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Bush Cuts Combat Tour Lengths to One Year

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Soldiers heading to Afghanistan or Iraq later this summer got some good news today. President Bush announced that duty tour links will drop from 15 to 12 months. The new tours begin August 1st. The president also endorsed a pause in U.S. troop reductions from Iraq this summer.

NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman reports.

TOM BOWMAN: All week, Congress has heard about soldiers in an overstressed Army.

General RICHARD CODY (Vice Chief of Staff, U.S. Army): We have asked them to run a marathon and they have.

BOWMAN: General Richard Cody is the Army's number two officer testifying yesterday.

Gen. CODY: That marathon has become an enduring relay, and our soldiers continue to run and at the double time. Does this exhaust the body and mind of those in the race and those who were ever present on the sidelines, cheering them on? Yes. Has it broken the will of a soldier? No.

BOWMAN: Part of that exhaustion has been the 15-month tour that has been in effect of the past year. It was a morale killer for the soldiers. Soldiers talked about hitting a wall after serving a year in Iraq. Longer deployment sometimes meant missing two Thanksgivings and Christmases.

Now, that the so-called surge in troops is ending, President Bush was able to return to what was a traditional tour.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: These changes will be effective for those deploying after August 1st. We'll also ensure that Army units will have at least a year home for every year in the field.

BOWMAN: That's a year in the United States, not necessarily home. Because units have to train to get ready to head back to Iraq, it's more like nine or ten months with their families. And the president cautioned that because tour lengths are coming down, it doesn't mean the American military's job in Iraq is over.

Pres. BUSH: Our work in Iraq will still demand sacrifices from our whole nation, especially our military, for some time to come.

BOWMAN: How much time is uncertain. The president today also endorsed General Petraeus' call for a 45-day pause in troop productions after July. That means come summer, there will still be about 140,000 troops in Iraq down from the current 160,000.

Pres. BUSH: General Petraeus says he'll need time to consolidate his forces and assess how this reduced American presence will affect conditions on the ground before making measured recommendations on further reductions. And I told him he'll have all the time he needs.

BOWMAN: That's not going to sit well with some members of Congress, particularly Democrats, who had been pushing for a decision on greater cutbacks soon after the pause ends in mid-September.

Democratic Senator Carl Levin, who chairs the Armed Services Committee, pushed Petraeus on a withdrawal timetable on Tuesday.

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan; Chairman, Senate Armed Services Committee): Are you giving us any ideas to how long that would take? You say overtime.

General DAVID PETRAEUS (Commanding General, Multi-National Force - Iraq, U.S. Army): Sir, if…

Sen. LEVIN: Could that be a month…

Gen. PETRAEUS: If…

Sen. LEVIN: Could that be two months?

Gen. PETRAEUS: Sir, it could be less than that. It could be…

Sen. LEVIN: Could it be more than that?

Gen. PETRAEUS: It could be more than that. Again…

Sen. LEVIN: Or…

Gen. PETRAEUS: …it's when the conditions or - that we can make a recommendation for further reductions.

BOWMAN: Soldiers may now be facing a shorter tour length, but those large concentrations of troops mean they will continue to face repeated deployments to Iraq. Army leaders worry about the health of the force -how long they can keep this pace. Suicides are up, recruiting is a challenge, some of the best captains and sergeants are leaving.

Captain James Crenshaw(ph) know some captains who have had enough because of the demands of what the Army calls high up-tempo.

Captain JAMES CRENSHAW (U.S. Army): I know of some that have left, and they left in part because of the high up-tempo, but there also a lot who have stayed as well.

BOWMAN: Crenshaw is among those staying. In August, he'll head to Iraq for his second tour, leaving behind his wife and two daughters. He spoke with NPR recently at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

Cap. CRENSHAW: A lot more people have done a lot more rotations than I have, so I have to kind of suck it up more or less. But there are some folks who have reached their third or forth rotation who may not feel they want to suck it up.

BOWMAN: Crenshaw will not be serving as much time on this rotation. Since he's leaving in August, he'll serve a year-long tour. Not so lucky are soldiers in the 3rd Infantry Division at nearby Fort Stewart, Georgia. They'll be leaving for Iraq in July. Their tours will still be 15 months.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.