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Many US Reservists' Families Express Discontent about Iraq Mission - 2003-12-07

Of the 105,000 soldiers preparing to relieve U.S. troops in Iraq this spring, more than a third are reserve forces. Among them is a battalion of New York's National Guard, the largest activation in the state since World War II. Normally, National Guard soldiers sign up for weekends and occasional call-ups for natural disasters. But since September 11, 2001, they've deployed to protect bridges, borders, and subways, many more than once. While the soldiers are largely falling in step, many of their families are discontent.

In a gravel parking lot at Fort Drum in Upstate New York, troops in green camouflage run through drills in a cold rain.

In civilian life, these men are teachers, emergency medical technicians, architects, electricians, physical therapists. But they've had to leave their jobs and families behind for a year and a half to become full-time infantrymen. Staff Sergeant Stephen Scott, a corrections officer at a New York state prison, says, given the news of daily attacks in Iraq, his men are understandably nervous.

"In the beginning, I think they probably didn't believe this was what the National Guard was all about," he explains. "I've heard it said 'you're in the National Guard, you're not going to Iraq.' Well, I'm here to tell you, we're going, we have no problem with it."

The soldiers approach their new military life with resolve, even mental distance. Staff Sergeant Michael Mader remembers the parade send-off when he left his hometown of Saranac Lake.

"The schools emptied," he recalls. "They lined the streets. I actually spotted my son's first grade class and there he was, so that was an emotional moment for me."

He explains if he sounds detached, it's part of the training and part of the sacrifice he's being called on to make. And when asked what he thinks about the mission in Iraq, he says he has to leave his opinions behind, too.

"We swear an oath to our constitution and to our commander-in-chief and this is the mission he's given us and we will see it through and we're committed to do the best job we can, and as far as how I might personally feel about one thing or the other, it's really… I guess what I'm getting at is it's irrelevant to what I have to do," he said.

But while Michael Mader and the other soldiers switch off their personal feelings, many of their loved ones are angry about a separation they never bargained for. They're sacrificing a lot. Some wives got a second job to make ends meet. Others had to quit good-paying work to take care of the kids. Many say their families feel off-track. On top of all that, they worry their husbands may not come home at all.

A couple hours away from Fort Drum in Saranac Lake, Staff Sergeant Mader's wife, Ruth, has company over to see her new baby girl. The new dad managed a 48-hour visit shortly after the birth. Mrs. Mader says she supports her husband, but the military is asking too much this time.

"When 9-11 happened he got activated and he did the airport security and stuff. I was fine with that," she said. "I think it just pertains to Iraq. If they [the Iraqis] wanted us over there and they were happy and grateful we were over there and so many men and women weren't dying, I think military families would have a different opinion of the war."

This idea - that the degree of violence in Iraq makes this deployment different - is widespread among these families. As the violence escalates, more military families are breaking rank. A national group called Military Families Speak Out is leading a call to bring troops home. Kansas State University professor Walter Schumm studies the effect of deployments on military families.

"People are willing to put up with, as Nietzche said, any kind of a 'how' as long as they have a 'why,'" says Kansas State University professor Walter Schumm, who studies the effect of deployments on military families. "And so as long as people remain convinced of the value of the mission in Iraq and its importance, I think that will be a help. That starts to degenerate, people start to think maybe it really isn't worth being there, that's going to put more stresses on the marriages."

As it stands, Ruth Mader says it's not worth it. She says she could be more at peace if so many people weren't dying in Iraq. "I mean, I want to see my husband come back alive, so I definitely would feel better about it if they somehow could get the body count down," she said.

Mrs. Mader adds that families are bracing themselves. Their husbands, fathers, boyfriends already seem far away, and they haven't even left for the front yet.