By Gerry J. Gilmore
WASHINGTON, Sept. 8, 2006 – The morale of American GIs serving in Iraq continues to be high, regardless of the danger, difficult conditions and family sacrifices they face, the Army's top enlisted leader said yesterday. In a joint interview with the Pentagon Channel and American Forces Press Service, Sergeant Major of the Army Kenneth O. Preston recalled the stoic attitude displayed by soldiers and family members of the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, at Fort Wainwright, Alaska, after learning the unit's Iraq tour was being extended.
Preston, the senior enlisted advisor to Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, said the 172nd's soldiers were nearing the end of a one-year tour in Iraq when they were tapped for a four-month extension of duty. Nearly 400 of the brigade's soldiers had already redeployed to Alaska in June and July, Preston said, but some 300 of their number were ordered to return to Iraq to help stem a spike in insurgent violence in and around Baghdad.
Yet, during a recent meeting with 400-500 family members at Fort Wainwright, Preston noted, "Not one question came up, not one issue, pertaining to the 120-day extension." Preston credited the impact of a special Army personnel team that was sent to Wainwright to assist family members in adjusting to the extension. He also praised the family members, noting they've taken down "Welcome Home" signs and are now waiting patiently for their loved ones to return home in December.
"That's a direct reflection of our soldiers' and our families' commitment across the board," Preston said. After officials had explained the need for the extension, the 172nd's family members "understood why the decision was made by the secretary of defense to keep that brigade there for a while longer," he said. The 172nd was already noteworthy for achieving a 61 percent retention rate among its soldiers, the highest of all the Army's brigade combat teams, Preston said.
He acknowledged that some 172nd soldiers and family members were likely very upset about the unit's extension. But, he added, that unit was the only experienced brigade available to take up a very important mission. "They really look at it as a badge of honor," the sergeant major said. Preston saluted soldiers performing field duty worldwide. Those soldiers wear helmets and body armor and carry weapons, he said, often while enduring irritating heat that causes perspiration to "soak through your clothing and everything else."
Army-taught self-discipline and training are two attributes GIs employ to carry out missions in trying conditions, Preston said. Good leadership also assists soldiers, he said. NCO-supplied motivation and caring keeps soldiers focused, regardless of the challenges, he added.
Some 258,000 U.S. soldiers are deployed overseas in 128 different countries, Preston said, noting thousands of others are now training up to deploy over the coming year.
"For them, and all their families out there, we're all very, very proud of their contributions and their sacrifices," he said.