YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Some GIs in Iraq Look Homeward; Others Dig In

Many remain optimistic about the mission, but others question their accomplishments. Family men fret about what they're missing.

June 05, 2005|Antonio Castaneda | Associated Press Writer

RAMADI, Iraq — Sgt. Shawn Biederman is simply trying to survive the next two months and make it home. His unit mate, Spc. Brent Short, has just signed up for a one-year extension.

As another summer of searing heat bears down on Iraq, many soldiers in this troubled Sunni-dominated region of central Iraq say they remain as committed as ever to winning the war, however long it takes. Others fret about missing newborns' first words or precious time with young wives.

Still others worry about the slow pace of creating an Iraqi force to relieve them, and say they aren't sure that they are accomplishing anything real.

"We want to hand it over to them. But when it comes down to it, the [Iraqi police] we're hiring are all bad," Army Sgt. Nicholas Radde, 21, of LaCrosse, Wis., said as his soldiers took a break from the heat in the parking lot of an abandoned storage area.

Despite two interim Iraqi governments, a national election and the graduation of thousands of Iraqi soldiers, U.S. troops remain the ultimate security force in most of Iraq, more than two years after the U.S.-led invasion.

In May, when U.S. Marines led a major assault against insurgents near the Syrian border and lost nine troops, the Iraqi forces played a secondary role.

As the elected Iraqi government tries to coax a wary Sunni Arab population into joining the new political system, American soldiers continue to raid homes, patrol neighborhoods and hurriedly train Iraqi soldiers -- the faster the better if they are to get home soon.

But a resilient Sunni-led insurgency has effectively stalled progress, killing thousands of Iraqis.

In Shiite- and Kurdish-dominated areas, some Iraqi forces are starting to operate independently, but at a frustratingly slow pace.

In Ramadi, capital of Iraq's most troubled province, Radde and his soldiers have seen a tougher fight.

Radde decided against reenlisting in the Army, saying he has barely seen his wife since they exchanged vows. But even after deployments in Afghanistan, Korea and nearly a year in Iraq, he still seems to enjoy soldiering, quickly hopping out of his Humvee to set up a sniper position when a report comes in of suspicious people along a road.

Other soldiers are eagerly reenlisting, and some are even asking to stay in Iraq longer.

Short, 22, of Odessa, Texas, who has already served 10 months in Iraq, requested a one-year extension.

"I think it's going well here," said Short, dismounting from a gunner's turret atop a baking Humvee after his unit detained a man suspected of making fake Iraqi passports.

A fellow soldier called Short "insane" for asking to stay longer in Ramadi, but Short said he wanted to put his knowledge of the city of 350,000 to use -- and acknowledged that the death of his best friend influenced his decision.

"If I leave here, I think it'll be unresolved," he said.

Short and Radde belong to the Army's 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry, 2nd Infantry Division, which served in Korea for nine months before being sent to Iraq.

That means that most have been home only about a month since autumn 2003.

The soldiers have about two months left in Iraq -- barring an extension -- before they hand off to the Pennsylvania National Guard.

"A lot of us are just trying to survive and make it through the next two months," said Biederman, 27, of Philadelphia, riding in the back of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle. He has an infant daughter back home.

To some soldiers in the 1st Battalion, the mission in Iraq is critically important to the United States.

"Every day that we're here, it makes the region safer and it makes the U.S. safer," said Sgt. 1st Class Jefferson Pridgen, a career Army soldier from Lakeland, Fla.

But other soldiers in the same unit express unease about the state of Iraq, particularly around Ramadi, where many Iraqis are either sympathetic to the insurgency or too afraid of retribution to tip off the military to the presence of fighters.

A stable city council has yet to be formed in Ramadi and U.S. soldiers suspect that insurgents have infiltrated the police department.

"I really don't think that we can finish this anytime soon," said Spc. Matthew Reba, 24, of Venice, Fla., bouncing in the back of a Bradley on the hunt for insurgents who had just fired at a U.S. base. Reba lost his best friend in Iraq and has decided against reenlisting.

Other 1st Battalion soldiers say they just focus on their assigned tasks, look forward to returning home and hope that Iraqis will soon turn against the insurgency.

"There's a lot of bad things happening, but our platoon is pretty good at keeping our head in the game," said Sgt. Chris Lambert, 25, of Cincinnati, guarding the front of an apartment building while U.S. and Iraqi solders searched inside.

"I like to think we're doing some good," he said. "But it's hard to tell."

Los Angeles Times Articles