Soldiers in Iraq Take Pride in Election but Are Uncertain About Future
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 6, 2005; Page A01
KIRKUK, Iraq -- As he walked through the mud surrounding his temporary barracks, 1st Sgt. Ken Agueda carried an M-4 assault rifle without its essential lethal components: bullets. Earlier in the day, Agueda had turned in his ammunition -- cartridges, assorted grenades -- in preparation for his journey home after nearly 13 months in Iraq.
"It's like walking around without your pants," said Agueda, a 17-year U.S. Army veteran from Bayamon, Puerto Rico.
With their departure just days away, Agueda and his unit, the 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division, were euphoric and reflective. In more than a dozen interviews over three days this past week, soldiers with combat experience in all corners of Iraq offered up a mixed final assessment of a conflict that is burned into them forever. Its ultimate outcome, all agreed, remains highly uncertain and far away.
Soldiers ranging from privates to senior officers described last Sunday's national elections as vindication for over a year of hard service. The unexpectedly strong turnout, they said, altered their perception about the willingness of Iraqis to embrace the American mission here and helped project a rare positive image of the U.S. military following such stains as the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal last year.
"This was the opposite of Abu Ghraib," Agueda said. "I think it's safe to say that this is the biggest thing that anyone of us has ever done. I mean, in our humble positions, we helped make history. We did something that could have a positive effect on the entire world."
Spec. Andrew Field, 31, of Tallahassee, described the elections as "the culminating event for our whole deployment. If it hadn't gone well, it would have been incredibly demoralizing to everyone. It gave meaning to everything we were doing."
But the soldiers were reluctant to say that the elections were a turning point in the war. "Leaving with the elections will definitely be a positive in our minds, but I don't know if I'm optimistic or pessimistic," said Capt. John Hussey, 26, of Uvalde, Tex. "I wouldn't be surprised if the entire country descends into chaos. But I wouldn't be surprised if it flourishes, either."
Asked how long he thought U.S. troops would remain in Iraq, Hussey said: "Probably 10 or 15 years, if we want to do it right. I don't think there's going to be 135,000 Americans in Baghdad 10 years from now, but there are going to be Americans in Iraq for a long, long time."
The unit, based at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, arrived in Iraq more than a year ago. The battalion was deployed from as far south as Najaf, where it twice battled the militia of Moqtada Sadr, a rebellious Shiite cleric, to the northern city of Mosul, where it helped provide security for the elections after it's one-year tour was extended.
The 700-member battalion handed out at least 550 Combat Infantryman Badges for participation in close combat. The unit suffered no combat fatalities. It has been nominated for a Presidential Unit Citation, which honors units that display "extraordinary heroism in action against an armed enemy."
The battalion experienced everything from snow to extreme heat; one day last summer, Sgt. 1st Class Greg Baker said his portable thermometer showed the temperature to be 130 degrees. During a 17-day stretch in Najaf in April, each soldier lived in the open desert and subsisted on one bottle of water and one MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) per day. Spec. Kris Johnson, 22, of Chicago, joked that it was so cold and wet in Mosul in the days before the elections that his fingers froze around his M-4 and that fellow soldiers had to pull the trigger for him.
The unit's final mission revealed much about the rigors of soldiering in Iraq. After the elections, the battalion had to return from Mosul to Forward Operating Base Warrior in Kirkuk. The convoy consisted of nearly 100 vehicles, from Humvees to trailers, and the journey was so complicated that commanders rehearsed it by chalking out a colored floor map that spanned an entire room. The vehicles left in stages and traveled with their headlights dark to avoid tipping off insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades.
A Humvee carrying a reporter drifted off the road several times Tuesday as the 22-year-old driver, his night-vision goggles fogging, strained to find it in the rain and darkness. The trip took six hours and, toward the end, the convoy became lost in downtown Kirkuk, struggling to find its way back to the base.
"You can never really, totally relax over here," said Capt. James Everett, 30, of Currituck, N.C., who was also in the vehicle. "You have your downtime, but you're always on guard."
The following day, the relief among the soldiers was palpable. With nothing to do but pack and wait, they watched movies, read, slept, smoked or wandered aimlessly on the base. The infantrymen lived on bunk beds in an encampment called Tent City, a cluster of tan, canvas tents packed with 20 soldiers each. Rain had turned the area into a swamp. Hot showers were rare. No one seemed to care.
"Sir, how the hell are you?" a soldier yelled, smiling and waving to Capt. Chris Loftis, of Honolulu, who speaks fluent Arabic and served as the battalion's liaison to the Iraqi security forces.
"I'm great, sergeant," Loftis shouted back.
"I love you," yelled the soldier before disappearing into one of the camp's reeking portable bathrooms.
At the evening meeting for senior officers, the unit's commander, Lt. Col. Dave Miller, asked the battalion medic, Maj. Joel Meyer, for an update on his activities.
That afternoon, Meyer, who is normally a family practitioner at Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii, had removed two locks from a black box that he had carried for the past year. He methodically took out the contents -- vials of morphine, dozens of bottles of pharmaceutical-grade Demerol, a painkiller, and Ativan, an anxiety-reducing medication -- and spent the next two hours destroying them. Meyer dumped the pills into a toilet, where they dissolved. He injected the morphine into the mud.
"Well, I disposed of tens of thousands of dollars worth of controlled substances," Meyer reported. "I had three square meals. I'm planning on turning in early."
All of the soldiers were taking reintegration training to help cope with what senior officers predicted would be a difficult transition, especially for those with families. "A year deployment is not healthy for nobody," Agueda said. "Every single man in this company has been through a crisis, I guarantee that. Right now, it's going to take some time to repair, and that includes myself."
"We've all aged tremendously," Hussey said.
Each soldier seemed to carry a memory of his own brush with mortality. Passing a filtered-tipped cigar among friends outside his tent, Johnson, the specialist from Chicago, said his came last October during a U.S. offensive 65 miles north of Baghdad. He was outside an Iraqi police station occupied by U.S. forces in Samarra when a rocket-propelled grenade came hurtling toward him.
"It was just a white streak, and it was screaming your name -- Johnson! Johnson! Johnson! -- all the way down the street," he said as his friends dissolved in laughter. The grenade hit a tank about 15 yards away and pitched him to the ground, he said, shaken but unharmed.
Baker said his defining memory came during the same operation. "There was this family walking down the street, and, you know, it's a war," he said, staring into space. "There's bodies tore in half and stuff all over the place and this barefoot kid comes walking up to me. He's holding his father's hand. I was just thinking, 'How will this kid possibly get over this?' He had brains and pieces of guts between his toes. I took out a piece of candy and I gave it to him, and he started smiling like absolutely nothing was wrong."
"I just want to get home and see my girls," he said.
Capt. Chris Duncan, 28, a Johns Hopkins University graduate from Kingsland, Ark., said he staunchly supported the war. But when he heard a soldier had been killed, or saw one of his friends wounded, he occasionally found himself asking, "What was it for?"
On election day, Duncan said, he stood near a precinct and watched Iraqis stream to the polls. "First you had one, then two, then 50," he said. "Then the line was around the polling site. And this was in a neighborhood where people really had a reason to dislike us -- former Baath Party members, former military regime guys."
Duncan, who has spent 20 months in Iraq over the past three years, said the image solidified his resolve.
"Now I know what it was for," he said.