During the administration of the first President Bush, I did a story about the proposed sale of F-15 jet fighters to Saudi Arabia. It was a big deal at the time since the Israeli lobby was up in arms against the sale. While the President weighed his decision, I went out to St. Louis to see what it meant to workers on the F-15 assembly line. I met a young family whose future depended on which way the decision went.
If President Bush decided to go ahead with the sale, the father would keep his job on the assembly line. If the sale wasn't approved, he wouldn't. It was one of those rare instances where you could show a direct relationship between a Presidential decision and the life of an ordinary citizen.
I did another story like that this week when I went to Fort Riley, Kan., where a brigade of the 1st Infantry Division is awaiting orders for Iraq. It was supposed to deploy earlier this month but was put on hold until the President makes a final decision on whether to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq. For the 3,700 soldiers in the brigade that delay meant they would be spending Christmas with their families. I visited the home of a young military family just like that assembly line family I had met so many years ago in St. Louis.
Because the father would be home for the holidays, they had gone out and bought a real Christmas tree and decorated it with their two young children. With the father gone, buying a real tree, hauling it home and setting it up would have been too much for the mother to handle alone.
Not only will the father be home for Christmas, but now there is a good chance he will not have to go to Iraq at all. Gen. George Casey, the commander in Iraq, has recommended that the brigade be broken up into ten-man training teams and sent into Iraq as advisors to the Iraqi army. If the President approves that recommendation, only the officers and senior non-commissioned officers – those with enough experience to serve as advisors – would go to Iraq.
The particular father I met is lower ranking than that, so he would stay home at Fort Riley. He is still getting to know his children since they are the mother's by a previous marriage. Whether he goes to Iraq for a year or stays home will undoubtedly make a huge difference in the future of that family.
Next week, when the Pentagon is expected to announce the decision on the fate of the Fort Riley brigade, most of the news stories will probably focus on the arithmetic of how that will reduce the number of troops in Iraq. It will be at best a baby step toward more significant withdrawals and most people won't remember the new numbers any better than they remember the current numbers. But behind those numbers are real lives affected in a very real way.
As for that family in St. Louis, the first President Bush approved the sale of F-15s to Saudi Arabia and the father kept his job.
By David Martin