Combat Commute

When they're not in the fight, many troops in Iraq live on comfortable bases, but there are some surprising drawbacks.

Internet cafés, cappuccino bars, 24-hour fitness centers, shopping, fast-food outlets-these are some of the amenities many troops fighting in Iraq have to look forward to when they return to their bases at the end of the day. The bases provide a welcome break from the brutality of urban warfare and afford soldiers a chance to rest and recoup their energy without ever leaving the battlefield.

As good as that may seem, a March study by the Strategic Studies Institute at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., found that the constant contact with families is changing battlefield dynamics, especially for junior enlisted soldiers, who are most likely to communicate multiple times a day with loved ones back home. No longer are families a sustaining memory-but a concrete reality in day-to-day life.

In "CU @ the FOB: How the Forward Operating Base Is Changing the Life of Combat Soldiers," researchers Leonard Wong and Stephen Gerras found that "FOBs give soldiers the rare opportunity to be engaged in brutal combat one minute and yet return seconds later to a place where the threat of harm is exponentially diminished."

Most wars have had base camps from which troops operate, according to Wong and Gerras, but the forward operating bases in Iraq are unique for three reasons:

  • The disparity between life inside and outside the wire is much more pronounced than in wars past.
  • Combat soldiers don't just visit the bases for breaks, but actually live on them.
  • Phone and Internet connections on the bases allow troops to be in daily contact with their families.

The researchers noted that "the quantity of actual contacts [with loved ones back home] that soldiers make from the FOB is staggering," with soldiers most often using instant messaging to communicate, often several times a day. They also found that soldiers routinely withheld information about the stresses of combat from loved ones, while families routinely shared the stresses of life at home without the soldier-all of which placed enormous pressure on already stressed soldiers.

"Soldiers have a finite amount of energy and time, yet both the family and the military are what military sociologist Mady Wechsler Segal calls 'greedy institutions.' Greedy institutions depend for their survival on the commitment of their members and, as a result, demand considerable amounts of their members' loyalty, time and energy," Wong and Gerras wrote.

One soldier reported that when he talks to his mother, she "yells at [him] for not doing the right thing or for not being there" and the soldier is distracted for a day or two afterward.

"Ironically, while FOBs have removed many traditional distracters and sources of stress for deployed soldiers, allowing the greedy institution of the family access through improved technology may be putting demands on soldiers at levels not experienced in previous conflicts," the researchers found.

While cutting off or reducing contact with families is unrealistic, commanders need to be aware of the pressure such contact is creating for troops.

And the phenomenon isn't confined to troops serving in Iraq. The same issues arise for some of the pilots operating Predator unmanned aerial vehicles in Iraq from 7,000 miles away at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. "Despite the benefits of being home to fight the war . . . many Predator pilots are reporting diminished morale and more problems in their personal lives," Wong and Gerras found. One pilot told them his job was easier when he was deployed to Iraq because he was isolated from family demands.

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