By Darren E. Weiss

Exhausted by four years of war, the U.S. Army is adding three months to the usual yearlong tour for all active-duty troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced two weeks ago.

The extension was designed to sustain the troop buildup in Baghdad while ensuring enough at-home time between deployments.

This change is a harsh blow to an all-voluntary army that has already seen shortened time for rest and retraining.

Gates said he faced a difficult choice: he could either further shorten the at-home intervals for troops, compromising mental and physical preparedness, or he could lengthen combat tours to buy time for returning units fresh from battle.

The extended tours are sacrifices the army must make to sustain the troop buildup President Bush ordered in January.

Troop levels will increase from 15 to 20 brigades as part of the president’s latest strategy to pacify Baghdad and prevent a U.S. defeat. There are currently 145,000 troops in Iraq. When the buildup is completed by June, officials estimate there will be over 160,000.

“[Tour increases] are yet another negative indication of how things are going,” said Dan Wirls, professor of politics and department chair at UC Santa Cruz. “We’re reaching into our bag of tricks to make our resources go farther.”

At a Pentagon news conference last week, Gates said that it was too early to determine how long the troop buildup would last, but that lengthening tours to 15 months allows the Pentagon to maintain higher force levels for another year.

“This new approach will better allow the army to better support the war effort while providing a more predictable and dependable deployment schedule for our soldiers and their families,” Gates said at a press conference.

Congressional reactions to Gates’ announcement was harsh, and Democrats used it to again question the president’s war strategy.

“Extending the tours of all active-duty army personnel is an unacceptable price for our troops and their families to pay,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) in a statement.

Senator Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), a longtime advocate of ensuring that troops are adequately supplied, echoed Pelosi’s concerns in a press release.

“Already long deployments are taxing troop morale, straining military families, and exhausting vital equipment and supplies. It is time we say enough is enough.”

Noting the effects tour increases will have on soldiers’ families, House Representative Sam Farr (D-Santa Cruz) said he does not support the extension either.

“When you send a family member to Iraq, you are potentially sending the entire family,” he said. “We shouldn’t be creating situations where family welfare is seriously affected by deployment.”

Gates said that his new policy ensures 12 months at home between deployments for all active-duty army units. The policy does not apply to the Marine Corps, the National Guard, or the Army Reserve.

U.S. Army Sgt. Matthew Rowan, a 21-year-old Sacramento native who has spent 19 months in combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, said soldiers are optimistic about Gates’ announcement.

“Soldiers are appreciative that this slight increase will permit an entire year home,” he wrote in an e-mail to City on a Hill Press.

Though no soldier wants to remain overseas longer than needed, “it’s much easier to continue with a current deployment than partitioning the same amount of time into multiple tours,” he added. “Organizations and individuals find a certain rhythm after extensive time together, especially in a combat zone.”