FORT STEWART, Ga. — About 700 soldiers from Georgia are among the latest U.S. troops headed to Afghanistan for a war that continues even after the Iraq conflict’s end, leaving anxious spouses and parents who wonder why their loved ones are still fighting.
A battalion from Fort Stewart, near Savannah, is deploying in the coming days, the first engagement in Afghanistan for ground forces from the Georgia-based 3rd Infantry Division that fought four times in Iraq, including in the invasion of Baghdad in 2003. Two more battalions are scheduled to follow this spring and summer.
“Do I really want him to go to war? No,” said Christy Van Nest of her husband, Sgt. Jeffrey Van Nest, one of the deploying soldiers. “...It was sudden for a lot of the families and there was that conflict where we don’t want to see our soldiers leave.”
At a departure ceremony for the troops this week, she said she’s proud of her husband and his fellow soldiers in spite of her concerns, then added: “There’s a very real possibility that some of these people won’t come home.”
Steve and Ruth Weick traveled to Fort Stewart from their home in Peabody, Mass., to see their son off. Pfc. Bruce Weick, 23, joined the Army a little more than a year ago and will be serving his first overseas tour in Afghanistan.
The soldier’s father, a Vietnam veteran, said his son had expected to be deployed not long after arriving at Fort Stewart. Other family members and friends, his father said, reacted to the news in disbelief.
“When we mention he’s going to Afghanistan, they say, ‘Why? I thought we were getting out of there,’” Steve Weick said.
At the ceremony, dozens of soldiers stood frozen at attention as their unit’s battle flag was rolled up and packed for traveling with them. Army wives watched from covered bleachers with squirming children who have never known peacetime.
“I would say a majority of the soldiers are pumped up and excited about this mission,” said Sgt. Van Nest.
The battalion first got news of the deployment late last year. It came as a surprise to some because the soldiers had been home for a year and were training with tanks and Bradley armored vehicles, equipment that’s not used much in the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan.
Battalion commander Lt. Col. Mike Jason brought the word: The Pentagon was tapping his troops to spend nine months in Afghanistan to help provide stability and security in its remote villages.
“It was a bit of a surprise,” Jason said. “I pulled the battalion together in the motor pool, where I had about 700 soldiers personally looking at me, and I told them. And then within a couple of days I told all the families at one time. And I was awed by the spirit of the soldiers.”
Jason’s troops plunged into an accelerated 90-day training cycle to prepare for a very different war. Their tanks and Bradleys were put aside as soldiers focused on moving and fighting on foot with rucksacks and rifles.
The U.S. still has about 91,000 soldier in Afghanistan, though the plan is to reduce that number to 68,000 by September. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has said U.S. forces should be able to move into noncombat roles by mid-2013 and focus on training and advising Afghan authorities through 2014, after which U.S. troops would leave.
So far, only about 2,200 soldiers from the 3rd Infantry have been tapped to deploy to Afghanistan. That’s only 10 percent of the Fort Stewart-based division’s 22,000 troops. The division commander, Maj. Gen. Robert A. Abrams, said recently that other units will be training to be ready if needed but no further deployments had been ordered.
“I don’t have any specifics on what might occur,” Abrams, who’s scheduled to deploy with his headquarters battalion this summer, told reporters Jan. 19. “I just know that our task at hand is to be ready whenever they do call.”
Other Army units recently chosen for 2012 Afghanistan rotations — the 1st and 4th Brigades of the 82nd Airborne Division from Fort Bragg, N.C., and the 27th Infantry Brigade of the New York National Guard — have previously served there.
At Fort Stewart, Sgt. Benjamin Whitehead said the deploying soldiers have mixed feelings about diving into a new war. At age 25, the soldier from Fredericksburg, Va., already has two Iraq tours under his belt. Deploying means leaving his wife, Courtney, not only with their 2-year-old son but with another child on the way. She’s five-months pregnant.
“It’s exciting,” Whitehead said. “But at the same time everybody has these questions like, ‘Why the 3rd Infantry?’”
“We weren’t really expecting a deployment, seeing the drawdown in Iraq,” he said.
In part, bringing in fresh units like the three battalions from the 3rd Infantry is allowing the Army to shorten rotations. For the first time since the war began, Afghanistan tours have been cut to nine months rather than a full a year.
Many soldiers are quick to say they don’t mind deploying because it’s the only way they get to put their training to use.
And Van Nest, a 36-year-old sergeant who’s spent half his life in the Army, said he looks forward to a “no-nonsense mission” in Afghanistan after finding the last of his two tours in Iraq “a little more laid back” as U.S. forces assumed more of an advisory role.
“I definitely don’t want to leave my family,” Van Nest said. “But to have an Afghanistan tour under my belt before I retire is a cool thing.”