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Fort Drum Relatives: Time For Troops To Come Home


President Obama will be visiting troops today at Fort Drum in Upstate New York. He'll meet with soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division and the families of those killed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

North Country Public Radio's David Sommerstein is there.

DAVID SOMMERSTEIN: Even before President Obama said a word last night, the feeling around Fort Drum was any troop withdrawal would be good news.

Ms. VICKI WOODARD: I think that's great. I think it's time for them to come home.

SOMMERSTEIN: Vicki Woodard's strolling into an Asian buffet with her daughter, Sergeant Kiki Woodard, and seven-year-old Kenaya, who's wearing...

Ms. KENAYA WOODARD: A pink dress. A colorful dress.

SOMMERSTEIN: Kenaya's mom, the sergeant, is going to Afghanistan next month. Like many soldiers here, Sgt. Woodard puts on a professional face regarding the president's strategy.

Sergeant KIKI WOODARD (U.S. Army): I don't really have an opinion on it, because I am a soldier, so I have to, you know, kind of go by what they say.

SOMMERSTEIN: But Grandma Vicki Woodard doesn't hold back. She'll become the mom while Kiki's away. She takes a deep sigh.

Ms. WOODARD: It's very hard. You go through so much. She's, like, the head of the family and she organizes, and then I have to take over and try to fit in. It makes it difficult.

SOMMERSTEIN: For almost a decade now, soldiers here have had as little as nine months with their families before they're sent back overseas. Many families cope with it. But alcoholism, domestic violence and divorce have been growing problems here and elsewhere in the Army.

A former soldier herself, Shawn Jensen is now a soldier's wife. And she says Obama's plan to ease the pace of war is good. But she's also skeptical.

Ms. SHAWN JENSEN (Former Soldier, U.S. Army): I mean, we're always happy to hear that not as many soldiers are going to be going over there. But then we also know, too, that they no sooner get back and they're already set up for the next appointment.

President BARACK OBAMA: In Afghanistan, we've inflicted serious losses on the Taliban and taken a number of its strongest.

SOMMERSTEIN: Maggie's on the River is a bar filled with soldiers watching sports on umpteen TV screens. The president's screen does get one in the corner, and a few soldiers are watching, mostly because I asked them to. Afterwards, we walk out to the back deck by the Black River.

Sergeant SHADRACH MILLER (U.S. Army): My initial reaction to it is it's kind of - it's about time.

SOMMERSTEIN: Sergeant Shadrach Miller just returned from Afghanistan. He's been part of the 30,000-troop surge that Obama now pledges to pull back by next soldier. And Miller trained Afghan soldiers, the president's core rationale for the surge. Overall, Miller says, it's working.

Sgt. MILLER: The short answer's yes on that. However, the guys we're standing up right now, they're too focused on getting them to shoot some targets, stuff like that. What we need to get them focused on is developing some type of core values that they're going to stick by, because they're corrupt as you wouldn't believe.

SOMMERSTEIN: And here's where the soldiers' view of the drawdown gets complicated. Miller wants the war to wind down quickly, but he's not sure the Afghan army will ever be able to keep the country secure.

Bill Croff is a National Guardsman who also just returned from Afghanistan. He says any fixed timeline for withdrawal sends a dangerous message to insurgents.

Mr. BILL CROFF (National Guard): We need to play it by ear. We need to make sure that we do things right, and if the soldiers that have died have died for a just cause and we come out there with a victory.

SOMMERSTEIN: Miller sees that side of it, too.

Sgt. MILLER: He's right. It's ridiculously counterintuitive for us to want, like, a specific timeline. As soldiers, we don't want to tell the enemy anything.

SOMMERSTEIN: Miller and Croff both say they understand the political dimensions at play, too: civilians tiring of war, the president hard-pressed to act with an election on the horizon. But Croft says occupations often drag on.

Mr. CROFT: We're still in the Sinai. We're still in Germany. We're still in Japan. And how long ago did we fight World War II?

SOMMERSTEIN: That's why many soldiers at Fort Drum and their families don't really expect the role in Afghanistan to end any time soon.

For NPR News, I'm David Sommerstein at Fort Drum, New York.

INSKEEP: Whether consciously or not, the speech that gave the troops the news last night drew on a speech that came before.

MONTAGNE: President Obama echoed a famous talk by Abraham Lincoln, whose life President Obama has studied.

INSKEEP: In his second inaugural address in March of 1865, Lincoln spoke of the Civil War, which was then nearing its end. And he said: With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.

MONTAGNE: Last night, President Obama declared: Let us finish the work at hand, then soon fell into a similar rhythm.

Pres. OBAMA: With confidence in our cause, with faith in our fellow citizens and with hope in our hearts, let us go about the work of extending the promise of America.

MONTAGNE: President Obama's speech brought Lincoln to mind and also highlights and advantage had in 1865. Lincoln was speaking near the end of a four-year war. Victory for the Union's side was not quite won, but was in sight.

INSKEEP: President Obama spoke last night of a war that has lasted almost a decade. He faces a far more ambiguous task: starting to disengage American troops while acknowledging that fighting in Afghanistan will continue for years.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Sommerstein, a contributor from North Country Public Radio (NCPR), has covered the St. Lawrence Valley, Thousand Islands, Watertown, Fort Drum and Tug Hill regions since 2000. Sommerstein has reported extensively on agriculture in New York State, Fort Drum’s engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the lives of undocumented Latino immigrants on area dairy farms. He’s won numerous national and regional awards for his reporting from the Associated Press, the Public Radio News Directors Association, and the Radio-Television News Directors Association. He's regularly featured on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Only a Game, and PRI’s The World.