More than two dozen officers sat around the conference table and introduced themselves. Most were American, with a smattering of officers from NATO allies; most of the Americans were Army, with a smattering from the Marines and Air Force.
They were all mid-career officers, hand-selected to enroll in a prestigious year-long, strategic-studies program based in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. And as they went around the table, rattling off name, rank and a brief bio, I was struck by the number of deployments each had seen.
“Three tours in Afghanistan, one in Iraq.”
“Two tours in Iraq, two in Afghanistan.”
“Four times in Afghanistan, two in Iraq.”
For the past few years, journalists at the AJC have met annually with officers in the Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies for an off-the-record discussion of military-press relations and related topics. When those talks began, most officers had been deployed just two or three times to a war zone.
By now, though, U.S. forces have been fighting in Afghanistan for eight years and in Iraq for more than six years. So it’s only natural that the number of repeat deployments has grown.
Still, the numbers were startling.
Later in the conversation, I asked about the strain of those repeated deployments. The military itself is handling the pressure pretty well, they reported. There’s no sense that the institution is faltering as it did in the last years of the Vietnam era.
That was exactly the kind of answer you would expect from highly motivated professionals who believe in what they’re doing. But as in previous years, a bit of frustration and even resentment also bubbled up.
Even though they themselves may be safely home in the states and will spend the holidays with their families, the officers are in regular contact with colleagues overseas; those dual wars are a constant presence in their lives and those of their families.
And knowing firsthand the intensity, boredom, loneliness and danger of overseas service, they look around and marvel at how easily their fellow Americans go about their daily business with no thought about the sacrifices being made on their behalf.
One officer did note the personal expressions of support that he and others receive when they wear the uniform in a civilian environment. A colleague from a NATO ally piped up, saying that he was astonished to witness that phenomenon. Soldiers in his own country never get that kind of reception, he said.
Nonetheless, they said, the general level of disinterest here —from the media, from politicians and the general public — was a little hard to digest.
That frustration can be particularly strong among family members. A couple of officers noted with regret that their teenaged children had explicitly rejected a military career because they saw little sign that their fathers’ sacrifices were appreciated.
A few days after that discussion, a study by the Rand Corp. was released exploring how repeated deployments affect children in military families. In general, they reported more symptoms of anxiety, more difficulty in school and more behavior problems.
“Longer periods of parental deployment (within the past three years) were linked to greater difficulties in children’s social and emotional functioning, at least based on caregiver reports,” Rand found, recommending that “families may require more assistance in addressing their children’s needs, via school programming, mental health services, or resources that can be used in the home.”
The study was sponsored by the National Military Family Association, a nonprofit founded 40 years ago as the Military Wives Association. The group is rated A-plus by the American Institute of Philanthropy, and provides services and advocacy for military families.
It’s one way to help.