What about going home
New York Times
June 15, 2003
Anxious and Weary of War, G.I.'s Face a New Iraq Mission

BAGHDAD, Iraq, June 14 — Sgt. Jaime A. Betancourt was there in March when a taxi loaded with explosives killed four of his company's soldiers at a checkpoint. He was there in April when his battalion seized the road out of the international airport and Saddam Hussein's army made its last desperate defense.

He was there later that month when his company, part of the First Brigade of the Army's Third Infantry Division, crossed the Tigris River and began to restore order in Baghdad's eastern half as chaos threatened to unravel the victory the brigade had helped win.

He is still here today, enduring infernal heat and fetid quarters in the ransacked headquarters of Iraq's Interior Ministry, as much of the Third Infantry Division remains in the city it helped conquer, interacting with people it once saw as the enemy.

"I think that was the most scary thing — trusting civilians, especially after the car bomb," Sergeant Betancourt, 21, said, referring to the taxi bombing, the worst single attack against the brigade's troops, on March 29, near Najaf, about 85 miles south of Baghdad. "We didn't want nothing to do with these people anymore."

As he stood guard at a hospital, as he enforced curfew at checkpoints, as he patrolled streets once again bustling with Iraqis, even the children terrified Sergeant  Betancourt, who appears barely older than a child himself.

"At the end," he said, "it was like, `Get that kid away from me.' "

It was not supposed to end this way for the brigade's 5,000 soldiers, who were accompanied by a reporter during the war and again this month in Baghdad. After fighting their way from the Kuwaiti border to Saddam International Airport in three fierce weeks, they believed that the war — or at least their part of it — was over.

Six months after arriving in Kuwait and almost three months after entering Iraq, they were ready to go home. Then they discovered that, at least from a soldier's-eye view on the ground, there seemed to be no American plan for a postwar Iraq.

The mayhem that followed the collapse of Mr. Hussein's government on April 9 has thrust them into a new mission: keeping peace, even as their weary minds and bodies are still at war.

"You call Donald Rumsfeld and tell him our sorry asses are ready to go home," Pfc. Matthew C. O'Dell, an infantryman in Sergeant Betancourt's platoon, said as he stood guard on Tuesday. "Tell him to come spend a night in our building."

Two months after surging into Baghdad, the First Brigade's soldiers have found themselves enmeshed in yet another war — less intense, perhaps, but still exhausting, still perilous and, at times, still psychologically taxing. Some are haunted by the deaths they caused — and suffered — and have sought counseling. All are tired and hot and increasingly bitter. Morale has plummeted as sharply as the temperature has risen.

Last Saturday night, Sergeant Betancourt's company sent a Humvee and an armored personnel carrier on a mission to fix the satellite phone their company had bought in Baghdad. As they were returning, someone threw a grenade from an overpass. It  exploded only a few feet away, rattling but not seriously wounding two soldiers.

"If it had been a split second earlier, it'd have been bad," Staff Sgt. Ray B. Robinson, a squad leader in Sergeant Betancourt's company, said. "They're killing us."

He added later, "Enough is enough."

Curfew Enforcing the Peace at the End of the War

When the First Brigade's troops arrived in late April, replacing the marines who had seized the area as Mr. Hussein's control evaporated, they encountered fires, looting and rampant violence. The brigade's sectors covered a wide swath where more than a million Iraqis — Sunnis, Shiites and Christians — live in a volatile mix.

The brigade, commanded by Col. William F. Grimsley, imposed a curfew, from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m., and began arresting those who violated it, as many as 1,000 people a night. Colonel Grimsley said troops had killed more than 100 Iraqis who appeared to pose a threat to American forces.

On May 8, a crowd gathered in the street around Pfc. Marlin T. Rockhold, 23, of Hamilton, Ohio, as he was directing traffic at a bridge in northern Baghdad. A man with a gun approached him from behind and shot him dead. Another soldier from the unit — the brigade's Third Battalion, Seventh Infantry Regiment — was wounded in a similar attack, leading officers to believe that both attacks were the work of one man. Whoever it was escaped.

On May 26, Pfc. Jeremiah D. Smith died when a remote-controlled mine detonated under his Humvee as he was escorting new troops and equipment to and from the airport. Private Smith, 25, was a member of the 34th Armored Regiment at Fort Riley, Kan., but was assigned to the brigade's Second Battalion, Seventh Infantry Regiment. He died two days before he was scheduled to go home. Three other soldiers were wounded.

Now, this part of Baghdad, like much of the rest of Iraq, has returned to normal, at least as normal is defined here: dust and poverty, trash-filled gutters and pools of sewage in streets and courtyards. The number of nightly arrests has fallen sharply. One night last week, soldiers confiscated only three rifles and three pistols, compared with hundreds taken nightly in the beginning.

"It's not the Wild West anymore," said Lt. Col. Todd R. Wood, the new commander of the Second Battalion.

After six weeks of patrols in his area, Colonel Grimsley said the level of violent crime was lower than in Atlanta, the nearest big city to the brigade's base in Georgia. Shops and cafes have reopened. Vendors have appeared again on sidewalks, selling cigarettes and sodas. Traffic, even traffic jams, have returned.

"When this bicycle shop opened about a week after we got here, I knew we were going to be O.K.," Colonel Grimsley said as he rode in an armored Humvee through Adhamiya, the neighborhood where Mr. Hussein is reported to have made his last known public appearance, on April 9, just as Baghdad was about to fall.

But the situation is still unstable. On June 1, a firefight erupted at the Abu Hanifa Mosque only a few hundred yards from the bicycle shop. A grenade was thrown from a car toward soldiers guarding a checkpoint. Snipers opened fire from at least one building nearby. Two soldiers from the First Armored Division were wounded. An Iraqi civilian died.

Charity Restoring a City a Step at a Time

With the war over, the brigade's soldiers turned to what Colonel Grimsley called "little good works," projects intended to rebuild Baghdad and to build trust in an occupying force.

Through the last days of April and into May, the brigade cleared the streets of the detritus of war: hundreds of burned vehicles, piles of masonry and brick, garbage spilling off sidewalks, the rotting carcasses of donkeys, cows and dogs.

Lt. Col. Thomas P. Smith, commander of the brigade's 11th Engineer Battalion, estimated that the troops had removed hundreds of tons of debris as well as thousands of weapons and untold rounds of ammunition, stockpiling them for what will someday be the new Iraqi Army.

More than 40 million dinars that had been found or confiscated — $200,000 to $300,000, depending on the wildly fluctuating exchange rate — was turned over to schools and hospitals or used to hire hundreds of day laborers, desperate for work.

One night the brigade arrested scores of looters; the next day they hired many of them.

For the soldiers, it was a jarring transition. Many had served as peacekeepers in Bosnia or Kosovo, but few felt prepared to restore order to a country so soon after war.

"How do you want to break down this wall of wanting to fight?" said Capt. James R. Lockridge, a combat engineer whose job only weeks ago had been to clear mines, to knock down enemy defenses, to destroy weapons and ammunition.

The other day he found himself walking through Al Wasity Hospital, which looters had stripped of virtually everything down to electrical wires, as they had in so many hospitals in Baghdad.

The hospital has become a pet project. Captain Lockridge hired Adnan al-Safar, an electrical engineer, as his foreman, and together they oversaw repairs, replacing lights and circuit breakers, reinstalling air-conditioners, unclogging sewage lines and repairing pipes that had left the hospital without running water.

"You have to trust them," he said in a corridor crowded with patients: men with gunshot wounds, children with broken limbs, women with newborns. "There are 40 or 50 Iraqis around us right now. There could be a suicide bomber."

He paused and added: "At some point you just have to let go. You have to let go of that fear or you won't get anything done."

The needs are immense, his means limited. His goal, he said, was simply "getting Baghdad back to where it's Baghdad."

As he walked out of the hospital, the hospital's ambulance driver confronted him. The hospital had only one ambulance and needed more. "I think there's one over at the Police Academy," Captain Lockridge told him, through an interpreter. "I'll look into that today."

Morale News From Home Is Not Always Good

The First Brigade received orders in May to prepare to go home via Kuwait. Late last month, Maj. Mark B. Nordstrom, the brigade chaplain, and Capt. Kevin A. Bayles, the brigade doctor, gave their briefings to soldiers about the emotional and physical adjustments they were likely to experience.

Their replacements, the First Armored Division, had arrived and had begun to take over their patrols.

Then a new order came. The First Brigade would stay to act as a reserve in case Baghdad tumbled back into anarchy; its sister brigade, the Second, went to quell pockets of fighters in Falluja, to the west. Only the Third Brigade was going home, along with unneeded units, like the artillery battalions and the division's band.

Back in Georgia, where the Third Infantry Division is based at Fort Stewart and Fort Benning, families had already made "Welcome Home" banners. They were told to stop sending mail on May 21, so most soldiers are not receiving letters or packages anymore.

Major Nordstrom described the last two weeks as "the hardest weeks of my career as a chaplain." He drew a distinction between morale and "fighting morale." He said he meant that the soldiers would still do their jobs, but that they were not happy about it.

Several soldiers have received psychological counseling after showing signs of combat stress: nightmares, sleeplessness, edginess, outbursts of anger and what the chaplain called "intrusive thoughts."

"We have guys whose wives are sick, but not sick enough for them to get emergency leave; guys whose wives are cheating on them — they've heard through the grapevine," Major Nordstrom said. "And you know, the hardest thing is we don't have anything to offer them."

The mission remains as important as the battles that preceded it, for if some order is not brought to Iraq and the economy restored to a functioning state, the war these men fought so hard to win may seem to have been in vain.

Colonel Grimsley puts it in a larger, political context, understanding the importance of success in Iraq for President Bush and his re-election campaign next year.

"They have invested everything in this," he said.

For the soldiers, this is little solace.

Private O'Dell's wife gave birth to a son on May 31. Sergeant Betancourt married his wife, Nadine, on Dec. 30 and on Jan. 5 reported to a new assignment at Fort Stewart. By the end of that month, he was in Kuwait. He has spent six days with his new wife.

He is of Colombian descent, born in Miami, raised in Medellνn. He attended a military academy in Colombia, but spent his last year of high school in Miami so he could learn English and join the Army.

"It wouldn't be so bad if they said nothing," Sergeant Betancourt said about going home.

Then he echoed a complaint heard without exception among the brigade's soldiers. "We're war fighters," he said. "Our job is done."

It was the division's commander, Maj. Gen. Buford C. Blount III, who broke the news of the assignment extension during a conference call to reporters in Georgia two weeks ago. He acknowledged the strains it was causing but said that with a new mission, "morale's getting better every day."

Almost no one here seems to see it that way. Most of the brigade's troops — the staff members at headquarters and the Second Battalion — are stationed around the Interior Ministry not far from the city's Olympic Stadium. As many as 10 soldiers to a room live in the building's offices, where there is sporadic electricity and no running water.

The building is hot and stifling and reeks of sweat and filth and human waste. Some soldiers have bought air-conditioners, but they are only as reliable as the electricity. During the day, a dusty, smoky haze settles over Baghdad. Helicopters thud slowly overhead, searching for signs of unrest. At night, there are distant bursts of gunfire, but nowhere near the number these soldiers heard when they first arrived. Things feel safer, but not safe.

Authority Shifting From Battle to Public Relations

First Lt. Wayne Sok rode a tank as the brigade fought its way to Baghdad. He rides a Humvee now, patrolling the dusty, trash-strewn neighborhood of Riyadh in the city's southeast sector.

During the war, he and the tank crew he commanded killed dozens of Iraqi fighters. During the peace, he organized the election of Iraqis to a neighborhood advisory council. In the neighborhood, he is the face of absolute authority. He is 25.

Last Friday, still in his flak vest, he negotiated a microloan for two of the council's members, Huda Ismail Muhammad and Safana Abdul Hamid Ali. Colonel Grimsley had offered to give the two women money to create a small business selling the kerchiefs and tablecloths they knit at home.

"Four sewing machines," the committee's president, Salaam Hanoon Moslit, said, acting as translator and mediator, as he began to enumerate their needs. "Is it reasonable?"

"Whatever you want," the lieutenant said.

The women conferred in rapid Arabic.

"Six machines," Mr. Moslit said.

By the time they asked for an air-conditioner and a car, it was clear there was a misunderstanding. The women wanted to open a factory; the lieutenant explained that the idea was for them to profit from the work they did at home.

Lieutenant Sok returned to the council's next meeting, on Tuesday night, with a compromise: the Army would give the women $500 to help them make enough of their knittings to sell at a market and provide them with customers by busing in officials with the new interim American authority under L. Paul Bremer III, the Bush administration's provisional governor.

"We will do our best to make it successful; first for us, second for you," Mr. Moslit responded. Then he offered an aside, out of earshot of the lieutenant.

He complained about the putrid water that had built up in the neighborhood's streets after a sewage pipe broke. He complained that he could not open his restaurant for lack of propane and customers. He complained that his council had no contact with the new authorities here, besides Lieutenant Sok.

"They work very slowly," he said of the Americans. "Our people are beginning to get angry, and it's not going to be good."

Lieutenant Sok, from Murfreesboro, Tenn., is striving to do good in this midsummer heat, learning how to jump-start a society, entirely by his wits and instinct. In his military training, he noted, "they didn't teach us any of this stuff."

He went to Middle Tennessee State University and joined the Army a year and a half ago. A few months ago, he said, he focused on only one thing: war. It taught him something.

"Before the war, I was, like, not sure if I could shoot anybody," he said. "I don't feel like that now."

When the war ended, he, too, had to adjust. Driving his Humvee, he pointed to an approaching car and explained it this way: "Like that vehicle: it'd be dead now. Any vehicle coming toward me."


Refusing to Kill