Cover Story

Over there & over there

"Over there & over there" Continued...

Issue: "Goodbye again," June 9, 2007

Near midnight on the day Weikel died, the 7th Squadron commander summoned Green to his office. "He looked at me teary-eyed and said, 'I need you to step up and take charge of Ian's troop,'" Green remembers. "It was all kind of surreal, an unbelievable moment, to see this 42-year-old senior officer crying. He loved Ian. Ian was his right-hand man."

Later, Green sat down at Weikel's desk to see if he could pick up the thread of the fallen man's mission. "All his stuff was there, the way he'd left it. They had taken the notebook he carried in his pocket out of the vehicle. It was lying on the desk, covered in his blood."

Moments like that explain the contrasting attitudes of some division-level senior officers and some Fort Hood soldiers now prepping for their third stint in Iraq. "They're all fired up and ready to go back, and they wonder why you're not so fired up," Green said. "They're not the ones who were seeing it every day. They're not the ones having to pick up their soldiers' body parts off the side of the road."

Weikel's death hit the 7/10 hard, said his wife, Wendy Weikel, a former Army captain. The couple met at West Point during their junior year, married, and deployed to Iraq together in 2003. Mrs. Weikel left the service when she became pregnant. Her husband left for his second combat tour when their son, Jonathan, was 3 months old.

When her husband was killed early in the deployment, it not only devastated his family, it shocked his unit into a new reality, Mrs. Weikel said. "Ian was a senior captain in the unit. He knew what he was doing, tactically and technically. When he was killed, people were like, wow, it could be anybody."

A similar sense-call it "diminished invincibility"-seems to Mrs. Weikel to have translated to Fort Hood at large. In 2003, she said, there was a confident, post-wide esprit de corps: America had won speedily in Afghanistan, losing just over 100 soldiers; Fort Hood forces would now go and do likewise in Iraq. As the war has dragged on, though, "people have begun to face the fact that not everyone comes home. I saw that at Memorial Day last year. A soldier came up to me and said, 'I used to think Memorial Day was for barbecues. Now I get it.'"

Richelle Hecker agrees that the unending flow of casualties, combined with the savage deployment cycle, has taken a heavy toll on Fort Hood. "This community is weary," said Hecker, whose husband, Major William Hecker, 38, and four other men were killed in January 2006 when the convoy they were riding in struck an IED in Najaf.

"Even when soldiers are home from Iraq, they're working horrific hours trying to get prepared to go back. A lot of them are grieving," she said. "Many have lost friends, and have seen people die. They are not given enough time to mentally and emotionally process those losses."

And while home is usually a place of refuge and comfort, Fort Hood spouses also are in a constant state of tension, Hecker said: They've just arrived and are dealing with household shipments, finding a new place to live, putting the kids in a new school, and getting the lights, phone, and water turned on. Or they're relocating soon and are dealing with those same issues. Or their spouse is not in a unit deploying to Iraq, but might rotate to a unit that is. Or they're working, paying the bills, and raising kids alone, all the while wondering whether this will be the day a casualty assistance officer knocks on their door.

Over the past year and a half, a Fort Hood spouse has heard that knock at least once every other day.

Today, soldiers' survivors are better cared for than they were early in the war. After a friend's husband was killed during the first few days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Debbie Busch, a command sergeant major's wife, offered the widow help and support. Months later, her friend asked her, "Why are you the only one who still cares and calls me?"

Busch investigated and found that throughout the recent decades of peacetime, the Army's casualty assistance programs had grown loose and flabby. Widows-and some widowers-were receiving some military benefits, but the Army's casualty assistance officers often dropped the ball, failing to follow up in the critical weeks and months after a soldier died.

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