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So it is no small irony that today's U.S. Army finds itself under the greatest strain in a generation. The Pentagon made that clear April 2 when it announced that two Army units will soon return to Iraq without even a year at home, compared with the two years units have traditionally enjoyed. One is headed back after 47 days short of a year, the other 81. "This is the first time we've had a voluntary Army on an extended deployment," says Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army officer who advises his old service. "A lot of canaries are dropping dead in the mine."
The main consequences of a tightly stretched Army is that men and women are being sent into combat with less training, shorter breaks and disintegrating equipment. When those stories get out, they make it harder to retain soldiers and recruit them in the first place. "For us, it's just another series of never-ending deployments, and for many, including me, there is only one answer to that show me the door out," wrote an officer in a private e-mail to Congressman Steve Rothman of New Jersey.
Army equipment is wearing out even faster than Army troops. Gear and weapons are usually left in the war zone to be used by newly arriving troops. That grinds the equipment into scrap up to 10 times as fast as in peacetime. The lack of guns and armor back home has a boomerang effect: many of the troops training in the U.S. are not familiar with what they'll have to depend on once they arrive in Iraq.
Today half the Army's 43 combat brigades are deployed overseas, with the remainder recovering from their latest deployment or preparing for the next one. For the first time in decades, the Army's "ready brigade" a unit of the famed 82nd Airborne Division primed to parachute into a hot spot anywhere in the world within 72 hours is a luxury the U.S. Army cannot afford. All its forces are already dedicated to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Repeated combat tours have "a huge impact on families," General Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, told Congress in February. Those deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan more than once 170,000 so far have a 50% increase in acute combat stress over those who have been deployed only once. And that stress is what contributes to post-traumatic stress disorder, according to an Army study. "Their wives are saying, I know you're proud of what you're doing, but we've got to get out of here," says Barry McCaffrey, a retired four-star general.
New Defense Secretary Robert Gates concedes there are readiness problems. He told Congress March 29 that next year's proposed $625 billion defense budgetthe highest, adjusted for inflation, since World War IIwill "make a good start at addressing the readiness" issues plaguing the Army. His first concern before taking the post in December was his suspicion "that our ground forces weren't large enough," and he has urged troop hikes starting next year.