As people around the United States celebrate Veteran's Day, thousands of U.S. troops continue to face danger in Iraq and Afghanistan. At one of the biggest U.S. military bases, Fort Hood in central Texas, thousands of troops are preparing for deployment to Iraq early next year and they are putting their main emphasis on safety.
Last week, Lt. General Thomas Metz, commander of the U.S. Army's III Corps, received orders to deploy 20,000 troops from Fort Hood to Iraq sometime next March. These troops will replace those from the base who have been in Iraq since the operation to remove former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein more than six months ago.
General Metz says his top priority is to bring everyone home safely, although he acknowledges that Iraq remains a dangerous place and that some casualties are inevitable. For the soldiers at Fort Hood who now have their orders for deployment to Iraq, the main emphasis is on training and safety.
Public Affairs officer Captain Chad Ormand says that while losses are to be expected in a combat zone, commanders recognize that avoidable errors also take a heavy toll.
"There have always been people who have died and if it was not inflicted from soldiers, it has been from accidents," he said. "There have been a lot of soldiers who have died from accidents rather than from actual enemy contact."
In Iraq, so far, the III Corps has suffered 45 combat casualties and lost an additional 26 soldiers in non-combat incidents. Army commanders say even many combat deaths could be avoided through proper training and preparedness.
One concern has been the deficit in training between active duty troops and reservists, who are civilians who train mainly on weekends. Captain Ormand says the reserve units being deployed in Iraq do not have the benefit of constant training for such operations.
"Sometimes they receive some training at home station, but usually they come here to Fort Hood and get additional training here at Fort Hood," he said. "The active duty, they train 365 days a year except for weekends and holidays, whereas the reserves train two days a month and an additional two weeks out of the year."
Of the 130,000 U.S. troops currently in Iraq, 28,700 are from reserve units. That number is expected to increase to 39,000 by May of next year. While the death toll among reservists has tripled since the official end of combat operations in May, enlisted soldiers still account for the largest number of casualties. Around 22 percent of combat deaths in Iraq have been from reserve units, the rest have been full-time enlisted soldiers.
After an address to troops at Fort Hood last week, General Metz told reporters "it is regretful that we lose soldiers, but they have tremendous morale and fortitude to fight through this tough war." He said keeping morale high amid daily reports of casualties in the field is a major challenge. But he said the training at Fort Hood helps keep soldiers focused on the mission of rebuilding Iraq and defeating terrorism.