POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jul 7, 2011
About 800 Schofield Barracks soldiers have had their yearlong deployment extended in Iraq, and will be part of the last command element overseeing the exodus of up to 46,000 remaining U.S. personnel ahead of a Dec. 31 deadline for American forces to leave the country, officials said.
For families of the deployed soldiers, it's not the news they wanted to hear.
The last of the 25th Infantry Division headquarters soldiers were supposed to return home in early December. But the deployment has been extended 31 days by the Army, meaning another missed holiday season for many with a new final pullout date of Jan. 2, 2012.
"It's very frustrating for me because you hold out that hope (of), OK, we have to make it through the year, but they are going to be home for Christmas. That's what you hold out for," said Dayshawn Pierre, a mother of three in Hawaii whose husband is a private first class in Iraq.
Many of the soldiers and their families found out about the extension last week. Both Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Martin Dempsey and Maj. Gen. Bernard Champoux, the deployed commander of the 25th Infantry Division, wrote letters expressing their gratitude to the soldiers for the additional sacrifice.
Champoux is commander of U.S. Division-Center in Baghdad, but he will control all remaining U.S. forces as the drawdown from Iraq occurs, officials said.
"This extension allows us to properly complete the vital task of providing mission command to U.S. forces in Iraq at a critical time," Champoux said in a letter posted on the 25th Division website. "I fully appreciate the impact of this extension and know what it means to you and your families, particularly during the holiday season."
He also said, "This is the right thing to do."
"Our country and many of you have made a huge investment in the success of our mission in Iraq," he added. "Separations, personal sacrifices, and many gave their last full measure of devotion. I believe we now own all of that, and have a responsibility to complete this mission correctly."
About 46,000 U.S. service members remain in Iraq, according to the Pentagon.
The U.S. agreed in 2008 to remove its troops by the end of 2011. Publicly, the Pentagon continues to pursue that goal, but the reported that the White House is offering to keep up to 10,000 troops in Iraq next year. The U.S. State Department is expected to have a large presence in Iraq as well.
"The process for troops to remain in the country after (the Dec. 31 deadline) begins with an official request from the Iraqi government, and no such request has been made," Pentagon spokesman Marine Col. Dave Lapan said Wednesday in a Defense Department news story. "Until the government of Iraq makes a request, there is no number."
Champoux and the 25th Division headquarters are based out of Victory Base Complex in Baghdad. Champoux's U.S. Division-Center is responsible for the cities of Baghdad, Fallujah and Ramadi.
U.S. forces in the country advise, train, assist and equip Iraqi security forces as part of Operation New Dawn. They are now also closing down U.S. bases.
The Jan. 2 pullout for the Schofield soldiers "is past the (Dec. 31 deadline), but it takes about two days to pack up and get everyone on aircraft," said Col. Michael Donnelly, a spokesman for U.S. Army Pacific at Fort Shafter.
Kristen Martin, whose husband, Sgt. Chase Martin, is a Schofield soldier in Baghdad, said she was expecting him home at the beginning of December.
"You get prepared for a year, maybe a little less, and it's hard when they tack on a month, but it's their job, and what happens happens, and you've just got to go with it," she said. "I don't like it. I wish he would come home (earlier)."
Morale in Iraq took a hit with news of the extension, she said.
"I have a lot of his soldiers and friends that are there on my Facebook page, and a lot of them are pretty bummed," she said.
The two other "division" commands in Iraq, U.S. Division-North and U.S. Division-South, are closing up shop in Iraq, meanwhile.
The Austin (Texas) American-Statesman said 700 soldiers with the National Guard's 36th Infantry Division, which has control of the south, arrived in Basra in January and are expected to return home in September. The soldiers are closing bases and preparing for the American exit through Kuwait.
At Contingency Operating Base Speicher, where the 4th Infantry Division has control of the north, the last on-base Burger King will close next month and shops run by Iraqis are being shuttered, the Colorado Springs Gazette reported.
Julia Townsend, Sgt. Chase Martin's mom, said she knew her son's deployment could be extended, but it also could be shortened.
"So I understand that," she said. "But when we're getting so close to the end and there are other soldiers that we hear are coming home and we find out ours have to stay longer, it's definitely really heartbreaking."
She added that she posted on the 25th Division Facebook page that she understands there's still a mission in Iraq, "but I think it's time to turn it over to the Iraqis and bring our men and women home. We've been there long enough."