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The U.S. commander in chief raised eyebrows among many in uniform last week when he promised not to stretch the military too thin, even as some 500,000 troops find themselves deployed or assigned overseas.

President Bush, when asked in South Africa about the possibility of inserting peacekeeping troops into war-torn Liberia, made a simple pledge: “We won’t overextend our troops, period.”

“Too late,” says Sgt. Robert Page matter-of-factly. The Heidelberg, Germany-based medic has seen nine major deployments in his 10-year career, much of it “back and forth to Bosnia and Kosovo.”

“We’re already being asked to do a lot with very little,” he said. “Right now we’re only 50 percent staffed where I work because of all the deployments.”

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and those who speak on his behalf have maintained the same message over the past few weeks when asked if U.S. forces are overextended.

“The military is prepared to meet any of the challenges to support our national security,” Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman echoed when asked Monday.

While operational tempos for services have been higher than usual, and some troops are away from home longer than anticipated fighting in the Middle East, the military force structure has not been stretched beyond its limits, defense officials say.

“There is no question that the Army optempo is relatively high these days,” said Army spokesman Maj. Chris Conway.

Are they overextended?

“No. The Army is able to perform its missions worldwide in 120 countries as we speak,” Conway said.

Could Army units take on more missions and be successful?

“Not to sound flip, but that depends on what the missions were. We can and are performing our missions through the tireless efforts of our active duty and reserve component soldiers,” he said.

Doing more with less has been the mantra of the U.S. military since the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of the last Gulf War. Since 1990, the active-duty military has shrunk by almost 50 percent, from 2.1 million troops in uniform to 1.3 million.

Replacing the standoff with the Soviet Union has been a series of crises, from the failed humanitarian aid mission in Somalia and the invasion of Haiti to peacekeeping in the Balkans to counter-terrorism fights in Central Asia and the Pacific, and now to another war in the Middle East.

“We’re already overstretched — big time,” said Air Force Staff Sgt. Tom Yingling, a computer expert with the 4th Air Operations Support Squadron based in Heidelberg.

Yingling, fresh from combat duty in Iraq where his unit supported V Corps’ drive into Baghdad, said he’s already been told to prepare for duty in Africa should Germany-based forces get the nod to deploy to Liberia. And if not there, he said, “We’ll probably get put into the Afghanistan rotation.”

That’s tough news to break to his wife who, in the three years since they moved to Germany, has watched him don desert fatigues for two Middle East deployments and a five-month stint in Turkey.

“The past few years have been the busiest I’ve ever seen the military,” said Yingling, a 10-year veteran.

Full plate

While the past decade has been busy, it’s the here and now that has many in uniform feeling out of breath. Peacekeeping commitments continue in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and the Sinai while the almost-2-year-old war on terrorism has stretched forces into new, far-flung places.

For example, the 10th Mountain Division is headed back to Afghanistan to take over military operations there and train the Afghan army.

And, 100 Air Force troops have been deployed to West Africa to support the U.S. military survey team in Liberia.

Iraq took the spotlight off Afghanistan, but grueling combat operations continue there for some 10,000 troops still fighting Taliban and al-Qaida insurgents. Thousands more support that effort from bases in Uzbekistan and other countries in the region.

On the other side of the globe, U.S. forces are back in the Philippines helping train local units to fight guerrillas. And similar operations are ongoing in places such as Yemen, Georgia, Pakistan and Djibouti.

In the Army alone, officials say, there are currently 370,000 troops deployed to more than 120 countries.

Retiring Central Command leader Gen. Tommy Franks told Congressional leaders on Wednesday that “for the foreseeable future” the United States will need to maintain the current number of troops on the ground in Iraq — about 148,000 troops — plus thousands more supporting the effort in Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and other Middle East locations.

And Franks said the Pentagon would not be reluctant to push more troops into the region if needed.

“There has been a suggestion that perhaps there should be more troops. And, in fact, I can tell you in the presence of this secretary that if more troops are necessary, this secretary’s going to say yes,” Franks told lawmakers, testifying beside Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

A 12-division strategy?

Just how the military — particularly the Army — will be able to sustain even the current force levels in the Middle East remains to be seen.

“It’s going to be very tough,” said retired Lt. Gen. Theodore Stroup, now the vice president of the Association of the U.S. Army. “With five division flags there now, we have essentially half the combat power of the Army in Iraq.”

With 10 divisions in the Army, and one of those fixed in Korea, that leaves four divisions available to relieve the forces now in Iraq and to sustain operations in Afghanistan.

“Beware the 12-division strategy for a 10-division Army,” cautioned outgoing Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, at his June 11 retirement ceremony in Washington. “Our soldiers and families bear the risk and the hardship of carrying a mission load that exceeds what force capabilities we can sustain, so we must alleviate risk and hardship by our willingness to resource the mission requirement.”

To maintain so many forces in Iraq, even for a few years, said Stroup, “the cost is going to be in morale and re-enlistment rates and recruiting. It’s something I know the leadership is worrying about.”

And few, if any, units have felt the strain of deployment more than the Georgia-based 3rd Infantry Division.

During his testimony last week, Rumsfeld said the division — whose troops have been in the Middle East for more than year now — has begun redeployment to the United States. But it will take until September before all those troops are home.

“The services and the joint staff have been working with Central Command to develop a rotation plan so that we can, in fact, see that we treat these terrific young men and young women in a way that’s respectful of their lives and their circumstances and the wonderful job they did,” Rumsfeld said.

And while officials are eagerly awaiting the arrival of a 30,000-strong international peacekeeping force to assist in Iraq later this summer, Rumsfeld added, “We’re going to have to replace U.S. forces with U.S. forces in large measure.”

Hello, I must be going

In practical terms, that means many of the troops now returning from Iraq — or Afghanistan or the Balkans — and moving on their next duty assignment may find themselves deploying straight back out again.

With three-year tours in any given unit usually the norm, about one-third of the U.S. military moves on to new assignments every year, most of them in the summer.

Pfc. Jason McKereghan just got back from Iraq. A cook, McKereghan was assigned to the 3rd Corps Support Command, headquartered in Wiesbaden, Germany, during the war, but is now moving on to his next unit, the 28th Transportation Battalion based in Mannheim.

“I don’t know if the military is overextended or not,” said Mc- Kereghan, “but it feels pretty close. I know I’ll feel pretty stretched if I have to go right back to Iraq with my new unit.”

Some are already finding themselves returning to desert duty.

The Illesheim, Germany-based 2nd Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment spent seven months in the Middle East before going home in mid-May. Because the Apache unit was breaking up upon its return, the 2/6 Cavalry soldiers have scattered to other units — dozens of them to outfits already in the desert, or likely soon to go there.

At least three officers have returned to the desert as members of the 11th Aviation Regiment’s headquarters staff, less than 60 days after leaving Iraq. One of them, Capt. Paul Jones, a 27-year-old intelligence officer, said he has spent more than half of his five-year Army career deployed to Central America or the Middle East. Then he learned his next assignment would take him right back to the war zone.

“At first I was really unhappy,” Jones said. “Every assignment I’ve been to, I’ve been deployed a lot.”

Maj. Steve Wilson, another of the returnees, said some 2/6 Cavalry soldiers’ hearts sank when they found out they would have to go back.

“They have a lot of pride,” he said, “but we feel like we’ve done our share.”

Capt. Corey James, a 2/6 Cavalry officer, feels lucky to be headed to school next instead of back to the desert. Still, he’s spent 12 months out of his last 30 away from home.

“From my point of view, we are a little stretched,” he said. “[But] there’s a lot of people out there who have it worse than me.”

Master Sgt. David Miles, 42, of the Bamberg, Germany-based 71st Corps Support Battalion, can at least be certain he won’t be going back. He was medically retired a month ago after suffering a heart attack on duty in Iraq and will fly to his retirement home in South Carolina this week.

Aside from a tour in Korea, his three-month Iraq deployment was his first since the invasion of Panama in 1989. But he served with lots of junior soldiers who had spent most of their careers in the field.

“I was seeing young privates and specialists, and they already had combat patches,” Miles said. “These are people who are just getting back [from deployment], and now they’re getting snagged again.”

View from downrange

Many soldiers currently deployed to Iraq are reluctant to enter the debate.

Asked if they agree with the administration’s view that the military has not been stretched too thin, they smile, shake their heads and say: “No comment.”

A few are willing to speak on the subject, though they generally couch their words.

“I don’t know how thin [the Army] is,” said Spc. Eushaianek

Randall, a reservist with the 812th Military Police Company from Orangeburg, N.Y.

“I know this unit is thin. I’ve been working seven days, 12 hours a day for about a month and a half. I’m stretched thin.”

Her team leader, Sgt. W.K. Wiley, said it’s not something he wants to think about.

“It’s a touchy situation,” he said. “A soldier has just got to do his job when the going gets tough. You’ve just got to soldier on.”

Some spouses aren’t afraid to speak their minds.

“The military is already overextended,” said Jennifer Wilson. Her husband, Staff Sgt. Dustin Wilson, currently based in Balad Air Base, north of Baghdad with the 6th Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment, has been gone for the past five months. No word yet on when he’ll be coming home.

“There are too many places that soldiers are being sent already on six- to 12-month deployments,” she said.

She should know. In the past five years, her husband has been deployed to Korea for a year, Bosnia for six months and now the deserts of the Middle East.

The troops, she said, “are probably questioning whether they have chosen the right career path.”

Added Vernard Bendy, a Department of Defense civilian worker in Darmstadt, Germany: “I don’t like the status of affairs we’re into in the first place. We have too many people in too many places. ...

“The only thing we accomplished with Iraq, besides having Saddam replaced, was supposed to be getting rid of weapons of mass destruction. Should Saddam have been replaced? Yes, but now why are we still there?”

The beat goes on

It’s not just wars, terrorist hunting and peacekeeping chores that are keeping troops busy. Training and other work must continue, while new strains emerge as military leaders struggle to meet enhanced security requirements in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

Over the past year, Cheryl Cornelius said, her husband has been home for only about six months. Her husband, a sergeant first class and a communications expert for the 5th Signal Command in Germany, has spent most of the time away doing his normal job installing communications gear at bases around Europe.

“He’s down in Stuttgart right now,” she said. “But even when he’s home there’s Guard duty, quick reaction force, and 15-minute recalls, so half the time he has to just sleep in the barracks.”

Troops in Europe also have “hidden” deployments — training at Grafenwöhr or Hohenfels for weeks at a time to keep their units sharp. It’s time away from family as surely if they been had been in Iraq or Afghanistan.

— Contributing to this story: reporters Sandra Jontz, Steve Liewer, Kent Harris, Jessica Iñigo and Rick Scavetta.

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