A snapshot of the war in Iraq shows service members and their families at home share a common list of hopes and concerns as the war reaches its fifth anniversary today.
With no political milestone in the works on this anniversary, this snapshot is drawn from the daily work of one Utah Army National Guard organization, the 116th Engineer's security forces company, which has an all-volunteer group of soldiers providing security for military convoys in northern Iraq.
The group is nearing the end of a one-year deployment. None of its members has been killed, but five have received Purple Heart awards since January.
Most of the injuries behind those medals included concussions. All of the concussions were the result of the blast of an improvised explosive device, which 2nd Lt. Brent Taylor agrees is the deadliest threat soldiers face.
"The insurgents learned early on that they could not match the U.S. forces in terms of tactics or firepower, so they turned to the IEDs, which they can use without having to expose themselves to a direct engagement."
Taylor is the 116th's executive officer. At home his wife, Jennie, is the 116th's Family Readiness Group leader. She keeps track of the wives, girlfriends and sometimes the parents of the deployed soldiers, coordinating monthly activities for the families and getting the word out about military-sponsored events for the families.
Jennie Taylor has already seen first-hand some of the effects of her husband's job in a war zone. "My husband came home on leave for a week and he was going around hitting every pothole imaginable in our minivan. I thought 'He's going to ruin our rims.' In their convoy, they are trained to hit potholes with their tire rather than straddle it."
The next activity on the horizon is a reunion workshop, where the military will help the families prepare for the adjustments that will be needed when their soldiers come home in late April or early May.
"When you have a homecoming of any sort, particularly in the military, you think, 'Great, Dad's back. We'll just go back to everything the way it was.' But nothing goes back. ... It's never the same."
Something unique to this war is the immediacy of contact some service members have with their families at home.
Newlywed Whitney Rinck was describing her experience as a deployed serviceman's wife when the conversation was interrupted by a call from Iraq, from her husband, Spc. Zachary Rinck, one of the company's Purple Heart recipients.
At first, she wanted to talk about everything during their frequent phone calls. "It didn't take long for me to ask him not to tell me everything. I just wanted to know if he's OK and if the guys are OK in the unit and that the mission went well." The overabundance of information made them both worry more.
He did tell her about the explosion that led to his receiving the Purple Heart. "He called me and told me about it a few days later," she said. "He was the driver and, I guess, they hit it (an IED). It exploded and he got mild traumatic brain injury, hearing damage, and he hurt his shoulder."
Cheri Shute's husband, Staff Sgt. Gordon Shute, also received a Purple Heart after an IED-related injury. The abundance of e-mail and cell phone calls puts pressure on soldiers to deliver information home quickly, in some cases.
"He called me and said 'I want to tell you what happened before you hear it from anybody else,'" she said. "The only detail I know is that people in the truck behind him were very surprised anybody survived in (his) truck. He said armor on the vehicle is what saved his life."
She and Whitney Rinck said the recognition that comes with the Purple Heart is important to the soldiers. "Gordon is one of those people who says that if you're going to be in the military, you deserve every pat on the back you get. It's a big deal for him. As a squad leader, he writes awards for his boys because he thinks everybody deserves that."
Jennie Taylor said her husband describes concussions as the bullets of today's war and are the threat soldiers worry about more than actual bullets or grenades.
"The concussions are real but you can't see them. They don't know how deep they go or what repercussions are going to be later," Cheri Shute said. "He seems to be OK."
Several in the group said this week's anniversary is not important. "I stay out of the politics," Cheri Shute said, "But I hope we don't pull out before the work is done."
"It's just another day," Brent Taylor said. "Our missions and the war here go on no matter what. And I like it that way; I like to stay busy around significant dates, so there is not a lot of time to get homesick."
At home, people in the community are generally supportive, Cheri Shute said. "Maybe that is because I only associate with people I think will be supportive, I don't know."
As miserable as war is, the families at home have learned a lot from each other, Cheri Shute said. "We're grateful for the things that the people who have been in other wars have been able to turn around and teach us."
Brent Taylor said the amount of attention deployed soldiers give to the news media varies greatly. He said he is following the presidential campaign very closely. "But most of my soldiers seem to be a little removed from it all. They are very focused on the mission that they are doing day-in and day-out."
Responding to political statements about the war, Brent Taylor said he has seen "remarkable improvement in the conditions in Iraq" during his months there.
"I recently ran a mission through Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. I was impressed with the number of people out in the streets, and with the number of businesses open and operating. The streets were cleaner than when we arrived, and the place just looks generally better. I firmly believe that we are winning in Iraq, and will win in Iraq as long as the American people support their military and this mission."
From Utah, the National Guard has deployed more than 7,800 men and women to the Middle East since 9/11 and currently has 40 Air National Guard and 1,050 Army National Guard members deployed to the Middle East.
Deployment numbers by state are not available from the Reserves or from the active-duty service branches, mainly because of variances in the way service members list the state they are from.So far, 46 people from Utah or with close Utah ties have been killed or died of injuries sustained in Iraq or Afghanistan. The casualty-tracking Web site, icasualties.org, tallies 3,990 U.S. fatalities in Iraq alone as of Monday, making it likely the fatality count will reach the 4,000 mark on or close to today's fifth anniversary of the Iraq war.
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