And that remains a cause of concern for troops today. Maj. Kareem Montague, an Iraq veteran and Harvard graduate, wonders too about the war's impact on a country in which only a small slice of its citizens are serving in the military, and how it may affect the civil-military relationship. "It's not that it's unhealthy, but it's becoming more and more separate," observes Montague, now a master's student in the prestigious School of Advanced Military Studies at the Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth. "If you have fewer and fewer people who have served, you have to worry about whether you can have an intelligent conversation about how the military can best serve the country."
Ask soldiers here why they signed up, and many will say for duty, an instinctive feeling they have that you cannot be a citizen without doing this. Many others say the money is a big incentive—specifically, money for an education that they couldn't otherwise afford. "I did it for college, and because I had nowhere else to go," says one Baghdad-based soldier. Another confides that he sometimes feels like a mercenary and a "walking advertisement for one of Cheney's defense companies—like they just want us to be on TV all geared up in products." The conversation leads another soldier to privately comment later that, "The burden of this war falls disproportionately on the poor."
Faye Crawford, the mother of Sergeant Gauthreaux, wrestles with that point. She is now raising her son's 4-year-old son—he was a single father—and she says that sometimes in her darkest moments she has blamed herself for not having enough money to send her son to college. "If I could have sent him to college..." she begins, and her voice trails off as she chokes back tears. She knows, too, that her son loved what he did, and he believed that he was helping people in Iraq. "He would say, 'Mama, you should see their faces. They're so grateful.'" But Crawford wrestles with her son's sacrifice as the war fades from the front pages. "You hear that the economy is more important in the election than the war is," she says. "Sometimes I worry that people are already forgetting."
Strains. The evening that the team learned Gauthreaux had died, Del Valle contemplated getting out of the Army, imagining what his own death would do to his wife and daughter. Now home at Fort Hood since December, Del Valle, a native of Puerto Rico, has been promoted to the rank of command sergeant major. During his time in Iraq, he helped his own soldiers through some rough times and grew close to his Iraqi Army counterpart. Today, Del Valle is prepared to deploy again. "I think it would be kind of selfish for me to walk away from the Army now," he says.
The family strains on U.S. soldiers are immense, but Jones says troops are also helping another country rebuild itself and its families as well. "That matters a lot," he says. "I went over and trained a medical platoon. Those guys are really proficient now, and I'm proud about that," adds Jones, whose next assignment will be as a recruiter.
That will not be an easy job, he knows, meeting his numbers in the middle of a war. And he has wrestled with what he will tell potential recruits—how to encapsulate the experience of a soldier in the Army today. But he has settled on an answer. "The truth," he says. "All I can do is tell them the truth."