Cover Story

Over there & over there

"Over there & over there" Continued...

Issue: "Goodbye again," June 9, 2007

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

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