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Fatigued, US troops yearn for home

Another US soldier was slain in Baghdad Sunday, the latest in a pattern of attacks.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 7, 2003


Facing repeatedly delayed go-home dates and attacks by elements of a population they were sent to protect, American troops in Iraq are under increasing stress. The killing of a US soldier Sunday at Baghdad University epitomizes the non-combat violence that leaves US forces on tenterhooks - and waiting for a ticket home.

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"A lot of guys, because the dates have been tossed around, have lost hope," says Capt. John Jensen, an engineering battalion chaplain. "Nobody's been able to answer that question: when?"

Soldiers who came to Iraq expecting to spend their time in combat have found themselves, after the war proper, mired in the day-to-day realities of maintaining order and rebuilding a battered nation. "The actual combat happened very fast, so the biggest stress we see now is peacekeeping," says Col. Robert Knapp, who heads the 113th Medical Company combat-stress unit on the grounds of the presidential palace in Baghdad.

"Our people are not really trained for peacekeeping, and not equipped for riot control. They are trained to fight the enemy and kill them," Colonel Knapp says.

The troops came to Iraq prepared to fight; but after President Bush declared the end of major combat on May 1, their workload has included containing looting, restoring social services, and training Iraqi policemen.

The bloody shift from war to occupation has already taken 26 American lives since then.

And with an average of 13 contacts a day with armed resistors, American troops ply the roads of Baghdad nervously and often get stuck in traffic, leading exposed soldiers to brandish assault rifles, and keep their pistols drawn.

The trauma of this conflict is varied: Soldiers say they have seen remarkable scenes of killing and carnage; others speak of fears they face daily, doing urban patrols against an unseen, ghostlike enemy. Others have been away from home too long, with the absence and new dangers fraying their families' patience.

One result is that the US Army is planning a screening process and two-week "decompression" session for soldiers going home, to look for danger signs, reacclimatize them to civilian life, and advise them on getting to know loved ones again.

The military community was shocked by the murder last summer of four wives in six weeks at Ft. Bragg, NC, after Special Forces returned home from Afghanistan. [Editor's note: The original version of this story incorrectly stated the location of Ft. Bragg.]

Ready to go are units like the 3rd Infantry Division (3ID), which fought its way up from Kuwait, carried out the bold "Thunder Run" into Baghdad in the early days of April - and a quarter-year later is still kicking around in the flash point city of Fallujah, west of Baghdad.

"The frustration is so great, you just wonder if it's going to cause someone to snap," says Maj. Patrick Ratigan, chaplain for the 2nd Brigade Combat Team in Fallujah. This unit was told that the way home was through Baghdad, and subsequent exit dates have come and gone, as the deployment stretches to 10 months.

"They are tired, and there is a lot of tension with marriages. Wives are frazzled with kids; they are experiencing the same frustration," says Chaplain Ratigan.

One soldier that came to him in recent days was meant to be married on July 5 - a date with special meaning to his fiancée, and one that looked likely when the unit shipped out last September.

The war itself and its aftermath are also having an impact, the chaplains say.