Cry me a river

In a tiny room in Baghdad, U.S. soldiers connect with their friends and family back home. Sometimes hearts break.

Topics: Iraq war, U.S. Military, Divorce,

May 20: The room is small, with a sole window that is permanently shuttered and concrete walls that are painted black and white. It has an air conditioner, some chairs, desks with five military-issue laptops hooked up to the Internet, several extra Ethernet lines to hook up personal laptops, and two phones from which soldiers can make calls to the United States for free.

It is a place where the soldiers of Bravo Company, 4-64 Armor Battalion of the 4th Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, who are stationed in an abandoned school in Baghdad, can stay in touch with friends and families back home.

It is the room where hearts break.

“Now, about those other male friends,” a young soldier says into the phone, his voice rising. “I am shocked and awed to hear …” — and his voice turns to a near whisper. There are six other people in the room, barely 4 feet away from him. Everyone hunches even more over laptops, not wanting to hear what is about to follow. They will hear it all anyway, later, in the classrooms the soldiers share at night, in the Bradleys that are often so cramped you can feel the man next to you breathe, or in the school’s hallways, where one soldier tells me how he got married before his previous deployment, in 2005, and got divorced when he went home on leave six months later.

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“There are a lot of divorces,” says Sgt. 1st Class Robert Keith. “These kids are so young, and they haven’t yet learned how to trust, how to maintain a relationship.”

A February report by the Army’s Mental Health Advisory Team said that nearly a third of married enlisted men and more than a fifth of married noncommissioned officers were planning to get a divorce by the end of their 15-month deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan. The divorce rate among enlisted soldiers has risen from 2.3 percent in 2001 to 3.5 percent today.

Most of these soldiers are in their 20s, and many have spent three out of the last five years deployed to Iraq.

“What are you saying to me? What are you telling me? Why are you telling me this?” a soldier pleads with someone on the phone as I check my e-mail. Maybe he is asking about unpaid bills, a sick dog, a broken car. Maybe he is asking about his wife’s announcement that she is not going to wait for him anymore. It occurs to me that I don’t want to find out. I unplug my laptop and leave the room.

Anna Badkhen has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Somalia, the West Bank and Gaza. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, David Filipov, and their two sons.

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