From fighters to family men
By Sharon Behn - BAGHDAD — Thoughts have turned to home and family for soldiers in the 2-3 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, one of the first units set to complete extended deployments ordered by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to meet demands of the U.S. troop surge.
The conversation in the evening darkness outside the soldiers' "hooches," or where they live, is focusing more on wives and children, buying new trucks and that first cold beer.
"I'm looking forward to picking up my daughter from school," said Sgt. 1st Class Douglas Hale.
Other soldiers are more blunt about the first thing they want when they hit the ground. "Booze," said one staff sergeant, who quickly retracted that and said he was glad to be able to see his family again.
Some soldiers know they are coming back to Iraq within 15 months after they return home. The dates being mentioned are in 2009 — and that news has forced some to switch jobs to avoid spending another 15 months here.
Others are ready to return to the fight.
"I feel like it's my obligation. It's what I volunteered to do. It's what I trained to do," said Lt. Col. Barry Huggins, battalion commander of the 2-3 Stryker Brigade Combat Team out of Fort Lewis, Wash.
While the soldiers have had continued tactical successes on the ground during the six-month surge, the lack of significant visible change on the trash-filled streets of Baghdad and the perceived attitude of the Iraqis has left many discouraged.
There is a level of bitterness among some departing soldiers, many of whom have lost close friends to bombs and sniper fire.
"I hate Iraq," said one, asking that his comment be kept anonymous.
Privately, many soldiers also think the U.S. war against the "bad guys" here has reached a stalemate because of a lack of political progress, even if the American military presence is the only effective bulwark against even more violence.
Asked in the small on-base coffee shop — which serves ice-cold strawberry smoothies and lattes — whether the war was worth the misery it had caused, one soldier just said:
"No, it's not worth it." He also declined to give his name or rank.
Maj. Alfred Williams of the 2-3 Stryker Brigade, who will have completed a total of 27 months in Iraq by the time he leaves for home in September, is philosophical.
"The new strategies in place were slowly gaining traction," he said, and winning in Iraq "was all about time."
Incoming officers and soldiers generally are taking the tough reports and operational ups and downs in stride, although some are clearly anxious at the beginning of their latest deployments.
Troops received word from Mr. Gates in April that tours of duty for members of the U.S. Army were extended from one year to 15 months, effective immediately.
One newly arrived soldier, sitting alone quietly in a tent on the first day of his first deployment to Iraq, said he was "a little nervous" but leapt up to join his unit when he got the order to roll.
Another new commander was clearly jumpy on his first outing through the streets of the capital's Sunni areas, causing some discreet smiles by those who have been around a while.
But a lot of attention is going into preparing the incoming troops for the reality of today's Baghdad.
Even for those who have served here before, there is a lot more sniper fire, more bombs and more physical deterioration than two years ago. Sectarian lines are more clearly drawn and a lot more violent.
Lt. Col. Rod Coffey, the incoming battalion commander for the 3rd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment that will be replacing the Stryker Brigade, was in Iraq during the initial invasion.
This time around, he has made a point of visiting the different Iraqi Army patrol stations — sitting on the floor for a meal of cold fried fish and rice — in the Massafee neighborhood of Dora, a former al Qaeda stronghold.
"I fought over the same ground that we've been crisscrossing," Col. Coffey said later, sitting in a large tent that serves as his temporary headquarters.
"You do not ever want what we've sacrificed here to be in vain. Part of our job is to overcome obstacles, no matter how hard they look," he said.
Many of the incoming soldiers are combat veterans.
"I already did my 12-month adrenalin tour — now it's my 'be smart and use your head tour,' " said Sgt. Joseph Cox, 37, from Texas.
Sgt. Cox re-enlisted after his first tour, which stretched from Sept. 2004 to Sept. 2006, and has worked with many in his unit before.
"We came and lost 16 friends last time, and God knows how many we will lose this time," he said calmly smoking a cigarette in the intense heat of the Baghdad afternoon. "No matter whether we make a difference or not — we tried."
Sgt. Cox recalled reading a book about Teddy Roosevelt, who said he would not support a war that he was not willing to fight.
"Honestly, there were times I had my doubts," he said of his first tour. " I'd love to be back home. I'd rather be at Taco Bell with my kid — but someone's got to do it."