As a Brigade Returns Safe, Some Meet New Enemies

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As a Brigade Returns Safe, Some Meet New Enemies

FORT BLISS, Tex. — The soldiers of the Fourth Brigade, First Armored Division, have been home from Iraq for three months now, the danger of snipers and roadside bombs no longer a threat, the war for them over.

But the odds that some of them will die violent deaths continues, so just as he did when his battalion was operating in Iraq, Command Sgt. Maj. Sa’eed Mustafa constantly warns his soldiers about the perils of letting their guard down where they are supposed to be safest — in their own homes.

“We talk about the enemy here, which is different from the enemy downrange, but which is just as deadly,” he said, using the military term used for a combat zone.

In fact, given the brigade’s record at Fort Bliss of suicide, murder, assault, drunken driving and drug use, its troops are statistically at greater risk at home than while deployed in Iraq. During the past year, only one of the unit’s soldiers died in combat, but in 2008, the last time the brigade was home from Iraq, seven soldiers were killed and six others committed crimes in which at least four civilians and soldiers from outside the brigade died in a little more than a year.

Drugs, including heroin and a methamphetamine lab, were discovered in the barracks, as was a homemade sex tape that had been circulating among soldiers and that featured one of the brigade’s female lieutenants and five male sergeants.

“Being back in garrison is what we don’t do well, because since 9/11 it seems we’ve spent more time deployed than at home,” Lt. Col. David Wilson said.

As the United States military continues to reduce the number of troops in Iraq — to 50,000 by Sept. 1 from about 85,000 now — it has begun to shift some focus to the home front in an effort to ensure a smooth transition for soldiers, a move prompted by lessons learned from returning veterans who have struggled to adjust to lives away from war.

Leaders of the Fourth Brigade said its problems had not only been deeply embarrassing, but had revealed institutional ignorance about combat stress and traumatic brain injury that forced the unit to use a holistic approach not typically associated with the military as it confronted its issues.

“They were leaving a war zone, coming back home and not getting the care and supervision necessary, which allowed them to stay in the Mosul mind-set,” said Sergeant Major Mustafa, referring to the violent northern Iraq city where the brigade had been stationed before it returned to Fort Bliss in 2008. “This is a group of people that had been fighting and killing and taking casualties for 14 months. You can’t switch it on and off.”

The brigade is thought to have one of the worst criminal records among Army brigades, although no statistics are kept. Its leaders say that if it is successful in keeping its troops safe until its next deployment, its multifaceted approach may become a model for other units seeking to acclimate their own soldiers to peacetime.

So far, the strategy appears largely to be working: After spending nearly three months at Fort Bliss, Maj. Myles Caggins, a spokesman, said its soldiers had been involved in only a handful of cases, the most serious three arrests for drunken driving that had resulted in no injuries. The methods have ranged from the hard-nosed — kicking dozens of soldiers out of the Army and requiring groups of three or more troops to march, rather than walk, whenever they are on base — to the soft touch, including calling parents to tell them that their children had done an exemplary job in Iraq and bringing in a civilian social worker to counsel depressed soldiers.

The brigade also expanded its list of at-risk soldiers to include those the Army would not otherwise consider troubled, including troops with multiple traffic violations. Upon arrival at Fort Bliss, soldiers deemed to be at the highest risk of psychological problems were met on the landing strip and escorted to an interview with a counselor, sometimes with family members in tow.

Colonel Wilson said he had ordered his battalion’s soldiers to read “Who Moved My Cheese?” by Spencer Johnson to help them handle change. Officers, he said, were assigned “Winning Every Day,” by the former college football coach Lou Holtz.

The unit has also trained its leaders in suicide prevention programs that exceed Army requirements, and its officers, including the brigade commander until last Friday, Col. Peter A. Newell, have dropped in to bars around Fort Bliss to monitor their soldiers’ behavior.

“There is a burning desire to change the military,” Colonel Newell said. “We had to do something, or we would have bottomed out after eight years of war.”

A critical aspect of its approach has been to stagger those times when the unit’s leadership was reassigned from the brigade so that the highest-ranking sergeants and officers are not transferred at the same time, which typically occurs in Army units within a few months after a brigade returns from war.

During a pre-departure briefing this spring to about 360 troops at Contingency Operating Base Adder in southern Iraq, Colonel Newell paced in front of them, saying he felt uncomfortable about their impending return to Fort Bliss.

“I have a little stress over sending a brigade home,” he said. “The sad truth is that it is safer for me to keep you in Iraq drawing combat pay with people trying to kill you than it is for me to take you back home.”

One by one, he ticked off cases in which one of the unit’s soldiers had ruined his life at Fort Bliss before the brigade’s deployment to Iraq last year: four suicides, a drug overdose, a murder committed with a baseball bat, fatal drunken-driving offenses, cases of domestic violence, and a shooting after an argument in a bar.

At least six of the unit’s former soldiers are serving 15 years or more in prison for those crimes, and more trials are pending.

As part of a housecleaning, Colonel Newell dismissed more than 150 soldiers from the Army and brought formal disciplinary charges against more than 10 percent of the brigade’s 3,500 troops. In one company, 39 of 150 soldiers were court-martialed.

Capt. Rolland Johnson, 26, a company commander, said the brigade’s approach had required him to pay attention to his soldiers in ways unthinkable a few years ago.

“I can tell you everyone’s full name and hometown,” he said, adding that he had recently installed a suggestion box for his troops fashioned out of a discarded ammunition tin. “It used to be that if you saw the captain coming around you were in trouble,” Captain Johnson said. “Things have changed a lot, but it’s a new type of soldier, too, given all they’ve seen and how long they’ve been away.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: July 14, 2010

An earlier version of this article mistakenly said that officer had dropped into bars around Fort Worth to monitor soldiers’ behavior. They had dropped into bars around Fort Bliss.

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