Cover Story

Over there & over there

With a seemingly endless cycle of deployments, Fort Hood, Texas, endures more Iraq War deaths than any other American installation. The toll is wearying and produces a different kind of casualty at home: "All I do is go to Iraq, come back from Iraq, and get ready to go to Iraq again."

Issue: "Goodbye again," June 9, 2007

In a tree-starved patch of Texas Hill Country, a Bradley Fighting Vehicle surges three meters across chalky soil and fires its Bushmaster chain gun. A resonant boom splits the air, and elsewhere on the training range, even veteran soldiers glance instinctively over their shoulders at the dark plume of smoke arcing across the summer sky.

The sound of the Bradley's 25mm gun is unique, soldiers will tell you. Not the low blast of a tank or artillery round. Not the popcorn of rifles. The Bradley's gun commands attention with a round, baritone thunder that pulses into your gut at 100 yards away.

On the range, there's no forgetting where you are, even if you close your eyes and lay back atop an idling Bradley as one soldier has done. Earplugs help block the noise of the guns, but not the concussion. Your Kevlar body armor and bulky helmet weigh you down and make you sweat. The air itself is a bellicose cocktail of cordite, diesel, and chalk. You can taste it when you breathe.

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Soldiers can squeeze shut their eyes and shut off their ears, but the sensations of battle creep in through the cracks. Even at home, they are at war.

For four years, Fort Hood has operated as a virtual revolving door for Iraq, with its major units, the Army's 4th Infantry and 1st Cavalry divisions, in and out of the shooting war in relentless rotation. Sprawling across 340 square miles in central Texas, the post is the nation's largest military installation. In 2006, it earned another distinction: More Fort Hood warriors have died in Iraq than from any other U.S. installation.

Between January and November 2006, Fort Hood units lost 235 men and women-nearly two-thirds of the post's fatality total for the entire war. Just since WORLD began preparing this story three weeks ago, 16 new names have appeared on the Pentagon's tally of the dead, raising Fort Hood's Iraq toll to 370 as of May 23.

Together, the spiraling fatalities and seemingly endless cycle of deployments are producing at Fort Hood casualties of a different kind: Grief without healing time. Exhaustion without respite. And a penetrating war-weariness that is causing even some formerly gung-ho warriors to flag in spirit.

Sergeant Wesley Carter, for one, has seen enough fighting. The 7th Squadron/10th Cavalry soldier joined the Army in July 2003 straight out of high school and almost immediately shipped out for Iraq. He went there again in 2006 and will make a third tour this December.

"All I do is go to Iraq, come back from Iraq, and get ready to go to Iraq again," he said. "When I'm home, it's hard to enjoy doing the stuff I usually enjoy. I don't even look for a woman to date anymore. I know I'm just going back, so what's the point?" The mood is similar among many of Carter's peers, he says: "They don't want to go back to Iraq."

The 7/10 suffered mightily in 2006, once losing eight men over a three-day span last October. Carter said the worst day for him was Oct. 4, when four of his friends died in a firefight near Taji, about 20 miles north of Baghdad. Although he's only 22, Carter's voice is heavy with experience. He used to be an optimistic person, he says. "Now, I'm not. I drink more now, that kind of deal."

Asked to describe the scariest incident that he faced during two combat tours, he hesitates.

"I don't know," he says finally. "I can't really talk about it."

Does he mean that it's better if he doesn't talk about it?

"No, it's not that. There were so many I can't really pick out one. I came close to death several times."

Capt. Carson Green also feels he cheated death repeatedly during Iraq tours in 2003-04, and 2006, calling it "a matter of luck" that he wasn't killed. Now home at Fort Hood, he wonders how much longer his "luck" will hold.

"I think about it all the time," said Green, 26, of Cumby, Texas. "It's hard not to when you're seeing 1st Cavalry funeral processions going down the street." 1st Cav is the Fort Hood unit that's in Iraq now.

Indeed, Green holds his current job because another man died. On April 18, 2006, a bright, young West Point grad named Ian Weikel was killed by an IED. A rugby-playing, upbeat Christian who was revered by his men, Weikel wore a perpetual smile that sometimes made him seem a pushover-until a soldier made the mistake of having to find out otherwise.

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