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Ga.-based troops who led 2003 invasion deploy for third Iraq tour

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FORT STEWART, Ga. — They’ve done it twice already in four years, but the third time isn’t any easier — Sgt. Michael Konvicka picks up his rifle to go to war while his wife takes up her knitting needles and crochets blankets to help pass the time while he’s away.
    ‘‘Every time I come back from Iraq, I tell my wife, ‘I’m done honey, stick a fork in me,’’’ said Konvicka, 36, of Flint, Mich. ‘‘I’m not really looking forward to it. But I’ve got 10 years in the Army and I’m not about to throw that away.’’
    Just hours before President Bush was to lay out his plan to beef-up U.S. forces in Iraq by 21,500, soldiers of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division said goodbye to their families Wednesday as they deployed on their third tour since the division helped lead the 2003 charge to Baghdad.
    The 3rd Infantry, which as about 19,000 troops, is the first Army division to be tapped for a third deployment to the war. Barely a year has passed since its soldiers returned from their last yearlong rotation.
    ‘‘It’s another year I have to endure, and it’s not easy,’’ said Konvicka’s wife, Sharon, resting her head on her husband’s shoulder as they sat outside hours before his flight while soldiers piled duffel bags and rucksacks into trucks for shipping to Iraq.
    Wives wept and wrapped their arms around husbands with rifles slung over their shoulders. About 400 troops of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment departing Wednesday are among 4,000 soldiers of the division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team deploying this month.
    ‘‘I hope it’s the last one,’’ said Staff Sgt. Harold Hensel, 30, of Little Valley, N.Y., hugging his pregnant wife, who is due in May, before leaving for his second combat tour. ‘‘I was hoping the first one was the last one. But duty calls.’’
    The 3rd Infantry’s three remaining combat brigades are scheduled to deploy later this year, including the 3rd Brigade at Fort Benning, Ga., where Bush planned a visit Thursday.
    Sgt. Brad Weston, 23, said he could see pros and cons to the president’s plan to increase troop levels in Iraq while he’s deployed there.
    ‘‘The benefit is you do get more time where you’re not having to be out patrolling,’’ said Weston of South Bend, Ind., who’s deploying on his third tour. ‘‘The negative thing is there’s more violence when there’re new people there who don’t know the area well.’’
    When the 3rd Infantry first deployed to Iraq in 2003 it quickly helped topple Saddam Hussein’s regime. During its second tour in 2005, troops saw Iraqis elect their first democratic government.
    But Cpl. Matt Venn, 21, of Wichita, Kan., said he sees few signs of hope in 2007 with the increasing violence from insurgents and sectarian militias.
    ‘‘There’s not many people over there who are on the straight and narrow,’’ said Venn, who had deployed to Iraq once before, in 2005. ‘‘Out of the year, you’ll find two families who are really innocent. And that’s the people, I guess, we’re trying to help out.’’
    Venn’s wife, Theresa, said she fears Iraq has become ‘‘a hopeless cause.’’ Unlike most military spouses, she served in Iraq in 2004 as a surgical technician treating everything from bullet wounds to burns and cuts from roadside bombs.
    ‘‘It makes it harder, because I’ve dealt with every injury known to man,’’ said Theresa Venn, 25, who is no longer in the military. ‘‘It’s unnerving, but I like to be positive and just put it out of my mind.’’
    Russ Bynum has covered the military based in Georgia since 2001.
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