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By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer
As members of the 101st Airborne trickle back from Iraq, cracks are showing in the once unwavering confidence.
FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. - There are no hordes of black flies to swat, the night air is fine, the Budweiser is cold and, more important, it's right there in his refrigerator. He and his wife are outside with the crickets, smoking Marlboros. His 7-year-old son is getting ready for bed. It is good to be home.
But Sgt. 1st Class John Bogle, who returned from Iraq six weeks ago to retire, finds little comfort with the state of affairs there, and after 22 years of service he's not shy about questioning the Army's dangerous and evolving role.
"At the beginning, it was very clear: Get that maniac out of power, get him and his regime gone, and everything else would take care of itself," Bogle said. "We reached that goal, and continued past that goal, and we've lost track of what we're doing.
"You can't leave, but you can't win. ... All they're doing now is getting people killed."
Among many soldiers' wives and for some soldiers who recently have returned to Fort Campbell, home of the 101st Airborne Division, the escalation of attacks on American troops in Iraq is gnawing at support for the U.S. mission there.
Their anxiety only deepened with Sunday's attack on a U.S. Chinook helicopter. Fifteen American soldiers - none from the 101st - died.
Many at Fort Campbell say their feelings are compounded by the lack of significant evidence that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons and by the escape so far of dictator Saddam Hussein.
To be sure, support for the troops couldn't be stronger here. No one questions their commitment or their duty, and it's rare to find someone who didn't initially support the war. Yellow ribbons and banners of "Thanks for Protecting Us" and "Way to Go 101" and "I love my soldier" are everywhere.
"I support what the government is doing," said Kelly Meyer, whose husband, Scott, is a captain. Since they graduated from Brandon High School, he has fought in Desert Storm, Bosnia and Kosovo. "If we don't take care of the problems now, they're going to be problems for our children."
First Sgt. Brent Holman returned from Iraq in September: "I know for a fact that all the soldiers who have gotten hurt, they'll be the first to say, "Let's don't pull out. I don't want what happened to me to be for nothing."'
But now the autumn leaves are skittering across the empty training grounds, and on Thursday a cold rain set in. Long gone is the hopefulness of last spring, when fear for the soldiers was tempered by their quick success on the battlefield and light casualties, and it seemed they might return by Independence Day.
Frustration runs especially high in the treeless blocks of low-rent apartments where many younger soldiers live, stashed off base behind the busy strip of military surplus stores and payday loan shops. The young women raising their children there say they now find little return on their husbands' investment.
At times, some sound like congressional leaders quizzing the Bush administration: What's the plan for handing control to the Iraqis? Will the United States be rotating troops into Iraq forever? Where's the international support? Where's Hussein?
"What are we really trying accomplish?" asked Kalah Gilbreath, 29, whose husband is a staff sergeant in an artillery company. He served in Desert Storm, Bosnia and Kosovo, and she won't complain, but as the unrest continues, she worries. "You have soldiers dying, and you wonder why."
U.S. soldiers are attacked almost daily, and October was the bloodiest month for the Americans since President Bush declared major combat over May 1. Overall, 379 soldiers, including 32 from Fort Campbell, have been killed, and thousands more have been wounded.
The Pentagon announced this week that thousands more National Guard and Army reserve troops will report for duty in Iraq.
The 101st Airborne has about 19,000 soldiers there now, and 500 to 700 return for various reasons each month. Most are near Mosul, northwest of Baghdad, which was relatively peaceful until attacks began increasing in September, soldiers say. Wednesday, guerrillas launched three grenade attacks there, wounding several Americans.
Michelle Isom, 23, whose husband is in the Airborne's 187th Infantry, says she appreciates how U.S. soldiers are helping the Iraqis, such as by providing medical care and opening schools. But she questions whether it's still worth it, and says many of her friends feel the same way. "We haven't found weapons of mass destruction, and we didn't have the backing of the United Nations, and now we're the ones there occupying a country that doesn't want us," said Isom, who manages a fast-food restaurant.
"We're going to support our guys, because they're our guys, but we're not sure what they're fighting for anymore."
In Iraq, Sgt. 1st Class Ken Klinger is responsible for the 32 men in his platoon in C Company, 2nd Battalion of the 327th Infantry, called "No Slack." At Campbell, his wife, Rhonda, is responsible for their families and dozens more.
Each major military unit - brigade, battalion and company - has a family readiness group, a network of soldiers' spouses or parents. As the C Company leader, Mrs. Klinger quashes rumors and provides a sympathetic ear for wives who fear for their husbands, or are frustrated with being single moms. Most soldiers now have occasional access to e-mail and telephones, which helps. Her husband tells her his work is important. But the Army's goal isn't so clear anymore, and that makes it harder for families back home, Mrs. Klinger said.
Nine babies have been born in C Company since the men left. Several marriages are cracking. "The further we go into this, it's wearing me out, too, and then all the attacks. ..." Mrs. Klinger said. "It's time for them to come home."
What's hardest "is watching my daughter cry herself to sleep because her daddy's not there," she said, dabbing at her eyes. "She's 6. She asks me all the time how many bad guys do daddy and his friends have to kill before he comes home. I just pull a number from the air."
The Airborne left Fort Campbell eight months ago with the expectation it would return within six months. By May it was clear that wouldn't happen.
Kris Johnson, wife of Lt. Col. Jim Johnson, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry, who heads the battalion's family readiness group, said it was actually a relief when the Airborne said the soldiers would return in February or March.
"You could go ahead and plan," she said. "The unknown is the worst thing to deal with."
As rear detachment commander for the 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry, Lt. Cory Steele, 25, of The Woodlands, Texas, helps the families and delivers the news when someone is wounded. Nervous wives call whenever they hear of an attack.
He served in Iraq until April, when an explosion while he was on patrol in Hillah nearly severed his right foot. He believes the surge in attacks proves it's not feasible for U.S. troops to leave any time soon.
But Steele, who is recovering after multiple surgeries, acknowledged that for many families, "sometimes the political issue is lost because it's so personal."
Just outside the main gate to Fort Campbell is a store called U.S. Cavalry. Soldiers can get anything they need there, from uniforms and rucksacks to insignia and knives. It is always busiest just before another round of replacement troops leaves for Iraq.
In recent days, two of the 101st Airborne's newest members stopped for a few last items. They arrived at Campbell after finishing training just last month, and know only that they'll be joining an air defense battery.
Pvt. Russell Hubert, 19, of Byron Center, Mich., is a mechanic. His buddy, Peter Hutchins, 20, of Sanford, Maine, is a gunner.
They don't watch the news. The news lies, they say, and overplays the violence. They do not question the mission in Iraq. They leave in about a week.
"I'm pumped up," Hubert said.
"It's why I joined to begin with," Hutchins said. "We're going over there to get everyone motivated, to get them hopped up."
"I'm single," Hubert said, "I got nothing to lose. The guys who are there, they been there too long."