Families stunned, angered by units' deployment extension past one year
GIEBELSTADT, Germany — Tuesday night’s e-mail spread the dreaded news quickly across the home front in Giebelstadt: one year from the date their husbands deployed to Iraq, the men of the 3rd Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment still will not be home.
“This is the worst news,” said Jessica Corey, 29, whose husband flies Black Hawk helicopters for the unit. “Besides being absolutely stunned, we’re completely heartbroken, too.”
The Pentagon announced this week that 1,500 soldiers, National Guardsmen and reservists would be forced to stay in Iraq beyond their one-year rotation dates. About 1,000 of them come from Europe. More than 600 of those soldiers belong to two units from Giebelstadt: the 3/158 Aviation, a UH-60 Black Hawk unit; and the 7th Battalion, 159th Aviation Regiment, an aviation maintenance support unit.
“Everyone’s having a hard time with this last bit of news,” said Jennifer Groncki, 28, wife of a 3rd Battalion pilot. “People are very upset. They feel like the end was in sight. Now it’s been taken away.”
The 302nd Military Intelligence Battalion, which is headquartered in Wiesbaden, Germany, is among the units being extended.
“They all seem to understand,” said Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Joe Monroe, the 302nd rear detachment commander. “I think we have a great bunch of guys. They understand it’s mission first.”
The unit deployed down range in mid-to-late February 2003. The return date is still very much “a moving target,” Monroe said.
Other U.S. Army Europe units from Germany affected include: the 19th Combat Support Center from Wiesbaden; the 27th Transportation Battalion, with units in Hanau and Bamberg; the 71st Corps Support Battalion, from Bamberg; and the 181st Transportation Battalion, from Mannheim. All of them deployed to Iraq between January and March 2003.
Thousands more soldiers just missed a similar fate. A Pentagon spokesman, who requested anonymity, said U.S. Central Command at first sought permission to extend at least 50 units beyond their first anniversary. The Department of Defense pared the list by more than three-fourths.
The Pentagon’s efforts to limit the impact to a few units comes as little consolation to people like Valerie Belgrave, 30, who has spent only two months with her husband — Chief Warrant Officer 2 Benito Belgrave, also a 3rd Battalion Black Hawk pilot — in the past three years, through his 18 months of flight school and now one-year-plus in Iraq.
To their 2-year-old son, Nathaniel, Daddy is a stranger.
“[The boy] doesn’t know my husband,” Valerie Belgrave said. “He’s like a visitor.”
Carla Aikens, 34, and her 4-year-old daughter, Taylan, had been marking off the days on a calendar until March 20, when Chief Warrant Officer 2 Kevin Aikens finally would come home. Now, she doesn’t know what to do.
“In the summer, we finally had a date,” Aikens said. “This is very hard for [Taylan] to accept.”
Rumors of the extension had flown around Giebelstadt the past several weeks, several wives said, but they followed the advice of both their Family Readiness Group leaders and their husbands to disregard them. As recently as last week, the battalion commander had e-mailed spouses assuring them that the March 20 return date still looked solid.
That’s what made this week’s news all the more stunning. The e-mail didn’t explain why the troops would have to stay longer nor how long, though Pentagon officials have since said the units will stay between five and 60 extra days to bridge gaps caused by the enormous transfer of troops in and out of Iraq this spring.
“We deserve to be told the truth,” Corey said. “We’re big girls. We can handle it.”
The wives said their husbands have accepted the news stoically. Steeped in the Army tradition of a soldier’s duty, they are trying to do the same.
“Suck it up and drive on — if you’re an Army spouse, that’s what you’ve got to do,” said Mena Sawyer, 30, also a 3rd Battalion pilot’s wife. But, she added, “We were promised, more than once, that it would definitely not be more than 365 days. [The Army] always promises things, and they don’t follow through.”
Many wives can quote from memory U.S. Army Europe Commander Gen. B.B. Bell’s pledge in one command message last August: “Soldiers and their families can count on no more than a 1-year deployment to [Iraq] for the current rotations.”
“At least my husband is safe — relatively — and, eventually, he will come home,” Corey said. “But I want to know that it won’t happen again.
“The guys are just physically and mentally exhausted. That’s not the way you treat your best assets.
“They need to come home.”