Isabelle Stevens waited in her car to pick up her husband from his second deployment during their five-year marriage.
High school sweethearts since she was 15, Stevens said they were three semesters into college when he wanted to join the military.
She was pregnant with their son during her husband’s first deployment in 2016.
“A lot goes with that word of being deployed that makes it different than saying ‘Oh, he’s training or across the country,’” Stevens said.
In January, she learned her husband, a paratrooper with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, would deploy again to Iraq.
“During the first deployment, I was pregnant so it was just me going to school full-time for undergrad and being able to focus on studies,” Stevens said. “This time around it wasn’t just focusing on myself. There was a focus on my son, who is very observant and is very attached to his dad.”
The couple tried to prepare their 3-year-old son with books to let him know that his father’s absence would be longer than training exercises.
Because of her son’s age and not comprehending time, Stevens said a jar full of candy Kisses represented each day closer to her husband returning.
One of the biggest transitions for her son, Stevens said, was for him to communicate his emotions.
“He would have nights where he would randomly say ‘I miss my daddy,’ or say ‘Mommy, I want to go in the Army, so I can go with my daddy,’” Stevens said. “So he’s learned to cope with things, just as other military kids who are resilient and dealing with a parent coming in and out.”
U.S. Invasion in Iraq
Since former President George W. Bush uttered the words “weapons of mass destruction” and officials focused on removing the leadership of Saddam Hussein, American troops have had a presence in Iraq since March 2003 through three different presidential administrations.
In a February 2010 speech at Camp Lejeune Marine Base, former President Barack Obama said the situation in Iraq had improved and that the U.S. combat mission to that country would end by Aug. 31, 2010.
Obama said he intended to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011, with the exception of transitional forces that would train Iraqi security forces.
However, with threats from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, troops redeployed in 2014.
The 18th Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg was among those who redeployed to the area, according to a July 2016 Fayetteville Observer article.
Ahead of the deployment, then-Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, former commander of the 18th Airborne Corps, and then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter told troops the mission would be to defeat the Islamic State and prevent its spread to other nations, while also helping Iraq and Syrian partners protect their country.
“The sooner we defeat ISIL in Iraq and Syria — the sooner we destroy both the fact and the idea of an Islamic State based on ISIL’s barbaric ideology — the safer America will be,” Carter previously told the Fort Bragg soldiers.
He said isolating Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria would “set the stage” for the collapse of the Islamic State’s control.
Townsend said troops would continue to pursue the Islamic State until it was defeated.
“ISIL is cunning and ruthless and intent on destroying our way of life and bending us to their twisted vision,” he previously said. “But the soldiers and leaders of this corps have broad shoulders and clear eyes … We know what we’re getting into.”
After President Donald Trump’s election, then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis announced in January 2017 that troops would put more pressure on the Islamic State.
In March 2019, after a second 18th Airborne Corps deployment to Iraq under the mission outlined by Carter in 2016, officials announced the end of the Islamic State of Syria’s physical caliphate after pressure was put on ISIS for 197 days.
And on Sept. 9, military leaders announced plans to reduce troop sizes in Iraq from 5,000 to 3,000.
“This reduced footprint allows us to continue advising and assisting our Iraqi partners in rooting out the final remnants of ISIS in Iraq and ensuring its enduring defeat,” Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, said in a speech to the troops released by the command. “This decision is due to our confidence in the Iraqi Security Forces’ increased ability to operate independently.”
Drawing down troops
Jeremy Butler is the chief executive officer of the nonpartisan Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Though not personally on the ground in Iraq, Butler was deployed to the Persian Gulf with the Navy between 2003 and 2006 in support of troop build-up for the invasion of Iraq.
“I think now most agree there needs to be an end to the U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan in terms of combat footing …,” Butler said. “At the same time, those who have fought there and lost friends and family members there want to make sure to go through the drawdown for the right reasons and the appropriate timetable.”
Drawing troops down to less than 3,000 limits capabilities to collect intelligence or regulates where American troops are training partner forces, Butler said.
That is why Butler said it is important to have conversations about intentions and strategic goals.
Butler said he hopes the administration is taking input from all sources — from the combatant commander to the ambassador and other individuals who can evaluate “through a broader lense.”
“There should be conversations with folks on the ground, but there also needs to be conversations with those who don’t necessarily have actual skin in the game or an emotional connection to make sure all aspects and opinions are going into making the right decision,” Butler said.
For Stevens, the announcement meant her husband would return home about five months earlier from what they had planned would be about a nine-month deployment.
Stevens, who is working toward her law degree to join the Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps, said she does not think she’s qualified to weigh in on whether it is time or not for troops to leave Iraq.
“As a military family, I understand my husband’s commitment to our country, and the Army will take precedence,” she said. “We support our servicemember and the Army mission.”
At the same time, she said it’s a relief to have her husband home.
“We decided to make it a surprise for my son when he got home,” Stevens said. “When he saw his dad, he bolted for him and jumped in his arms and asked ‘Are you really here?’ He didn’t want to leave his side. … Even with training, there’s always a risk, and we don’t know what the next mission will be, but the sacrifice is worth it, because we support our military and we support the Army mission.”
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