Exhausted families face news that troops will stay in Afghanistan

Obama: U.S. to delay troop withdrawal from Afghanistan
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Story highlights

  • Military family members want to hear more about strategy. What will be new this time?
  • They worry that cuts to programs that helped families will place more strain on military community

(CNN)Kathleen Rodgers remembers when her 22-year-old son called to tell her he'd enlisted in the Army. Then a junior in college in Texas, he was kind, but firm.

"Mom, I'm 22. I can make decisions for myself," he told her.
By the time he was deployed to Afghanistan in 2014, there was nothing that would have stopped him from wanting to go to war. One of his roommates in officer candidate school had gone, and been killed in action.
    His deployment was relatively short -- four months, his mother said, due the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan. When he returned home, he joined the U.S. Army Reserve.
    On Thursday, Rodgers was trying to gather her thoughts and emotions after President Barack Obama announced that the plan to bring all troops home had changed and troops would remain in the country past a previously set deadline.
    Her son helped train Afghan soldiers in 2014. He could conceivably be redeployed.
    "Is it going to be the same old, same old?" Kathleen Rodgers asked, wanting to hear more details. "Will they try something different?"
    Her husband is a retired Air Force fighter pilot. The couple have years of experience shouldering the emotional demands made on military families.
    But experience doesn't make it easier. Rodgers and other relatives worry that continuing what seems like a forever war will bring too much strain on an already-stressed military community.
    "We both lived in crippling fear every second of every day that the notification team would show up on our doorstep and change our lives forever," Rodgers said. "I can't imagine experiencing that again."

    Budgets cuts, yet more war

    The new plan will keep thousands of troops in Afghanistan until the end of Obama's term in office. The current force, 9,800 troops, will remain through most of 2016 and then drop to 5,500 at the end of next year or early 2017. Their mission is the same: train and support Afghan security forces and carry out counterterrorism operations.
    Some relatives said they were worried about the effects of sequestration, a recent series of automatic, across-the-board cuts to government agencies, including the Defense Department. Those cuts have included troop levels. In July, for example, the Army announced a force reduction of 40,000 service members.
    Sequestration has led to putting family aid programs on the chopping block, according to Army wife Amy Bushatz. She is the managing editor of Military.com.
    One of those family programs is a chaplain-run, weekend-long, marriage retreat. It's hugely popular among couples, especially those who've endured multiple deployments.
    In 2014, CNN examined indepth the struggles of military spouses who had attempted or contemplated suicide under such a strain.
    Bushatz is married to an Army captain who fought in Afghanistan in 2009. His unit experienced heavy losses, she said.
    "That is something that really sticks with you," she said. "It's not something you ever get over."
    "We've been at war for 14 years," she said. "We're exhausted."
    Relatives are so spent, she said, that newly married spouses just beginning to understand what it means to be engaged in a war as long as the one in Afghanistan are experiencing "infectious exhaustion."
    "Years ago, when a new spouse moved into a housing area and met us there would have been an enthusiasm, a sense of pride about all the things that are great about being in the military," Bushatz said. "Now I think they are just seeing very tired people."

    If not this option, what?

    No relative CNN spoke with argues that families have been stretched, often through redeployments.
    But Angela McCormick Ricketts asked: What other option is there?
    "We have 14 years of blood, sweat and tears in that country," she said. "Do we want to see it fall into the hands of terrorists? I applaud Obama for listening to his commanders on the ground. He listened to Gen. [John] Campbell."
    In early October, the top commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan told the Senate Armed Services Committee that there must be "different options" than ones in place to maintain security in the country. Campbell noted the strengthening of ISIS and "increased al Qaeda presence" as well as an "upsurge" in enemy violence in some areas of Afghanistan.
    Ricketts' husband, a former Army officer, served three tours in Afghanistan, one in Iraq, one in Somalia in the early 1990s and three in the Balkans. He recently left the service.
    Ricketts wrote a critically acclaimed memoir of the hell she, her kids and her marriage endured called "No Man's War: Irreverent Confessions of an Infantry Wife."
    "I hate to say that we're [as military families] stoic and hard," she said. "But it's our battle. It's what we do. After 14 years we've really mastered how to dance this dance. It's the same guys who go over and over again."
    Yes, she said, it's hard to say goodbye. It's hard to adjust to their return, she said, to begin again when you're both a little bit different, usually more distanced from each other emotionally.
    But making sure the gains made in Afghanistan aren't lost is more important, Ricketts believes.
    Letting the country slide back into Taliban control would be an insult to all the service members who died or who returned home and now must live with tremendous mental and physical injury, she said.
    "We're a culture that takes care of our own," Ricketts continued. "And that's what we'll do."
    The wife of a Special Forces member agreed. She's unable to provide her name because of her husband's job. He's spent about 40 months in Afghanistan, primarily in the southern part of the country, where fighting has tended to be most frequent.
    The announcement that troops would not be withdrawn on the timetable the Obama administration previously set "didn't even register" with her or likely any family in the Special Forces community. "We've been extremely aware we were nowhere near finished with this war," she said.
    She described the friends she and her husband know who are in Afghanistan now, and the ones who have recently returned -- either wounded or in caskets.
    "If anything, I'm glad to see President Obama saying what we know is true, what we've known for a long time is true," she said. "Things are getting worse is Afghanistan. It's disheartening when I think about how much my life, my husband's life, my children's lives, have been impacted by that country. But feeling that way doesn't change anything. Either we commit now on a real level or we go home. There should be nothing in between."