Not everyone came home from Iraq by Christmas

A sign in mid-December at Camp Echo, Iraq, points the way to Fort Hood, Texas, home of the 1st Cavalry Division's 1st Brigade. President Barack Obama said that all troops in Iraq would be home for the holidays, and the brigade leadership had announced the soldiers would be home early as well. But a change in plans means most of the unit's soldiers will spend the remaining six months of their tour in Kuwait. Some soldiers and family members have criticized the early homecoming announcement as premature on the part of the command.


By GEOFF ZIEZULEWICZ | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 30, 2011

 MANAMA, Bahrain — Although she is a relatively new Army wife, 23-year-old Andrea Thane understands things can turn on a dime when it comes to military life.

But a recent Army pivot has left Thane and other spouses and soldiers of the 1st Cavalry Division’s 1st Brigade miffed at their command and the White House.

When announcing the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq by year’s end, President Barack Obama on Oct. 21 said the remaining 40,000 troops in Iraq would “definitely be home for the holidays.”

“Ironhorse” brigade leadership also announced on the unit’s official Facebook page that soldiers would be coming home early.

“I hope you all left the light on for us,” the Oct. 1 Facebook announcement read, “as the Ironhorse Brigade will be coming home sooner than expected.”

But 1st Brigade didn’t make it home for Christmas.

A new posting emerged on the brigade’s Facebook page Nov. 9, notifying troops and families that the brigade would instead go to Kuwait, filling out the second half of its tour doing security cooperation, joint training and exercises.

This abrupt change led some soldiers and families to cry foul against the White House and brigade command for misleading the unit’s community and causing family members to think their soldiers would be home early. Some also expressed anger over the brigade leadership’s choice to use an informal system like Facebook to disseminate such an important message.

“I was very hurt and let down that they would say it was for sure happening and I got my son’s hopes up by telling him daddy would be home early,” Thane said in an email. “And I had to be the one to tell him he wasn’t coming home early — that someone told mommy and daddy wrong. I myself was prepared for the 12-month deployment but I was not prepared to be put on an emotional roller coaster ride.”

Thane said she understands that “nothing in the Army is set in stone,” but wishes the brigade would have held back on posting anything on Facebook until the facts were clear.

“I don’t feel it should have been posted until they had orders in hand,” Thane said.

“This news is a disappointment and this situation could have easily been avoided by not jumping the gun and telling people something that was not certain,” one commenter wrote on the brigade’s Facebook page.

It has also been painful to see news articles in the past week touting the fact that all U.S. troops are home from Iraq, Thane said.

Brigade soldiers are not upset about their new mission in Kuwait per se, according to one disgruntled brigade officer who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak on the matter.

“This is not Afghanistan,” the officer said. “Most of us have friends there right now who are all having some seriously dark times.”

It’s about the effect on families back home, the officer said, and when families are suffering during a deployment, the soldier suffers.

“We tune into AFN and every other commercial is Michelle Obama and Jill Biden talking about supporting military families and how difficult it is to be a military family,” the officer said.

The decision to keep the brigade in Kuwait was made as the Iraq drawdown was planned, Pentagon spokesman George Little said in an email this week to Stars and Stripes.

“We appreciate the outstanding service of the servicemembers in this unit, and for the sacrifice they and their families make to help protect U.S. interests around the world,” Little said.

As Camp Echo closed down in Iraq earlier this month and some brigade troops there prepared to roll out, brigade commanding officer Col. Scott Efflandt said that while every soldier and family member would like to be home for the holidays, it’s not possible, and the brigade was planning for a yearlong deployment all along.

Efflandt said this isn’t a matter of broken promises.

“Would I like to be home? Yes,” he said. But, he added, “nobody who’s been around this service would interpret the president’s statement as categorical. It’s our turn to stand the watch.”

As a career soldier with multiple deployments, Staff Sgt. Carl Haas, of the brigade’s 2nd battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, said he was always prepared to be gone from his family for 12 months, so the change in plans was something for which he was prepared.

Still, he said the entire family was disappointed because of the time Haas will miss with his wife Shelly and twin 2-year-old daughters.

Brigade representatives wouldn’t specify how many of the unit’s troops were now in Kuwait, but brigade spokeswoman 1st Lt. Kelly McManus said rear-deployed soldiers from the unit’s home at Fort Hood, Texas, had been brought over.

The officer who requested anonymity said that about 4,000 brigade troops are now in Kuwait.

There wasn’t a lot of room for the incoming troops, so Ironhorse soldiers are mostly living in 50-man tents at Camp Buehring, and are expected to do so for the rest of the tour, McManus said.

Even when all the news of an early arrival home was swirling, Sgt. Enoc Rodriguez of the 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment told his family that “anything can happen,” and to continue to be ready for the full 12-month deployment.

Kuwait has its upsides, Rodriguez said in an email.

“One thing is for sure, I don’t have to worry about waking up to an alarm for incoming fires,” he said. “Yes, there are bunkers here as well, but in my point of view, they are there for shade and not for the incoming fires, for now. I make the best of wherever I am.”

The disgruntled officer said that some acknowledgement of the situation by commanders or even the White House would be appreciated, because the situation was avoidable.

“This was a really cold-hearted thing that was done to our kids and our spouses,” the officer who requested anonymity said, “and likely no one will ever have to answer for it because it falls under the cloak of, ‘well, that’s the Army.’ ”


Twitter: @Stripes_GeoffZ

Soldiers with the 1st Cavalry Division's 1st Brigade load some of the last cargo containers at Camp Echo, one of the last U.S. bases to close in Iraq this month. The brigade's community was initially told the soldiers would be coming home early. But a change of plans means most of them will spend the final six months of their tour in Kuwait, which has angered some soldiers and family members.