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Life on the Iraqi front: reading lists, ideals, and plans to stay alive

By Sam DagherCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 27, 2007



BAGHDAD

Before heading to war last month, Cpl. Jon Dorsey hid 20 books in equipment that he was charged with shipping to Iraq.

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Along with titles on quantum physics, he sent General Patton's memoirs, Plato's "The Republic," and Kerouac's "On the Road."

The young soldier from Strong's Prairie, Wis., calls himself a student of history and takes a broad view of his mission as the war enters its fifth year. For him, and a handful of others in this battalion called the Black Lions, it's about shaping the future and spreading US ideals.

But as his unit digs into the new front lines of Baghdad, their views and outlooks, already being tested, will be challenged at every turn.

As part of the Baghdad security plan in two of the city's toughest neighborhoods, Al Amel and Jihad, they are bound to face fierce opposition. Already, the unit has suffered casualties. Last week, three soldiers died in roadside bomb attacks, just days after setting up combat outposts.

To be sure, not every Black Lion in his unit, known as the 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment, shares Dorsey's idealism. Others just want to get the job done and make it back alive to their loved ones.

The 1-28 was initially supposed to spend its one year in Iraq escorting supply convoys north of Baghdad. That changed when President Bush announced his intention in January to send more troops to the Iraqi capital.

The battalion, based in Fort Riley, Kan., is attached to the 4th Brigade, 1st Infantry Division – the second of the so-called surge brigades to be deployed in Iraq so far this year. It was built from scratch in January 2006, and the majority of its members were junior soldiers just out of basic training.

A planet away from Plentywood

Dorsey says he believes success in Iraq is still attainable if the Army is given enough time and money to regain the trust of average Iraqis and enable the country's security forces to stand on their own. He says many back home were losing the big picture by focusing on the daily violence.

"American soldiers gained their country's independence and we put an end to slavery, fascism, and dictatorships all around the globe. I do not buy into 'we can't stop this and we can't stop that,' " says Dorsey, a freckled redhead from a township in the heart of Wisconsin with barely 70 inhabitants. He joined the Army after high school because he felt college would be just too limiting and, he says, downright boring.

"The only thing that can stop us are people back home. People who decide they have had enough and it's not worth fighting anymore," he says.

Dorsey finds time to quiz his comrades on Arab phrases included in a fold-up laminated "Culture Smart Card" carried by every soldier. "Be patient; the Iraqi approach to time is slow and relaxed," reads one of the items under the Do's.

Both his father and grandfather were in the Navy and his maternal grandfather fought in Vietnam, another war that polarized the nation four decades ago.

The battalion's executive officer, Maj. Erik Overby, who is pursuing a PhD in military history, says the current surge is as significant as the US-led invasion.

"But it's not that kind of war anymore. We are not just racing to Baghdad to pull down the statute," says Major Overby, a native of Plentywood, Mt., referring to the dramatic toppling of Saddam Hussein's statute in Baghdad on April 9, 2003.

Overby, a boyish blond in his 30s, jokes about how Iraq is almost a planet away from Plentywood, where the greatest worry is annual rainfall and when to get the tractors out to plant the crops.

Sitting on a cot inside a Baghdad gym turned combat outpost, Sgt. Jamil Gutierrez, on his first tour in Iraq, says that based on his first impressions, it could take two years of working closely with Iraqi Army and police to bring about lasting and meaningful peace to Baghdad.

He says that, even then, much of the outcome will depend on the Iraqis themselves. "It's going to take their Army, their people, their police, and their culture to fix the situation," says Sergeant Gutierrez, who was born in Peru and grew up in New Jersey.

Hardest part is missing family

For Gutierrez, a heavyset man who could pass for an Arab, the hardest part of his mission is being separated from his wife and their 7-month-old son. His dream after leaving the Army is to open a bistro near Venice, Italy.

Sitting nearby, Cpl. Lee Taylor spoke of similar pains of separation. He says he found out that his wife was pregnant two weeks before leaving for Iraq. They were married a year ago. "It definitely made a difference for me. In the back of my mind I am also thinking of coming back home safe to my wife," says the native of Oklahoma City.

At brigade headquarters on Forward Operating Base Falcon, Spc. Holly Burke, from Columbus, Neb., hopes this is her last tour overseas, as she pulls a picture of her daughter from her pocket.

She has been to Kosovo and Egypt, and this is her second time in Iraq. She joined the Army because of the college scholarship, but has yet to make it to college. "It's been deployment after deployment," says Specialist Burke, a medic who wears her hair in a bun beneath a soft Army cap.

It's also the second time in Iraq for Staff Sgt. Clifford Grimm, a native of Idaho. He says he had a feeling he would be coming back. But, he says, he was still shocked when it actually happened, because this time he had been married for two years.

"Emotionally, it ripped my heart out," he says. "I got married to spend the rest of my life with my wife and not to leave her as a widow after two years."

He has already lost nine friends in Iraq. Grimm pulled himself together with the help of members of his squad.

He says he believes in the mission, but that coming to Iraq this time is nothing like the way it was in April 2003, when his previous unit was greeted like liberators in Kirkuk. "Everybody was like, 'Strike a pose, get your Patton on,' " he says, smiling.

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