Military families skeptical about Syria

Sep. 21, 2013 @ 02:00 PM

Will he or won't he? Will he go big and decisive or small and ineffectual? Will he order missile strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad or will President Obama take the lifeline offered last week by Russian President Vladimir Putin?

Can the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, which moved into the Red Sea on Sept. 2, head home as originally planned or will the more than 5,000 sailors and Marines serving on board have to notify loved ones that their six-month deployment has been extended for God only knows how long?

Such a confusing mix of crossed signals and contradictory statements has come out of Washington in the past few weeks, it's anyone's guess what will happen.

Sept. 9, Secretary of State John Kerry insisted that the response to Syria's use of chemical weapons -- should there be one -- would be very limited and "unbelievably small."

Yet, that same day Fox News' Chris Wallace challenged the president: "You keep talking about limited targeted military action, but the fact is, you don't know what happens after you order a strike." Obama tersely replied: "Well, actually, we know what Assad's capabilities are ... (they) are significant compared to a bunch of opposition leaders, many of whom are not professional fighters. They're significant relative to over 400 children that were gassed. They're not significant relative to the U.S. military."

Tough talk, that last statement -- and those with loved ones serving wonder exactly what the president is saying. Does he mean that should Assad retaliate with whatever capabilities Syria has, the U.S. military will respond with a bigger hammer? How? Could it possibly entail putting U.S. troops in theater?

The next night, in his speech to the American people, the president explained his reasons for limited military action against the Assad regime. His argument has merit and he clearly stated that he "will not put American boots on the ground in Syria ... (Rather) this would be a targeted strike to achieve a clear objective: deterring the use of chemical weapons and degrading Assad's capabilities."

On the other hand, he said that "the United States military doesn't do pinpricks." He also did not enlighten us as to what would happen should Syria -- or Iran -- retaliate.

The president assured Americans he would do whatever he could to avoid military action. He acknowledged that he is giving serious consideration to Russia's offer to broker a deal with Syria and the United Nations to remove Syria's chemical weapons.

The United States and Russia have agreed on a deal since this was written and on Friday Syria took the first step of submitting an initial declaration of its chemical weapons program to Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.)

The offer sprang from an ad-libbed comment from Kerry during the same interview in which he made his "unbelievably small" comments. Initially, State Department officials tried to walk back Kerry's words, saying the turnover comments were "rhetorical." They were caught off guard when Syrian and Russian officials suddenly announced they were willing to go along with such a solution.

Handing over the reins to Putin and the United Nations may be a bit galling, but in the end, it enables Obama to avoid the mortifying blow a "no" from Congress would very likely deal him were it to vote on military action.

No matter how well Obama laid out his reasons to attack Syria, he does not have the support of the American people. Although Syria is unlikely to develop into another Vietnam or Afghanistan, it does have every potential of blowing up into something that could require American troops on the ground. And America is sick and tired of war.

One can't help but wonder what those serving in our military think about this potential mission -- one that has no stated end goal and is neither clear nor defined. Of course, no one serving on active duty is going to tell us what he or she thinks -- or speak out against the president. They will follow orders faithfully.

But we parents, daughters, sons and siblings of service members hope that the president understands just how over-taxed our troops are and how depleted the defense budget is. While service members will follow orders without complaint, veterans and those who love a soldier, sailor, Marine or airman have plenty to say about this potential conflict.

Retired Chief Petty Officer Pamela Jacobsen told me, "We are relying on a government that can't even pass a budget to make this extremely sober decision about whether we should exert military action in Syria ... The Department of Defense is a skeleton of what it once was. We are asking our sailors, airmen, soldiers and Marines to do more with less and less and it is unsatisfactory and becoming impossible to sustain. . . It is another place where there are only not-so-good-guys and bad guys ... I was on the USS Cole in Oct 2000 when the ship was bombed. I know first-hand what the bad guys are capable of and it is horrific."

Navy veteran Peter Maxwell notes: "The president has talked about 'firing a shot across the bow' of Bashar Assad. What he means is attacking a sovereign nation. He vacillates about regime change and says he is not picking sides, yet talks of 'changing momentum on the battlefield.' The administration says there will be no boots on the ground. There will however be boots on steel decks of destroyers and aircraft carriers and in the cockpits of F/A 18s and Air Force bombers. If history is a lesson at all, those boots will eventually be on Syrian soil. I have a good idea where a boot should be placed and it isn't in Syria."

Paige Bartholomew, the mother of an Army soldier who has made multiple deployments to Iraq, writes; "I am sick in my stomach about this new war and don't trust anybody in Washington. I have seen the pain in the eyes of too many Gold Star families and am just too war-weary. I don't think I was this anxious when my son was deployed -- I had faith then."

We are all war-weary. Military families just want some normalcy. They want to put Christmas presents under the tree for their service member -- not ship them off to a faraway land. Children far too young to have such worries ache to see parents home safe and sound. Families are tired of extended deployments and empty beds.

Should diplomacy fail, pray that the president thinks long and hard before engaging American men and women in yet another conflict. Military families have already experienced too many late-night knocks on the door and flag-covered coffins.

Robin Beres can be reached at mberes@timesdispatch.com