FORT DRUM, N.Y. -- With bursts of gunfire, insurgents ambushed the American patrol on a lonely road in eastern Afghanistan. Army Spc. Winnshwe Vertley watched his best friend, Sgt. David Hierholzer, charge at the enemy. "He died protecting me," said Vertley, who is of Burmese descent.
Vertley, 24, was sickened by the loss and deeply fatigued as he returned home this summer with almost two and a half years of combat time - more than many World War II infantrymen. But he didn't quit. Like tens of thousands of soldiers whose lives are seared by war and whose families endure stress unimaginable to most Americans, he re-enlisted.
Reassuring to the generals and baffling to many Americans, the willingness of this generation's soldiers and Marines to volunteer again and again is a new facet of America's wartime experience. Never before has the nation fought a long foreign war without a draft. And today's troops are re-enlisting at record rates, partly because of bonuses that can reach $50,000, but in large measure, soldiers say, because they like it and they're good at it.
Yet there are deep concerns that this grinding duty is exacting costs that for the most part are unknown and unseen. Those watching closely fear a high price as soldiers and families struggle with accumulating hardship, whether that stress emerges as alcohol or drug abuse, divorce or the cold distancing of soldiers from the civilian America that is not taking part in the war.
"It's a small snowball," said Army Capt. Jerry Johnson, Protestant chaplain to Vertley's unit, the 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry.
"A lot of stress is kept inside. We haven't seen a lot of big blow-ups, but over time, the stress will accumulate like a snowball and will eventually get out of control, and it will be a far worse problem for the Army," he said.
Johnson, who has two children, returned this summer from 492 days in Afghanistan. How did his family do? "Not good, frankly," he said.
In fact, no one knows how to calculate the long-term effects on troops and families. "We don't do a good job of assessing the impact on them," said Maj. Gen. Michael L. Oates, who commands the 10th Mountain Division, headquartered here in northern New York. "We just don't know enough."
But opinions abound.
"It is a really resilient population," said Todd Benham, a clinical psychologist and former soldier who is chief of behavioral health services at Fort Drum. "There's soldiers that are fed up, but there are a lot of soldiers who go out and execute" the mission, he said.
Retired four-star Gen. Jack Keane, a gruff paratrooper, rejects the notion that the Army is breaking down in stress. "This is a war, and we should expect stress and strain on our soldiers and Marines," he told a congressional panel this summer. "They are performing magnificently."
"We're programmed to put it into our work," explained 29-year-old Amber Robinson, a 10th Mountain Division sergeant. "A lot of soldiers are depressed, angry, have drinking problems. But you get desensitized." She spoke of carrying the bloody clothes and personal gear of a comrade killed in combat in Afghanistan. "I don't cry anymore," she said, but after a few moments she added in a soft voice:
"Sometimes I wake up and cry for no reason."
Yet still they volunteer, and they will be needed. Barring some unforeseen major shift, deployment of tens of thousands of troops to Iraq and Afghanistan will continue, and the "long war" against Islamist extremists will likely require ground forces elsewhere in the region for years. Filling that need, about 176,500 Americans will enlist this fiscal year in the Army, including Army National Guard and reserves. The Army anticipates re-enlisting 116,349 soldiers for two years or longer, including reservists and guardsmen.
Robust recruiting will enable the Army and the Marine Corps to expand their numbers by 92,000 over the next five years. But there is trouble in the fine print.
Each year, the military sets the number of soldiers it needs to maintain its forces. If it re-enlists above that goal, so much the better: More seasoned soldiers enrich the ranks. Five years ago the Army was re-enlisting 102 percent of its goal, keeping 1,437 soldiers more than it needed. Each year since then it has averaged 106.6 percent.
The rate among combat units in action is even higher: The 2nd Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division, currently fighting in Iraq, has notched a 185 percent re-enlistment rate. Overall at the 10th Mountain Division, the rate of soldiers who sign up for a second term reached 127 percent this year.
That number includes Vertley, who got married in July and re-enlisted. "It was security for me and my wife," he said, referring to the steady pay and health, education and housing benefits the Army provides.
But re-enlistments start to drop off when soldiers are asked to stay for a third enlistment, about 110 percent of the goal. The rate is even lower, 106 percent, for those signing on to finish out their 20-year career before they retire with full pay and benefits. In some battalions of these most seasoned soldiers, the rate is as low as 78 percent of the goal.
That has alarmed the Army. The senior enlisted leaders being lost have years of valuable experience and fill critical jobs, like platoon sergeant, directing dozens of men in combat. Many are leaving the Army within sight of their 20-year retirement mark, suggesting that they and their families simply can't take any more.
"I'm very concerned," said Command Sgt. Maj. James W. Redmore, the division's senior enlisted soldier. He and other leaders have tried to shuffle assignments so the burden of 15-month deployments doesn't fall unfairly on any individual. "But everybody's got to do his part," said Redmore.
"I've had guys with 16 years in, four to go, but something happened to make them bitter - they're just going home," said Sgt. 1st Class Roy Mitchell, an Army career counselor here. In Afghanistan four years ago, Mitchell's unarmored Humvee struck an antitank mine. The blast severed one leg, badly burned the other, and tore his face with shrapnel.
As he recovered, Mitchell re-enlisted, a decision that gave his wife "that deer in the headlights look," Mitchell said. But they talked it over, and despite his injuries, he fought to stay on active duty and won.
That gung-ho attitude is reflected across the division, said Oates, the division commander. "I don't find soldiers, in their most candid moments, who are averse to doing their duty. There is no sedition in the ranks."
In the 10th Mountain Division, 158 soldiers have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and many times that number wounded. But the "non-visible injury" of repeated trauma and stress affects soldiers and their families too and can become quickly apparent, said Oates. His observation is borne out by the leap in cases of diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder.
Visits to Fort Drum's mental health clinic for treatment of PTSD have jumped 253 percent of pre-war levels. About 575 soldiers each month use mental health services at Fort Drum, where a new mental health clinic for families has just been opened.
The anecdotal evidence of stress is overwhelming. Everybody knows instances of marital infidelity, alcohol abuse, money problems, and abuse of spouses and children. Lots of household squabbles break out before deployments, and there are re-entry problems when soldiers come home into households where the wives have been running things in their absence.
"It's a roller coaster," said Teri Ann Carabello, whose husband, James, is command sergeant major of the 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry.
"It's hard, and I'm not going to minimize it," Sergeant Major Carabello said of his wife's duties when he's deployed. "I wouldn't wish her job on my worst enemy."
For some families, the pressure doesn't let up when their soldier is home for 12 months before another combat tour. "It has to be a great year; everything has to be perfect," Mrs. Carabello said.
Still, "For a lot of us, the biggest motivator is that you married your best boyfriend ever, and his life's work and his passion become in some ways your passion," she said. "Sometimes it takes a greater amount of time to get to that understanding of it, to see the purpose behind it, that we want the world to be a safer place for our children and that the soldiers have to be gone."
But there are so many moments that a father misses, as when their 16-year-old won a spectacular wrestling match. "It's typical for most Americans to go out and celebrate with dinner or ice cream, but instead we had this 'sad sack' moment of driving home alone," she said. "Those moments can never be won back; they're just gone. There is a sadness to all this."
Such family stress seems to ripple out to younger, single soldiers. Many of them are re-enlisting and choosing not to get married, choosing the camaraderie of the platoon over the stress and uncertainty of family and civilian life.
That was evident as a handful of senior enlisted soldiers recently sat down to ponder the effects of repeated combat tours. Members of a scout-sniper platoon, they often work in isolation from other troops in their role in direct killing, forging close bonds of shared stress and reliance on each other. They had just returned from 15 months in Afghanistan, and each had also served at least one tour in Iraq.
Slouched in faded fatigues and worn boots, they seemed tough and strong, and talked eagerly about their love of soldiering and their growing wariness of the "outside" civilian world.
"I don't know what the hell I'd do if I got out," said Staff Sgt. Robert Ridge, a thin 26-year-old who has done three deployments since he enlisted in 2001. Said a buddy: "I grew up in this battalion, and I can't imagine anything different. This is something I love."
Sgt. 1st Class Richard Lighter, 33, said he was planning to get out of the Army but changed his mind when he considered what he'd find as a civilian. "There's no discipline in the civilian world. If people don't show up for work, that's fine. Here, you have to have responsibility for everything you do."
"We talk about getting out," acknowledged Staff Sgt. Darrell Brown, a stocky 30-year-old. With repeated year-long deployments, he can't afford a long-term apartment lease, so each time he comes wearily home he's got no place to stay. "Since 2004, I've lived temporarily in four different places," he said.
"But it's not an easy transition to being a civilian," he said, explaining his decision to re-enlist. "There's no pride in what they do, They're just collecting a paycheck. I can see I'd be frustrated."
For these soldiers, being deployed is tough, but the stress never seems to lessen during their 12 months between combat tours. After a joyous homecoming, everyone gets a 30-day leave before being plunged back into the frenzy of training for the next deployment. And there is the pressure of wanting to savor life to its fullest with the wrenching departure for the next deployment looming ever closer.
"As soon as you're back [home], it's like a countdown. Leave is over, I got 11 months," said Sgt 1st Class Michael Pore, 32, the platoon leader, who's done three deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The first months back home "are the hardest," said Pore. "That's when your dreams come. You wake up hearing heavy gunfire."
On the subject of families, these soldiers are definitely wary. Not having a family "doesn't bother me," said Lighter. "I would never put someone I love through this."
But his mother must be terrified for those long months he is in combat. What about her?
"This is the lifestyle I have chosen," he said coldly.
"I'm scared to even start a family now," agreed Pore.
And then there are Iraq and Afghanistan waiting for them, in a war seeming without end.
"There's nobody who don't want this to end," said Pore. "But as long as it's going - we're going."