Waiting is the hardest part for troops in limbo in Iraq

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BAGHDAD — As heavy rain turned the paths of their Baghdad base to inch-thick mud yesterday, soldiers of the Stryker Brigade waited for the bad news.

For weeks now, all they have thought about is whether they will have to stay in Iraq an extra three or four months, stretching their deployment into almost 16 months of nonstop combat.

“The big worry is not knowing when we are going back home,” said Capt. Tom Rychecky. Like the rest of his unit, Capt. Rychecky has worked in Baghdad since the military surge began last month.

“However, if they feel we need to be here longer to help the situation, well, that’s what we signed up to do,” he said, ignoring the mud building up across the plywood floor of his office at Camp Stryker.

The Pentagon confirmed Monday it is reviewing a request by Army Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, to extend the tours by a maximum of 120 days for about 15,000 troops serving in Iraq. But rumors of an extension have been circulating here for weeks.

Soldiers are reluctant to speak on the record about how they feel. But beneath all their jokes, and their strength, there is a lot of talk about wives and children they have not seen in months or years, and the terrible uncertainty of not knowing when they will see their loved ones again.

“If you are going to do it, just come out and tell us,” said Sgt. 1st Class Rolston F. Williams, who is looking forward to returning to his wife, Jan, and his three daughters and one son at Fort Lewis in Washington state.

The constant talk in Washington of extending their deployments, and their daily 12- to 15-hour patrols, all for an objective that is elusive and success that is hard to see, is difficult for some to accept.

“The Army has broken their contract with the soldiers; they have broken their psychological contract,” said one soldier with 15 years’ service, and who is dedicated to the well-being of the young men under his command.

Soldiers say families are breaking up, wives are threatening to leave their husbands if they don’t return and the government is asking some men in one battalion to fight for up to 19 months without a break.

That means 19 months of wearing 60 pounds of body armor and equipment in war-wrecked streets to fight an invisible enemy, of getting shot at, of watching their buddies getting blown up, of wondering if they will be next — of being asked to pull the most and longest combat tours that any soldier in the U.S. Army has pulled since World War II.

“This is what is going to break the Army,” said the soldier.

In Washington, a Pentagon official told reporters Monday that Gen. Petraeus thinks that the troop surge ordered by President Bush in January has produced momentum and is requesting that troop levels be maintained through the summer.

One proposal involves a maximum 120-day extension for five active duty brigades, consisting of about 15,000 troops, that had been slated to come home.

As word of a potential extension filtered through the ranks in Baghdad, one young soldier pulled a small photograph out of his wallet: his baby boy, born last year. He has seen him only a few weeks of his infant life. The soldier is echoed by others, who speak of missed birthdays, missed Christmas holidays, missed anniversaries.

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