Eleven-year-old Paige Cheney’s freckled face furrowed slightly as the late afternoon sun began sinking behind the playground on the army base she calls home.
“When I miss him most, I turn on my favorite radio station and it soothes me. They talk a lot about peace. The other night they were talking about grace. It helps,” she said.
The person she misses is her father, Major Todd Cheney, who is on his third deployment in the “war on terror”, serving once in Iraq and now on a second tour in .
How long has he been away this time?
“One hundred thirty days,” she said, without hesitation. He’s due back home in March 2016, on a date yet to be decided.
A few months ago, Paige could have expected that after her father, an army chaplain, comes home next spring he might not be going back to or Afghanistan yet again in the near future.
But that’s no longer a guarantee, since President Barack Obama in mid-October that all troops won’t be brought home from Afghanistan by the end of 2016, as had been planned.
Obama insisted he did not want to get into an “endless war”. But that’s what some critics are the new policy position.
Weeks later, the administration it is considering more special forces in Syria, having previously refused to install “boots on the ground”.
And while the White House has said there is no move towards putting general combat troops there, some such as congressional intelligence committee Democrat Eric Swalwell are already warning about “mission creep” that could “US soldiers on the ground”.
Fort Drum, home to America’s most deployed unit
The 10th Mountain Division army unit, based in the far reaches of upstate at Fort Drum, is frequently cited as the most deployed unit in the army and, in various numbers, has been continuously deployed in Afghanistan or Iraq since shortly after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.
This November, soldiers and families at Fort Drum will mark the longest war in American history, with the 14th anniversary of the US invasion of Afghanistan in November 2001, which included 10th Mountain troops as the first infantry sent overseas in that conflict.
Military kids such as Paige Cheney weren’t even born when 9/11 occurred, and only know that their country is fighting a war against terrorism that will perhaps draw their parents in again.
Paige’s mother, Kristin, said that internet services in some war zones are a modern blessing and Paige and her brother, Trevor, eight, get face time with their father on screen about three times a week.
“They don’t necessarily want to talk about Dad being gone, but they have all the emotions and don’t know how to express them. I find they become angry and frustrated sooner; the little one whines more or cries a lot faster, it can come out in explosive ways,” she said.
Her strategy is maximum patience, hugs and family activities, she said.
Captain Kris Baker is on the fifth deployment of his career. The joke in his family is that if he comes up for deployment again after returning home from Iraq next year, his children are going to “have a talk” with his commanding officer.
“The news media is toeing the line and saying they are bringing them all home and that’s not the case here at Fort Drum,” said Kris’s wife, Jennifer. “The community is marvelous, it’s really bonded together and people reach out to others for sure. Half of the ladies in my Bible study class on Tuesdays, their husbands are deployed.”
“It’s hard on kids’ hearts,” Jennifer Baker added, although the whole community rallies untiringly and she loves Fort Drum, she said.
Fort Drum, just minutes from Lake Ontario and the Canadian border, is dominated by the 10th Mountain Division and currently has about 3,000 (or a third) of its combat soldiers deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan, and a small team of 300 in South Korea.
The 10th Mountain has lost 323 soldiers since 9/11, a figure that incorporates both combat deaths and suicides. Most of those are combat deaths, according to a Fort Drum spokesperson, but she was not able to provide the number of suicides.
Two soldiers have earned the highest gallantry commendation, the Medal of Honor, since 9/11; one has been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross; and one soldier has won two Silver Stars.
A group of five military wives sitting in a group in one of the infantry buildings on post talked to the Guardian about their husbands’ current deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, appearing a little nervous as they were accompanied by the wife of one of the brigade commanders.
They all agreed that they were not surprised the war had lasted this long and that they knew what they were getting into when they said “I do”.
They also acknowledged that none of them knew exactly when their husbands were coming home – but they disagreed on whether it was better for their children to celebrate Christmas or postpone it until their husbands could be there.
“We like to postpone it until Daddy is home,” said Rashel Stanczak, whose husband, John, has been in Kandahar since the end of June. Her two boys are aged seven and four.
The younger one is “going through night frights”, she said, and she has tried taping a picture of his father to the bed frame to see if that will help.
Renee Doyle’s husband David commands the division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team and since he joined the army in 1994 has been deployed for 80 months – almost seven years – across various units.
“You stop counting after a while,” she said. Their two children are now in their late 20s, but the family has previously been known to celebrate Christmas in February, she said.
Sarah Jackson said she and her four children celebrate all holidays and birthdays when they officially occur when her husband Michael is deployed, “because life goes on”.
“He doesn’t want us to put our lives on hold,” she said.
Unlike the junior enlisted soldiers who are simply assigned to 10th Mountain, the Jacksons chose Fort Drum.
“It’s an adventure. We visit Canada, we went to New York City the other weekend,” said Jackson.
The wives declined to discuss the possible where and when of future deployments, except for Doyle saying deploying again is an “inevitability”.
Another wife requested that the family’s names and home location not be used because of security fears, citing a of Isis militants hacking into military wives’ social media accounts.
Talking to her at her home not far from Fort Drum, she said her husband had enlisted in the army in 2004 after college because he wanted to make a difference in the war on terror, but during the course of several deployments the couple’s views had shifted.
“This war is now a complete waste of time, it’s just political,” she said.
She said she and her two young daughters are resilient, “but it gets really lonely”.
“My daughter lies in bed with me and says she is sad and she cries a bit,” she said.
The woman said this was the fifth or sixth time her husband had deployed – “I’ve lost track.”
He injured his back after being close to an incident in Iraq in 2006 where the truck driving in front of his was blown up by an improvised explosive device. One of his friends died and the other suffered a traumatic brain injury. When her husband came back, she noticed he was quicker to anger than she remembered, and had trouble sleeping. She believes a lot of post-traumatic stress disorder goes undiagnosed.
She said some in the army are asking why the US is still having to deal with “the mess” in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The frustrating thing is that he has been deployed many times, and while he was doing officer training down south he met a bunch of lieutenants assigned to units that were not set to deploy.
“There’s no formula to share out the ‘this guy deploys a lot, others get a cushy job in DC’,” she said.
The fact that her husband is now in intelligence, not an infantry soldier, “does not erase anxiety, but it helps”, she said.
On an unseasonably warm early November day near the base, Captain John Goodwill was training the next generation who are now likely to be sent into harm’s way sooner rather than later. Normally there would be snow at Fort Drum by now.
He taught the new recruits the basics of laying down cover fire while rushing the enemy, in an orderly fashion he summarized as “controlled violence”.
Two A-10 bombers were buzzing low in the distance. One dropped a small bomb.
The soldiers were sweating under the weight of Kevlar vests and helmets, ammunition, water bottles and assault rifles. They had slept out the night before in a copse of birch trees nearby.
Goodwill has been deployed twice to Afghanistan, suffered a traumatic brain injury when his base took artillery fire and lost a soldier in the mountains whose last words to him were “help me, sir” after a bullet entered his chest just above his vest and exited his lower back.
Goodwill has three children under the age of three and a wife “who’s a saint”, he said.
“I’m a bit removed from the real debt-payers now I’m commanding not rifling – that’s these guys, they’re the ones who pay the price,” he said, pointing at the squaddies running across the training range in front of him.
Raymond Flick, 25, from Pueblo, Colorado, and has already served six years and been to Afghanistan.
“What’s the point in doing all this if you don’t deploy? No one says ‘I would like to get shot at today’ but it’s cool to be in this division. We’re known as the ready force; it’s what we do,” he said.