WASHINGTON - The Army is spread so thin around the globe that when it needs fresh combat troops for Iraq this fall it will have little choice but to call on the same soldiers who led the charge into Baghdad last spring.
The 3rd Infantry Division already has been given an official "warning order" to prepare to return to Iraq as soon as Thanksgiving. When those soldiers flew home from Iraq last summer to their bases in Georgia, few of them could have known they were, in effect, on a roundtrip ticket.
They are not alone in facing back-to-back deployments to Iraq. Some of the same Marines who teamed up with the 3rd Infantry to topple Baghdad are already assembling again in Kuwait, only a matter of months after returning home, and more Marines will go next year.
Other Army units that recently returned to the United States or are preparing to come home this spring, including the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., and the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Hood, Texas, are candidates for a quick turnaround.
The Army has not announced which will join the 3rd Infantry in the next rotation, although it has notified three National Guard brigades and a National Guard division headquarters that they are likely to go in early 2005.
When the Saddam Hussein government collapsed, U.S. troops in Iraq figured the war was over, except for some mopping up.
But as the acting secretary of the Army, Les Brownlee, acknowledged to Congress last week, "we simply were not prepared" for the insurgency that developed in early summer, prolonging the war and taking the lives of hundreds of American soldiers.
One 3rd Infantry soldier, Sgt. 1st Class Eric Wright, put it this way in Iraq last June: "What was told to us was that we would fight and win and go home."
It's not that simple.
Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said recently that the Marines and the Army are going to share as equally as possible the burden of keeping forces in Iraq for the foreseeable future.
But it has been and will remain predominantly an Army effort.
"At some point we'll go back," said Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne. He said it also was possible his troops would be sent to Afghanistan next instead of Iraq. The 101st played a major role in the initial invasion of Iraq and has only just returned home.
Some are concerned that the Army is being squeezed so hard that soldiers will quit in droves. Statistics on reenlistments and recruiting don't show that to be the case - not yet, anyway. And some who know the Army best say its soldiers are willing to accept the hectic pace.
"We've got an Army and we're using it," says retired Gen. Gordon Sullivan, a former Army chief of staff and currently president of the Association of the U.S. Army, a booster group.
Yet Sullivan, who recently visited U.S. troops in Iraq and Kuwait, acknowledged that sending war veterans back for a second tour of duty means the Army is stretched tighter than it has been in decades.
"Loosely, in a historical perspective, it's not dissimilar to what you saw in World War II in Europe," he said in an interview. "We're just going to keep using them."
The Army has 10 active-duty divisions, and parts or all of each have been in Iraq or Afghanistan or are heading there this spring.
To make the challenge even greater, even as it struggles to provide enough active-duty forces for Iraq, the Army is quietly undertaking a fundamental reorganization of its combat divisions, starting with the 3rd Infantry.
That infantry division will have four combat brigades, of roughly 3,800 soldiers each, instead of its traditional three, by the time it completes its training this fall and heads back to Iraq. It will get that extra firepower by acquiring some elements, such as artillery, military intelligence and military police, from its division and corps headquarters.
A similar transformation is planned during the course of this year for the 101st Airborne and the 10th Mountain divisions.
The Army also is relying more heavily on the National Guard and Reserve to maintain a combat force in Iraq. Brigades from North Carolina, Arkansas and Washington state are there or soon will be en route, as part of the 2004 rotation of forces.
Another three brigades, from Tennessee, Louisiana and Idaho - plus a division headquarters from the New York National Guard - have been alerted that they probably will be sent to Iraq in the next rotation, in early 2005.
Sound Off...Do you think soldiers will quit in droves because of this?
Join the discussion.
Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.