Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Gates extends Army tours in Iraq, Afghanistan

Anchorage Daily News staff and wire reports
Published: April 11, 2007

WASHINGTON - Beginning immediately, all active-duty Army soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan will serve 15-month tours - three months longer than the usual standard, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday.

For the roughly 3,500 paratroopers with Fort Richardson’s 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Division, that will mean their stay in Iraq will last at least until late December. The troops had been scheduled to return in late September or October, said Capt. Richard Hyde, a spokesman for the Army in Alaska.

"My fiance who is currently there will be spending Christmas number two over there," an emotional Claire Lettow said from Muldoon shortly after hearing the news on cable TV. "I'm obviously still shaken up about this. The rest of America heard before the families of the soldiers heard."

No official new return date was immediately available, Hyde said.

The extension announced by Gates shortly after 11 a.m. Alaska time was the latest move by the Pentagon to cope with the strains of fighting two wars simultaneously and maintaining a higher troop level in Iraq as part of President Bush’s revised strategy for stabilizing Baghdad.

“This policy is a difficult but necessary interim step,” Gates told a Pentagon news conference, adding that the goal is to eventually return to 12 months as the standard length of tour in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He said the new policy does not affect the other main components of the U.S. ground force in Iraq: the Marines, whose standard tour is seven months, or the Army National Guard or Army Reserve, which will continue to serve 12-month tours.

Alaska has members of its National Guards serving in Afghanistan.

Gates acknowledged that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are making life difficult for many in the military.

“Our forces are stretched - there’s no question about that,” Gates said.

He said the new policy also seeks to ensure that all active-duty Army units get at least 12 months at home between deployments. He said it would allow the Pentagon to maintain the current level of troops in Iraq for another year, although he added that there has been no decision on future troop levels.

Soldiers will get an extra $1,000 a month for the three extra months they serve, he said.

Without changing the standard tour length to 15 months, the Army would have been forced to send five brigades to Iraq before they completed 12 months at home, Gates said.

Some units’ tours in Iraq had already been extended beyond 12 months by varying amounts. The new policy will make deployments more equitable and more predictable for soldiers and for their families, Gates said.

“I think it is fair to all soldiers that all share the burden equally,” he said.

There are currently 145,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and when the buildup is completed by June, there will be more than 160,000, officials are calculating.

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