When the Army extended the tours last month for about 100,000 soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, one of those affected was my friend Matt Eversmann, who is presently living in an abandoned potato factory in Yusufiyah.
He is a first sergeant, the top noncommissioned officer leading Alpha Company of the 10th Mountain Division. He has lost two of his men since being deployed last summer, and more than a dozen more have been injured. His wife, Tori, had been counting down the months of Alpha Company's tour, which was supposed to end this summer. Now it will stretch until November. It will likely be the last of Matt's military career. He is approaching his 20th year of service, and with 4-year-old daughter Molly at home, he plans to retire and start a new civilian career. So the announcement of the extension hit his family like a punch in the gut.
"It is really bad news," said Tori. "I am trying hard not to be angry. I was angry, but I'm not any more. It is so demoralizing for us. . . . We have always known that it was a possibility, but when you are marking off the months one by one, it's just really hard to take."
Tori and the families of other soldiers serving in dangerous zones around the world are a tiny fraction of the American population, but they are bearing the enormous burden of fear, grief, injury, loss and risk for all of us. The Iraq war in particular has gone on now longer than World War II, but unlike that national struggle, the rest of us have been asked to sacrifice little or nothing.
Allison Nelson, whose husband serves with Matt, is waiting out their fourth deployment to Iraq. She feels that her own life - she is hoping to go to college to get her M.B.A. - is on hold in the rural area around Fort Drum in Upstate New York. She fears the now-15-month tour will be extended again before things are over.
"I wake up every morning just hoping I get through the day without getting another bad phone call," she said. "And I worry every day that men will show up at my door" - referring to the bereavement visit paid the families of men killed in action.
"It feels to me like the rest of America is trundling along like nothing is happening," said Tori.
I first met Matt more than 10 years ago on the first trip I took for The Inquirer series and book Black Hawk Down. I flew from Philadelphia to Columbus, Ga., to interview eight Rangers at Fort Benning who were veterans of the Battle of Mogadishu. Before writing that book, I had little or no experience with the military, having never served or written about it. So I didn't know what to expect. I imagined that Rangers, an elite unit in the Army, were probably made up mostly of young, rough-and-tumble, daredevil men disinclined to reflect deeply on their experience. I expected it would be difficult to get them to open up about their memories and feelings.
Was I ever wrong. Matt was the first soldier I met, and, coincidently, ended up being the first soldier mentioned in my book. He is tall, in the neighborhood of six-five, and gangly, and thin, with a head of rapidly vanishing dark straight hair. He was mesmerizing. I might have asked five or 10 questions in the two hours we spoke. Most of the time I just spent listening and learning. Many of the men I met researching that book have remained good friends.
Matt was rough-and-tumble all right, but he was also intelligent, well-read, articulate, reflective and deeply principled. His patriotism was strong and unabashed. Neither he nor I had an inkling that day that Black Hawk Down would someday enter the world's vocabulary - I had not even started thinking about a title - but I left Matt and the other Rangers I interviewed on that trip moved not just by their stories, but also by their profound, tested commitment to serving our country.
And yet, for many of them, that service was just beginning. For Matt, it has extended from the hellish firestorm on the streets of Mogadishu to the protracted and painful military effort in Iraq. He is just one of dozens of veterans of the 1993 battle who are still risking life and limb to do this country's hardest work. Regardless of how you feel about the war in Iraq, we owe them all a debt that will never fully be repaid.
When you read about our volunteer military being stretched to the breaking point, don't think just about the implications for global security and America's ability to act. Think about Tori Eversmann and the hundreds of thousands of spouses, parents, and other loved ones eagerly marking their calendars; wincing at the daily body counts, and waiting anxiously to hear what city, what division, what company, what unit; counting down the end of not just one tour in a war zone, but many, with no end in sight.
Matt will never complain. He is a professional soldier, and he knew better than most what he was volunteering for each time he re-upped. Besides, it is not in him to complain.
"The boys and I are hanging tough over here, despite the latest news," he e-mailed me last month. "I wish I could rant and rave about the extension, but in reality, I cannot. Sure, it sucks missing Molly's birthday and the litany of big events, but we serve, bottom line. Kind of makes three months in Mogadishu seem like a cakewalk."
I still remember when I found out that Hollywood heartthrob Josh Hartnett would be playing Matt in the movie version of Black Hawk Down. I found a fetching portrait of the movie star, posing with shoulder-length hair on a beach, and e-mailed it to Matt, who got a good laugh out of it. He wrote back, "I know they say they stretch the truth in movies, but this is ridiculous!" There was little chance any of it would go to his head.
In that battle, Matt was a young staff sergeant with his first small command, the 15 Rangers on his "chalk" or file. Today he is a middle-aged first sergeant responsible for 140 men. He is also something of a celebrity.
"Believe it or not, all these Iraqi soldiers that I train?" he wrote. "They all know about Black Hawk Down. It's insane!"