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Visit shows Obama, troops looking past deployments

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POSTED: April 27, 2012 2:29 p.m.
Photo by Michelle Gordon, WACH PAO/

Surrounded by some of the people affected by the military education system, President Obama signs the executive order designed to clamp down on GI Bill abuses.

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Their constant cycle of overseas deployments seemingly over, soldiers at Fort Stewart are starting families, shopping to buy their first homes and weighing first steps toward civilian careers.

It's not surprising that President Barack Obama's visit Friday to the largest Army post east of the Mississippi River focused on college benefits rather than combat missions. Like their commander in chief, soldiers of the Fort Stewart-based 3rd Infantry Division are starting to look beyond a life of war tours broken up only by periods of training for the next one.

The 3rd Infantry was the only Army division called up to serve four tours in Iraq from 2003 until the last U.S. troops departed last year. And while more than 2,200 of the division's troops have now either deployed to Afghanistan or are heading there later this year, most of its 22,000 soldiers have no standing orders to return to war.

"People are not worrying about when the next deployment's coming," said Spc. Nicholas Tuper, 22, of Bombay, N.Y., who was among 10,000 soldiers and family members who waited in the simmering southeast Georgia heat to see Obama. "It used to be you could expect a deployment every two years."

The last presidential visit to Fort Stewart came in September 2003 as President George W. Bush flew in to thank the soldiers who invaded Baghdad and toppled Saddam Hussein.

Obama also thanked the troops for their sacrifices and noted that 441 soldiers have given their lives deploying with the Fort Stewart division since 2003. The president and First Lady Michelle Obama made a stop at Warrior's Walk, where memorial trees have been planted for each fallen soldier, before his address.

Otherwise, Obama's visit largely put the wars in the past tense as he signed an executive order targeting for-profit schools that use deceptive practices to milk military families for their GI Bill money and other government benefits.

"I know that for many of you, a new chapter is unfolding," Obama told the soldiers. "Iraq is over. The transition in Afghanistan is under way."

Those words rang true for Pfc. Brandon DeVries. After two years in the Army, he has yet to deploy overseas — something that would have been virtually unheard of at Fort Stewart until recently.

Expecting he might be home for a while longer, DeVries and his wife decided to start a family. They're expecting their first child in November.

"I didn't think I was going to do that," said DeVries, 22, of Howard City, Mich. "I figured we were going to be on rotation and about to deploy."

Capt. Nicole Ballentine, an Army physician's assistant who served one tour in Iraq, said there's a growing sense of soldiers having more breathing room to plan for a life out of uniform.

Her husband left the military recently. Now they're starting to think seriously about buying a home.

"Now we're not worried about only being home every other year," said Ballentine, 29, of Layton, Utah. "Before it was, 'Should I buy a house a now? What if I deploy?'"

Sgt. 1st Class Jeremy Weeks, who's served twice in Iraq, said he's at a crossroads after more than 10 years in the Army. That's halfway to retirement. On one hand he'd like to stay in, even deploy to Afghanistan.

At the same time, Weeks is a single father. The Army is downsizing its ranks and he's watching to see if the signs of economic recovery continue. He said he might be better off trading in his uniform, cashing in his GI Bill and going to college.

"I'm weighing my options," said Weeks, 34, of Orlando, Fla. "Am I going to be able to take care of my kids staying in the military? Am I going to progress by staying in the Army? Or do I need to get out and do something else?"

 

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