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.
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.
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.
To combat the problem, Busch in 2004 started HUGSS (Helping Unite Gold Star Survivors), a group that trains casualty assistance officers to follow up-and follow through-in the wake of each soldier's death. Sadly, the war has worn on so long that the HUGSS program found ample reason to expand.
Today it operates a Gold Star Family Support Center that offers children's playrooms, emergency childcare, and survivors' support groups. Center volunteers call survivors on the tough days: holidays, birthdays, the anniversary of a soldier's death. The only one of its kind, the center has become a model for the nation.
The Gold Star Center is helping Mrs. Hecker work through her grief. Major Hecker left behind four children. "When he came home, he was home," Mrs. Hecker said. "He spent a lot of time with his kids." That's the hardest part, she added: "Watching them grieve, each in their own way, and not being able to help them."
Three-year-old Will Hecker sees his friend's daddies come home, and keeps asking, "Where's my daddy?"
"'Daddy's in heaven,' I tell him. 'Daddy's with Jesus,'" Mrs. Hecker said.
Faith is "literally the foundation" by which Fort Hood soldiers and their families deal with the realities of this war, said 4th Infantry Division senior chaplain James Carter. "You've heard the saying that there are no atheists in foxholes. I don't believe there are any atheists in a war, period," said Carter, an ordained minister with the Presbyterian Church in America.
Carter said 4th ID Commanding General Jeffery Hammond tells his 20,000-plus troops that mental and physical toughness are key to success in combat: "But he makes no bones about his belief that spiritual toughness is the cornerstone of his division."
From Carter's discussions with 4th ID soldiers, he estimates that "at least 90 percent adhere to some faith system" related to the God of the Bible. "What I'm seeing is that faith becomes a handle for them to hold onto, especially for those who have lost a friend in combat."
At Fort Hood, funerals and memorial services are a fact of daily living. "You open the newspaper and see, 'Today's memorial service is . . . ,' said Carter. You pick up another newspaper and see, 'Five soldiers killed.' It's a very sobering reality that this is the cost for our freedom. This is the reality of a fight against this enemy."
During a ceremony on May 23, Fort Hood officials added 235 new plaques to the post's Iraq War memorial, one for each soldier who died in 2006. The memorial features two statues, one of an American soldier grieving before the traditional rifle-boots-and-helmet homage to a fallen comrade, the second of a young Iraqi girl trying to console him. The entire monument, created by an Iraqi sculptor, was cast in bronze reclaimed from a toppled statue of Saddam Hussein that once stood in Iraq.
Such small moral victories, along with incremental in-theater progress, keep some soldiers motivated even in the face of yet another deployment. Back at the Bradley range, First Sergeant Brian Bandy, a 21-year Army veteran, oversees most of the training. Behind his Terminator shades, he looks like the kind of hardboiled senior enlisted man who might make a junior officer think twice before addressing him directly.
Bandy's unit, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment, will return to Iraq for a third time in December. Asked about the trials of overseas deployments, Bandy laughs out loud, having lost count of how many times he's had to say goodbye to his wife, Anita, and their kids, Lakeshia, 16, and Rashon, 15.
What about going back to a war zone? Is that any different? Any worse? "No," he says, "that's what I'm in the Army to do." In a way, going back this time could be better: "We know we're going back to the area we left. It's no mystery to us. Hopefully it's better than we left it." The ability to witness progress makes it worthwhile, he says.
In the Bradley range control tower, safety glass mutes the cyclic booming of the Bushmaster gun. Over a radio, the Bradley commanders check in from the ground to see if they can grab more ammo, and get back in line to run the exercise again. One young trainee, awaiting his turn on the range, rips open a bag of Cheetos. If the training goes as scheduled, he'll have 30 minutes to finish his chips before mounting up.
-with reporting by John Dawson, at Fort Hood