In February, I received a letter from Lt. Col. Edward Loomis, the 101st Airborne Division's chief of public affairs, inviting me to the "Week of the Eagles," the unit's annual reunion.
We would like to extend an invitation to you to an embedded media reunion during the Week of the Eagles. We value those relationships you built with members of the command, and maintaining those relationships is very important to us.
When the war in Iraq began two years ago, the 101st was perhaps one of the most coveted embed slots, and the division launched its assault with a few dozen journalists in tow. Network TV news crews and national newspapers followed the unit, and a Pulitzer-Prize winning author shadowed the commanding general, Maj. Gen. (now Lt. Gen.) David Petraeus. You couldn't buy better publicity.
Now, the division is preparing to return to Iraq. While the Pentagon has yet to fix the exact date, it's expected the division will return sometime this fall ("after August" was the most precise information I got on the rotation schedule). When troops arrived in the Persian Gulf in late February and March of 2003, they expected to stay six months; now they are preparing to stay a year—perhaps longer. This time around, one press-relations officer told me, the only real interest they've had so far in having embeds redeploy with the division has been from local and regional papers, which are trying to figure out if they can afford it.
I was embedded with "Six Bat"—6-101 Aviation, a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter battalion. A lot has been written about the problems of allegiance and the limitations that come from embedding (or as one photographer I knew described it, "being taken prisoner by the Army"). I didn't stay long enough with the unit (just over a month) to join the fraternity, but I kept up with some of the soldiers, and I continued to follow their story.
The first rotation in Iraq had a happy enough ending for Six Bat: Everyone came home (and only one soldier, a Pathfinder infantryman, was seriously wounded, losing an eye in a grenade attack). There had also been a lot of turnover in the battalion. Lt. Col. Chuck Fields, the commanding officer during my stay, went on to become the division inspector general; his successor was relieved of command for a "zipper failure" (in the Army, as at Boeing, adultery can be a firing offense). Many of the young lieutenants had been promoted and moved on to new units. Some experienced aviators and senior NCOs opted for retirement. The battalion now had a new commander, Lt. Col. Michael Miller.
Reporters are supposed to cover news, not relationships. But with the division returning to Iraq, it seemed the right time to return to Fort Campbell, the sprawling military reservation on the Tennessee-Kentucky line that is home to the division.
The first person I visited was CW2 Shawn Mertens, one of the battalion's more experienced Black Hawk pilots (CW2 signifies his rank as a chief warrant officer; in the Army they're usually addressed as "Mister"). When I met him two years ago, we shared neighboring seats on the flight from Fort Campbell, Ky., to Kuwait. During the journey, he showed me pictures of his wife and children and talked about Shawn Junior, born with schizencephaly, a rare developmental disorder that brings frequent seizures.
In his living room, Mertens bobbed 6-year-old Shawn Junior on his knee. His son smiled wide, showing two missing front teeth.
"Shawny had a hard time when I left," Mertens began.
"And when you came back, he was all mad at you," interrupted Kimberly, Mertens' precocious 8-year-old daughter.
With another deployment looming, the family was going on a war footing. The Mertens have a new baby, Christian, 2 and a half months old. (Christian is part of Fort Campbell's post-deployment baby boom: Nine months after the division returned from Iraq in late January and early February 2004, Fort Campbell had 640 expectant mothers; Oprah came to town to throw a televised baby shower.) Daughter Joy, 19, who recently graduated from high school, was going to join the Air Force but is deferring for a year while her father goes back to Iraq.
Others in the battalion will not be doing a second tour. Before my trip, I tracked down Sgt. First Class Shane Hendrix, who has relocated to Fort Riley, Kan.
"I'll be mobilizing and demobilizing National Guard and Reserve units west of the Mississippi, zero chance I'll get deployed," said Hendrix, with some delight. "That makes my family happy."
Army officials say they continue to meet active-duty recruiting and retention goals (though Army National Guard and Reserve have fallen somewhat short). But clearly, some in the battalion were voting with their feet and retiring.
"Been there twice, got the T-shirts," said one officer, who served in the first Gulf War as well as in Iraq last year. "Do I want a third? No, I don't think so."
In addition to the usual turnover, the unit was hardly recognizable for another reason. The division is also in the midst of "transformation"—a massive organizational reshuffle that is supposed to make the Army more responsive to the demands of postmodern warfare. As part of the process, only eight of the battalion's original 24 Black Hawks remain (the rest have gone to other units). The battalion now has 12 CH-47 Chinook heavy lift helicopters, and a medevac company of U.S. troops is transferring from Korea as well.
It's supposed to make the Army's brigades more self-sufficient and ready to deploy, but at the ground level, the process is causing some heartburn. Mertens, an instructor pilot, said he was uneasy about the level of flying experience in the battalion.
"You're always worried about the junior guys," he said. "Last time, the average aviator was a 1,000-hour guy. The average now is, like, 500 hours."
In the kitchen, we opened another few Budweisers. Mertens showed me the policy letter from an insurer. He is taking out additional life insurance, $27 a month.
"Six months is one thing, a year is another," he said. "And now 15-18 months is what they're telling us."
His daughter Kimberly interrupted again, "You're going to be gone more than a year?"