Iraqi war takes its toll: GW community members await the return of loved ones

Since 135,000 troops currently serve in Iraq, it’s no surprise that a few have ties to the GW community. But with some troops serving there for more than a year, their loved ones are feeling the toll.

“I worry all the time,” said sophomore Sarah Magallanes, whose brother, Gary, is part of an Army airborne division serving in Iraq. “I would like to see him come home, but I also realize that he is doing a very noble thing.”

Waiting for their return

Recently, many troops have been in a rotation period – fresh troops are being sent to Iraq and some troops are coming home. Soldiers who will be there for the first time this summer are being told they will serve for approximately one year.

“This is a 14-month rotation, so many of these troops that are coming home now have been there since March of last year,” said Lt. Commander Dan Hetlage, a Navy spokesman at the Pentagon.

The wait for the return of loved ones has been particularly trying since the return date of some troops has been pushed back. Military police officer Rich Murphy, a GW law student and former Hatchet editor in chief, has been in Iraq since May 2003 and was recently informed that his stay will be extended by 120 days.

“He wants to come home, he really wants to come home,” a person close to Murphy said on the condition of anonymity. “The government has not taken into consideration the safety of our soldiers.”

But Pentagon officials said family and friends should not be surprised about the extensions or the dangerous conditions.

“Obviously mom isn’t going to be happy until her son is home,” Hetlage said. “The safety of our troops is a paramount concern, but safety is never priority number one. We must complete our mission, and in doing that we understand that what we do is inherently dangerous.”

The best troops will be expected to serve longer in Iraq because they are helping the United States complete its mission, Hetlage added.

“The reason (Murphy’s) stay was extended was because he is one of our top troops,” Hetlage said. “An MP that can keep you and your buddies safe is a skill set that is in very high demand right now. He is still there because he is doing a really important job and is irreplaceable at this time.”

Murphy is part of the Army’s 320th Military Police Battallion, which is stationed in Baghdad.

One way soldiers have been able to talk with their families and friends is through e-mail. Magallanes, whose brother Gary graduated from Columbia University and joined the Army after the September 11 attacks, said she communicates with her brother about four times each month online.

“When I talk to him I just let him know what’s going on back at home.”

Going back a second time

While some students have expressed a desire to return to the United States, others, such as junior Todd Bowers, have volunteered for a second tour of duty in the country.

Bowers, a Marine reservist who finished his first tour in Iraq in August 2003, said he expects to head back to Iraq for a one-year stay there within the next month.

When he is not in combat situations, Bowers said he does civil affairs work.

“We helped with the reconstruction of the city – the sewage system, the infrastructure and the buildings,” he said of his duties during his first tour. “Other than that we basically worked with the Iraqi civilians, letting them know what was going on, what we were doing and helping to get them anything they need, like propane.”

Bowers said he is disappointed with how the situation in Iraq has changed since he returned home.

“We worked to rebuild schools and infrastructure. When I left, I left with hugs and thank you’s,” he said. “Now since I’ve been back, the country has gone to shit, and I ask myself, ‘Why did I risk nine months there and now have this happen?’ I have to go back now.”

He said part of the difficulty of serving in Iraq is that attitudes toward Americans are constantly changing.

“Moods can change instantly,” Bowers said. “One day you are dealing with gracious Iraqis who are thankful for your work, the next day those same civilians are screaming, throwing rocks at you and trying to kill you.”

A stop-start education

Serving in Iraq has also taken its toll on students’ academic careers. Murphy, who entered the Law School in 2001 after completing his undergraduate studies at GW, has missed several semesters due to his enlistment in the Army reserves and subsequent deployment in Iraq.

Bowers, who missed an entire academic year of school during his first stint in Iraq, is deferring his education once again as he goes back to Iraq. He came to GW in January – completing the spring semester – and he is now taking summer classes.

“I’m 24 years old, and honestly I feel like the creepy old guy here on campus,” said Bowers, who is leaning toward majoring in Middle Eastern Affairs and minoring in Arabic. “Before GW I had only been to colleges, never to a major university, but I love GW, and I can’t wait to come back after I get back from service.”

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