BAGHDAD — The U.S. military in Iraq celebrated the Fourth of July with what it billed as "the largest re-enlistment ceremony ever held," and 1,215 soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen raised their hands and re-pledged allegiance to America.
Gen. David Petraeus, head of all coalition forces in Iraq, administered the oath in Saddam Hussein's former al-Faw Palace. John Phillip Sousa's marches blended with roars of "freedom," "hooah" and "oorah" from the men and women, many of them carrying their weapons, as they re-upped in their service branches.
Money was an incentive for many, but so was a belief in what they're doing more than five years into a war far away from their homes. Hundreds were in their second and third tours in the combat zone.
"There's no place I'd rather be to celebrate America's birthday than here in Iraq," said Petraeus, who described the troops as "America's new 'Greatest Generation.' " The troops' commitment and sacrifice, he added, have given the Iraqi people "the most precious gift … freedom."
The general compared the re-enlistees' raising of their right hands to the language on most award citations: "In keeping with the finest traditions of our military services." He said the combined total of their additional service amounted to 5,500 years.
"The millions of dollars" they receive was certainly one motive, he said, "but no bonus no matter the size can compare with the sacrifices you make in Iraq or the sacrifices your loved ones make back home."
Army re-enlistment bonuses top out at $40,000, Navy at $75,000, Air Force at $60,000 and the Marines at $45,000. A bonus' size also depends on rank, military specialty, years of extension, years of service and other factors. Re-enlistment bonuses signed up for in a combat zone become tax-free.
Two Army master sergeants, Christine Frauendorfer, a dining hall inspector with the 76th Infantry Brigade Combat Team in Balad, and Debra Bradshaw, who manages a dining hall in Baghdad's International Zone, re-upped for two and three years, respectively. Frauendorfer, in the Army for 23 years, and Bradshaw, for 28, mentioned both financial and patriotic motives for their decision.
Frauendorfer said she raised her right hand "so I could do my part — I feel they are making progress here." Added Bradshaw, on her second tour in Iraq, "The money ain't bad, but I'd rather deal with the situation over here than at home." She'll retire in 2011, and said when she gets older, "I want to have so many irons in the fire that I don't have to decide whether I can buy my medicine or pay my electric bill."
At least two husband-and-wife teams were sworn in at the ceremony. Sgt. Ryan Lowe, a military policeman from the 18th MP Brigade, and his wife, Sgt. Erika Lowe, also a military police officer, said they re-enlisted to go to Belgium, and both intend to make the Army a career. Ryan is in his 23rd straight month in Iraq and said he extended his tour to stay with his wife.
Army Reservist Staff Sgt. Jessica Wilson is the noncommissioned officer in charge of the New Orleans-based 215th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment's broadcast section where she produces videos for soldiers and their families. Her husband, Sgt. Kirk Wilson, is also an Army broadcast journalist, and they've been deployed together three times — to Bosnia, Guantanamo Bay and Iraq.
After the ceremony, in one of the late dictator's 99 palaces — this one used to entertain loyal members of his Baathist party — the newly committed troops ate pizza and drank Gatorade.