infantry of the 10th Mountain Division which is based there played a combat role in Afghanistan last year. Many soldiers returned from Central Asia little more than six months ago. The community at Fort Drum is living through another period of anxiety as deployments to Iraq loom.
It's a busy day at Brandon's Military Supply, just off base at Fort Drum. Soldiers wait in line to drop off their uniforms for cleaning. They're just back from three weeks of intense urban warfare training at Fort Polk in Louisiana. They've been too busy to follow the latest news. But most everyone has an opinion about Iraq. Sergeant Victor Diaz favors a slow approach. "Not now, it's not worth it to go over there and make a mess, we could wait a little bit more, see if we can fix it the other way, not the hard way," said Sergeant Diaz.
The hard way is sending American troops to depose Saddam Hussein, something Private Jeremy Bartosic is ready to do. "He's horrible to his people," he said. "He's horrible to other people. He's interacting with terrorists, which affects us, so he's got to go."
The quick-strike, mobile units of the 10th Mountain Division are seen as a key ingredient in the Bush administration's policy of regime change in Iraq. President Bush himself visited Fort Drum last summer. With desert camouflage netting as a backdrop, Mr. Bush thanked the soldiers for their service in the mountains of Afghanistan. And he prepped them for missions yet to come. "This is a decisive moment in the history of freedom," said President Bush. "As your commander-in-chief, I leave you this message. Be proud. Be strong. And be ready. May God bless you all."
Since the president's visit, Fort Drum families have returned to a role that's become disturbingly familiar: preparing for the unknown. "Now, with the news you're thinking, how long do we have," asked Rena Tumbleson.
Rena Tumbleson and her colleague Kristen Fair offer classes at Fort Drum to prepare families for deployment. Ms. Fair says enrollment has doubled recently. And spouses are calling her with follow-up questions. "It's not big what if questions," said Kristen Fair. "It's the down and dirty."
The little details in life. Things like making sure spouses have their legal affairs in order. "Spouses know where their marriage certificates are, where their birth certificates are for their children and they know where and when to get the oil changed for their car and that they help to prepare their children for the possibilities of their parents being deployed," she said.
It's an ordeal for many families. They face the prospect of absence, and possibly injury or death, in very concrete ways. Although it's part of the package of a military life, that doesn't ease the stress and anxiety when war is brewing.
Outside the security checkpoint of Fort Drum's north gate, a line of cars and trucks lengthens in late afternoon traffic. At a convenience store across the street, men and women in green camouflage and black berets run in for a Coke or to pay for gas.
Private Russell Braughton says his battalion has been training hard lately, whether it's for peacekeeping in a place like Afghanistan or war in Iraq. "Embassy training, gas chamber, a lot of chemical weapons training, stuff like that, shooting, getting ready to go over there in case we have to," he said. "It's kind of nervous, not knowing what's going on over there and just waiting."
Outside the store, Elizabeth Perkins waits in her car for a friend. A baby babbles happily in a car seat in back. She isn't sure what the president should do about Iraq. But the military wife says families should factor into his decision. "I don't think he's thinking of people," she said. "I don't think he's actually thinking about the families of soldiers who are going through it. I think he should go to the front line and find out what's going on himself instead of just sending people."
If the past is any indication, men and women from the 10th Mountain Division will play prominent roles on the ground in Iraq. But that country's name is mentioned sparingly here as people prepare for the future by keeping their minds on the present.