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Army pondering possible early return?
Officials won't say whether Fort Stewart solders could see Iraq tour shortened
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 By Joe Parker Jr. The Army is not saying which of Fort Stewart’s brigades — if any — might be among those that could return early from Iraq under a plan receiving increasing attention from top military officials.The proposal, recommended by US Army Forces Command in Atlanta, is being reviewed by senior Army and Pentagon leaders and would be contingent on the changing needs for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. If approved, it would begin Aug. 1.Under the new proposal, four of the brigades currently deployed would serve 12-month tours, six would have tours of 13 to 14 months, and five would stay for the full 15 months. Any Army brigade that deploys to Iraq or Afghanistan on or after Aug. 1 would spend 12 months on the battlefront, Col. Edward Gibbons, chief of the command's plans said.Six brigades from the 3rd ID are in Iraq, having deployed at different times throughout 2007."Our top priority is going to be meeting the combatant commanders' requirements, so there may be no decision until we get more clarity on that," Gibbons told the Associated Press. He said the goal was to meet those demands while still reducing soldiers' deployments and increasing their time at home between tours.Gen. George Casey, chief of staff of the Army, has been pushing such a change, citing the heavy burden that the 15-month stays put on troops and their families.Defense officials, however, have been reluctant to talk much about the shift because it will depend heavily on what Gen. David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, recommends when he gives his assessment of the war to Congress in March or April.Deployments had been for 12 months until Defense Secretary Robert Gates added three more months about a year ago as the Pentagon struggled to fight wars on two fronts. The change was made just as Fort Stewart’s 3rd Infantry Division's deployment was moved up to fill out the "surge" of troops called for by the Bush Administration.Four of the brigades currently deployed would serve 12-month tours, six would have tours of 13 to 14 months, and five would stay for the full 15 months.Over time, the shift to yearlong deployments would give soldiers more time at home - ranging from at least a year to as much as 15 months. Currently units are deploying for 15 months and getting about 12 months at home.The proposal, first reported by Army Times, has been recommended to senior military leaders in the Pentagon. One Pentagon official said yesterday the proposal is in keeping with the vision that Casey has laid out to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because discussions on the proposal are still preliminary, said the increase is what the military wants and needs to be doing.As top military leaders have visited US bases and troops abroad, they fielded repeated questions about the 15-month deployments from soldiers and their families.Casey has said that as the Army increases it will become easier to reduce tours and lengthen soldiers' time at home. At the same time, Gates has said he hopes that Petraeus will be able to recommend continued troop cuts in Iraq.

Plans are to increase the total number of the Army Guard, Army Reserve, and the active-duty Army by 74,000. The active-duty force alone is expected to grow by 65,000 to 547,000.

Parker is a correspondent for the Coastal Courier and Bryan County News.
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