Spc. Aaron Fischer lost two of his best friends during the 1st Infantry Division’s year in Iraq, but still is considering re-enlisting.

Spc. Aaron Fischer lost two of his best friends during the 1st Infantry Division’s year in Iraq, but still is considering re-enlisting. (Terry Boyd / S&S)

BAUMHOLDER, Germany — Spc. Aaron Fischer lost two of his best friends during the 1st Infantry Division’s year in Iraq.

Spc. Michael Campbell, 34, was killed instantly May 19, 2004, in Samarra when a convoy hit a roadside bomb, Fischer said — a convoy Fischer was supposed to be on.

Sgt. William Kizner, 27, died in a January grenade attack in Ad-Duluiya, just days before the 1st ID began returning to Germany.

Fischer, 21, figures he survived about 250 convoys during his year in Iraq as fueler with Headquarters, Headquarters Troop of the 1st ID’s Schweinfurt-based 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry Regiment.

Despite what he’d been through, Fischer wasn’t ruling out re-enlisting as the 1st ID was returning to Germany last month.

The likelihood of ending up right back in Iraq wasn’t the main thing on his mind; there’s a lot more to consider, Fischer said. Maybe he’ll reclass and become a tanker or a scout, or maybe try out for Special Forces. Or he might stay with 1-4 Cav, or maybe he’ll go to college.

“I’m always one to make up my mind at the last minute,” Fischer said during a Feb. 9 interview at Forward Operating Base Wilson, near Tikrit, Iraq.

Two years after the start of the war, many soldiers say Iraq isn’t the crucial factor in their decision to stay or go.

Many vow they’re getting out, said Sgt. Maj. William Sharpsteen, command career counselor for U.S. Army Europe in Heidelberg. But soldiers coming out of the desert often are like the pregnant woman who swears she’ll never go through all that pain and discomfort again, Sharpsteen said. “Then a month after the delivery, she’s talking about having another baby.”

Re-enlistment figures are difficult to analyze, distorted by statistical anomalies such as good or bad enlistment rates four years earlier, or changes in division end-strengths. Figures also are distorted by soldiers staying in the eligibility window longer, waiting until they go to the desert so they can get tax-exempt, re-enlistment bonuses, said Sgt. 1st Class James Nolen, a career counselor in Baumholder, headquarters for the 1st Armored Division’s 2nd Brigade.

Overall, retention rates for the 1st ID and 1st AD indicate little problem in keeping soldiers. In the past two years, both divisions have exceeded retention goals.

There is evidence that the prolonged fight in Iraq may be affecting recruitment, with the Army missing its February recruiting goal — the first missed monthly goal since May 2000, according to the Associated Press. But getting people to join the Army and getting them to stay are different issues with far different factors.

As the ground war segued into a prolonged anti-insurgency effort, and soldiers discovered they’d be spending months in Iraq, many predicted that the Army would begin losing people in droves.

In a mid-2003 survey of 2,000 personnel for Stars and Stripes’ “Ground Truth” series on morale in Iraq, 49 percent of respondents rated it very likely, likely or possible they’d leave the military, with soldiers the least inclined to stay of the three service branches.

Two years later, there seems to be two kinds of people in the Army — those with a life plan, and those soldiering a day at a time. The majority of soldiers interviewed said their first consideration is their plan either to go career, or to get out after achieving certain goals.

About 20 percent of his soldiers who don’t re-enlist leave because of family concerns about long deployments, Nolen said. About 40 percent leave because they had firm plans about how long they’d serve, while the remaining 40 percent have jobs lined up, are going to the family business or are ready for a different kind of life, he said.

“They joined up after Sept. 11, they did their part and they want to move on ... have the college experience,” Nolen said.

“It’s all about planning,” said Spc. Tino Ramirez, 22, a fire support specialist from Palm Springs, Calif. He joined at age 19 with a rock-solid plan of doing four years, said Ramirez, assigned to Troop C, 1-4 Cav. He’s going on terminal leave in September, separating in November, then enrolling at the University of California-Riverside where he’ll be studying languages.

A straight-arrow student who went through high school “without even a detention,” he was not in the Army out of desperation, Ramirez said. He wanted the money and benefits. As for the guys who plan on making sergeant major, he said, “That’s fine ... but I’m not a soldier.”

Nothing is going to change that, Ramirez said, including re-enlistment bonuses.

“The soldiers who want to soldier want to continue to soldier,” said Sgt. 1st Class Shawn Butler, the Troop C career counselor. “Those who came in for benefits and incentives, [such as] college — the deployment has only solidified their plans.”

Otherwise, he doesn’t think long deployments or combat negatively affected their outlook on the Army, Butler said during a February interview at FOB Wilson near Tikrit.

Long deployments are stressful for families, “but it’s not as big a factor as we thought it was going to be,” Sharpsteen said.

Deployment details may be more of a major career issue, and predictability is the key, he added. Soldiers want to know when they’re going, how long they’re going to be there, and how long they’ll stay home when they get back. The more uncertainty, the less chance they’ll re-enlist, he said.

Delaying deployments, if not avoiding them completely, figures into soldiers’ career calculus, said Butler, the career counselor. Many soldiers who’ve spent a year in the desert stay put because of the high probability they’ll deploy back to Iraq if they go to a different unit, he said.

“Talking about PCSing and jumping units is very stressful. The safest place to be ... is with the unit you just deployed with, the back end of the hopper,” he said.

As important a consideration is the years they lived, trained and fought alongside comrades, Butler said. “They don’t want to be cast into a faceless crowd of strangers.”

Dozens of soldiers said the prediction that Iraq and the accelerated operation tempo would cause a rush to the exits by soldiers eager to leave the Army is too simplistic. Army life is too nuanced and complicated for that.

And demanding.

“Even the guys who get chaptered out or quit ... who come by here to clear, I stand up and shake their hands,” Butler said. “Because just by putting on the uniform ... they’ve done more than any civilian can imagine.”

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