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Between War and Peace, U.S. Soldiers Feel Strain

June 29, 2003|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

RAMADI, Iraq — They are caught somewhere between an irregular war and an uneasy peace, an occupying army in a battered land fraught with uncertainty.

"This kind of war is a lot scarier for me," said Sgt. Douglas White, a reed-thin 21-year-old from Denver who was guiding a patrol along the lush Euphrates River here, northwest of Baghdad. "You see 9-year-old kids with guns.

"If someone comes up to you on a battlefield, you just light them up. You can't do that here."

A few miles away, Capt. James Dayhoff, also from Colorado, was setting up a checkpoint along a stretch of desolate highway.

"Every time you stop someone, you don't know if he's going to come out firing an AK-47, or just blow himself up, or cooperate," Dayhoff said as he maneuvered his troops in the post-midnight blackness.

The nearly 150,000 U.S. troops stationed in Iraq are a varied lot, and it is impossible to generalize about their feelings -- aside from the unanimous desire to get home safe to their families. But time spent with soldiers during the last week gives a glimpse of the gamut of emotions -- pride, fear, even anger -- about their assignment here in Iraq.

"What we're doing is very satisfying," Lt. Christopher S. Wenner, a 31-year-old National Guardsman from North Dakota, said as he bought ceiling fans to install in Iraqi schools -- one of many humanitarian missions here. "People are so happy to see us. You should see the looks on those kids' faces when we get in.... We're helping put Iraq back on its feet again."

But even as Wenner's detail shopped along a Baghdad boulevard, support troops kept their weapons trained on the bustling street and on adjacent rooftops. On Friday, a U.S. serviceman was shot in the neck at close range while shopping for DVDs in a predominantly Shiite Muslim neighborhood of Baghdad that had largely welcomed American forces.

"I'm more nervous now than I was at the beginning," said Sgt. 1st Class John Goerger, 36, who joined the North Dakota guard unit on its shopping excursion. "I know this: People are still dying."


Military Insecurity

Despite the highly visible presence of tanks, armored personnel vehicles and all manner of light and heavy weaponry, the troops are acutely aware that they are seldom fully secure. Determined snipers, hit-and-run assailants and suicide bombers can easily strike as troops run patrols, launch raids, staff checkpoints, guard strategic sites and work with civilians.

"During the war, we didn't let anyone get too close to us," said Lt. Jay Mechtly, a 23-year-old West Point graduate now based in Fallouja, the Sunni Muslim-dominated town 35 miles west of Baghdad where U.S. soldiers have been repeatedly attacked. "Now anyone can come up to us with a handgun and start shooting."

In the Fallouja area, many troops assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division are incensed that they weren't sent home after spearheading the attack on Baghdad in April, months after their deployment to the region last fall. Making matters worse is the precarious nature of their duties in the region, where attacks by people wielding anything from rocks to rifles to rocket-propelled grenades are common. Soldiers recently discovered a booby-trapped shell near a roadside soft-drink stand frequented by U.S. troops.

"This duty is absolutely ridiculous," said Sgt. 1st Class Richard Edwards, a 42-year-old from Brooklyn who was on night patrol in the rural area between Baghdad and Fallouja. "We are combat troops. We are trained in combat. We are not trained in peacekeeping. We should all be home by now.... It's like we won the Super Bowl but we have to keep on playing."

His partner, Sgt. 1st Class Andre LeGrant from Georgia, said the psychological strain has been immense.

"We fought and fought to survive, and we thought we were going home," LeGrant said as he guided his Humvee through a warren of rural alleys and along stands of palm and brush -- ideal ambush sites, he noted. "You're not really fighting an enemy anymore. You're more or less fighting terrorism.... We thought we would go home as heroes after taking Baghdad. Now look at us."

One night last week, along with basic patrol duties designed to demonstrate a "presence" and deter attacks, the three-vehicle convoy was also watching over tons of stainless steel that had been discovered in a warehouse. The troops' task was to deter looters -- a common mission in a nation where Saddam Hussein's fall unleashed an orgy of pillaging that badly damaged the nation's infrastructure.

"They need to get some police officers out here to do this kind of work," said Spc. Daniel Keene, 23, from Jackson, Miss., the third member of the Humvee crew. "Right now, I'm thinking about getting back home and seeing my little boy's first tooth. My wife says he's already teething."

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