Military Wife Rebuked for E-Mail

By Christian Davenport

Susan Peacock thought that the 400th Military Police Battalion Family Readiness Group was there to provide solace and support for spouses of soldiers shipped to Iraq.

But when she read her e-mail July 15, she was appalled at what she saw. Group leaders were playing what one later called "hardball" with the Columbia mother of two and other 400th family members.

"OK this has gone far enough!" they wrote. The message said that "certain people are getting their soldiers in trouble" and that the unit's e-mail list had been sent to the Pentagon "for possible security violations and will be closely monitored."

A few days earlier, Peacock had heard a news report about an explosion outside Baghdad, near where the 400th, her husband's unit, was based. Since he'd left this spring, she'd grown skeptical of the military's unfailingly rosy accounts of the 400th's status.

Desperately worried, she tried to get information about the blast from family support staff and Army officials at Fort Meade, where the 400th is based. But after three days of inquiries, Peacock said she still knew nothing.

That's when she decided the other wives of the 400th might want to know about the incident. She sent an e-mail telling everyone what she'd heard.

"Evidently everything is not fine," she said she wrote.

Military families have always walked a difficult path in wartime -- balancing loyalty to the cause, hunger for information about loved ones and, sometimes, misgivings about the mission. The military, in turn, has tried to quell dissent with appeals to spouses' sense of patriotism, urging them to button up because "loose lips sink ships."

Now, in the age of e-mail and satellite phones, those loose lips can spread information instantaneously. And as the military tries to keep public opinion from souring on the conflict in Iraq, it is scrambling to control the velocity -- and volume -- of information.

"You have a situation over there where everybody ain't happy; that's just the way it is," said Jack Gordon, a spokesman for the Army Reserve's 99th Regional Readiness Command.

"Being a soldier has always entailed not being happy all the time. There are going to be grumbles and complaints as this continues. The difference is now these grumbles and complaints become public almost immediately."

Afraid that such publicity can affect morale, his office recently posted an article for soldiers on its Web site with the headline: "Got a Gripe? Watch Where You Air Your Frustrations -- It Just Might Make News." The posting was part of the fallout from a July 16 ABC News report in which Spec. Clinton Dietz of the 3rd Infantry Division said: "If [Defense Secretary] Donald Rumsfeld was here, I'd ask him for his resignation."

Lisa Torey, the family program coordinator for the 220th Military Police Brigade, which oversees the 400th, said in an interview that there were no injuries in the blast Peacock was asking about. Peacock's e-mail, she said, was distressing to many families who don't watch the news and don't want bits of information dripping in from unofficial sources. They have a right, she said, not to be disturbed with troubling news.

She added that there had been several other "violations" regarding use of the e-mail chain. Torey, a civilian volunteer whose husband is deployed in Iraq, wouldn't specify what those were, but she said she had to put a stop to them.

"We have 150,000 troops over there," she said. "Someone could say something, and that information could get to the wrong person. And then ultimately you could have the worst-case scenario, and we have a dead soldier on our hands."

In a follow-up e-mail to the family members of the 400th on Tuesday, Torey backed off, writing that "no one is in trouble with the Pentagon or Higher Headquarters." She wrote that she "had to play hardball and get you to stop immediately because that fine line regarding breach of security was almost crossed."

Finally, she added: "You also have to remember that your loved ones volunteered to do this, they may have done it with the impression that they would never go anywhere because they are 'Reservists,' but they knew that was a possibility when they signed that dotted line."

The 400th is not the only unit whose families have recently received e-mails encouraging them to put a lid on their complaints. Anita Blount, wife of Maj. Gen. Buford C. Blount III, commander of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, wrote that she shared their frustration about the length of the division's deployment to Iraq.

She went on to say that she knows "many of you believe you should embark on a campaign to raise awareness of the need for the [3rd Infantry Division] to return. We need to be aware of a possible outcome of our outcries that could backfire on us directly."

She said that "when the Iraqis see media coverage of disgruntled Americans, publicly campaigning for the return of our soldiers from Iraq, they are encouraged and believe their strategy is working. They believe that their continued attacks on American soldiers are having the desired affect and are diminishing the resolve of the American people to complete the task in Iraq."

Her letter was praised by R.L. Brownlee, acting secretary of the Army, who wrote her an e-mail that said: "Your call to endure continued separation and fight cynicism will encourage others to persevere."

Despite the tensions between some spouses and family support personnel, many wives say the service is a valuable one.

Noreen Knight of Edgewood, Md., whose husband, Tim, is a sergeant with the 443rd, said, "there's always a lot of helpful information" in the e-mails. Her group leader has sent out everything from how to send a care package, to notices about free child care and updates about the lengths of deployment.

That's how the family readiness groups should be used, Gordon said. They are there to help families negotiate tough times, get them counseling if they need it or information about everything from health insurance to family finances. The groups were "created in an attempt to lessen the stresses of the families at home by sharing information," he said.

Cathy Mullaney of Damascus, whose husband, John, is a captain with the 443rd Military Police Company, said the encouragement she gets from her unit's family support leader helps lift her spirits on days when she's so weighted by worry she has to force herself out of bed in the morning.

What she really appreciates is when the group leader shows that she is also having a tough time. "It lets us know that everything we're going through is normal," Mullaney said.

"Some days, we're all Mr. and Mrs. Patriot," she said. "And the next day, we're like, 'How could the government take them from us?' "

Staff writer John F. Kelly contributed to this report.

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