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Middle America counts the cost as loved ones fail to return home

From Roland Watson in Washington

APRIL has been the cruellest month for the families of Americans serving in Iraq.

It was supposed to be a time of keen anticipation in communities across Middle America, in east Mississippi, rural Wisconsin and small-town Texas. Parties and parades were planned, “Welcome Home” signs painted and long- delayed honeymoons booked.

Instead, telephone calls that the recipients will never forget have brought only grief. Their loved ones are not coming home after all. They have had their tours of duty extended; they are missing after being kidnapped; or they are dead.

This has been the week in which Iraq has come crashing into American living rooms like no other time in the past year. A confluence of vivid events has altered the landscape at home, perhaps permanently. That is not to say that President Bush’s re-election hopes are necessarily holed. But the consequences of his decision to go to war with Iraq are now plaguing the waking and sleeping hours of a large number of voters.

Those consequences affect not only the families of the nearly 90 American troops who have died so far this month, or the nearly 600 injured, or the 20,000 who were already packing to return home when told they were staying in Iraq. They also have a ripple effect through neighbourhoods in this community-minded nation which, in many cases, is turning grief to anger.

Two families in particular have highlighted the agonies of life on the home front. The Witmers of New Berlin, Wisconsin, were looking forward to the return of their three daughters, all of whom were serving with the National Guard in Iraq, when they received news that one of them had been killed.

Michelle Witmer, 20, was shot dead when her armoured vehicle came under fire on a patrol in Baghdad. The private was trying to return fire when she was hit. She was the first member of the Wisconsin National Guard to die in military combat since the Second World War.

Two days later, with families of the 157 members of the 32nd Military Police company still digesting the news, came a second bombshell. The troops would not be coming home next month. Because of the spiral of violence that claimed the life of Private Witmer and scores of others, the soldiers would remain in Iraq for another three months.

Many members of the unit had already started to send possessions home: DVD players, extra supplies they would not get around to using in their remaining weeks.

Several officers were actually boarding a plane to Kuwait to plan the unit’s demobilisation when they were hauled back. Stories of thwarted returns are now legion after Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defence, officially announced that 20,000 troops would be staying “in theatre”.

Members of the 94th Military Police Unit were clearing Customs with buses waiting outside when they were called back.

Corporal Robert Harter had made it all the way home to California to prepare the way for the return of the rest of the 1st Armoured Division. He had time to take his nine-year-old son swimming before taking his barely unpacked bags back to Iraq.

Some soldiers have been unable to break the news to their families themselves, knowing the hurt it will cause, and have telephoned neighbours to ask them to act as intermediaries.

The delay is stoking resentment at home. Troops were initially mobilised for a year’s service.

Last summer the Pentagon changed the rules, saying that the year had to be 12 months of “boots on the ground” in hostile territory. The months of mobilising, training and deploying no longer counted.

Some families of soldiers are responding with an Internet campaign to urge President Bush and members of Congress to intervene to bring back the 160 soldiers, who had been scheduled to return from Iraq by early next month.

“We are not anti-war,” said Linda Aber, whose 22-year-old daughter, Kelli, is in the military police unit. “We feel it is unfair at this point. Mentally, we feel they are spent . . . We are trying to put some pressure on politicians to help.”

Military families tend to be patriotic and loyal to their President. But for many the sadness has been trumped by anger, according to Donna Finney, who runs a hotline to help families of soldiers to cope.

A group of families opposed to the war, Military Families Speak Out, held a second protest in as many months outside the White House this week.

Some commanders were initially told they would have to stay an extra 120 days rather than the 90, until it became clear they may have a mutiny on their hands. Michelle Witmer’s father, John, has urged his other two daughters, Rachel, 24, who is also with the 32nd, and Charity, Michelle’s identical twin who is a medic with the 118th medical battalion, not to go back to Iraq after returning for their sister’s funeral. They have yet to decide what to do.

In Mississippi, another family is caught in a nightmarish waiting game, unable to proceed with their lives until they find out Tommy Hamill’s fate.

It is more than a week since kidnappers said that the lorry driver would be killed unless US troops withdrew.

Eight other people in his fuel convoy, including two US soldiers, were also captured. Since then the remains of four mangled bodies have been unearthed from shallow graves near Fallujah, and one of the soldiers appeared on a video released last night in the custody of armed Iraqi guerrillas.

Mr Hamill’s disappearance has drawn attention to the thousands of private contractors in Iraq, drawn to the work by $80,000-plus (£44,900) salaries offered by companies such as Halliburton.

In Terrell, Texas, they were preparing to welcome home Sergeant Geraldo Moreno.

Businesses did indeed allow employees to leave work and line the streets with the rest of the town, but it was to watch silently as Sergeant Moreno’s coffin was driven by.