Fatigued, US troops yearn for home

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

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.

"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.

"Some people have seen a lot of bodies, and others had to collect them and were traumatized by that," Ratigan says. The Army's aim is to avoid a repeat of Vietnam, when "soldiers were in a firefight today, and tomorrow they come home and are unwelcome."

"I don't know how anybody is going to be when we get back. I'm a changed person," says Staff Sgt. Antony Joseph, a public-affairs officer in Fallujah. "You can't see death and destruction and not be changed by it. What does it do to those who cut people down? Some have seen their friends die next to them."

Such events have been felt throughout the 3ID, which was counting on victory parades, not largely ungrateful and sometimes hostile Iraqis. Unlike Gulf War I in 1991, this for many was up close and personal.

"I never saw any bodies back then, but this time we would pull into somebody's backyard and start shooting," says Juan Carlos Cardona, a field artillery sergeant and platoon leader, who leads day and night patrols west of Baghdad. "Intelligence was telling us that anybody you saw could be a terrorist - that was a new experience."

Though Sergeant Cardona says Iraqis have yet to unanimously praise their efforts at winning hearts and minds - by distributing fresh water in a local village and protecting propane supplies - he dreams every day of going home. After his alert level has been so high for so long, though, he says he will ease into it.

"I've already told my wife that I'm not going to drive for a week or two, and I'm probably going to be afraid to drive at night," Cardona says. "That stuff messes up your mind - you're driving at night, then think you see an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] aimed at you."

Soldiers say they are also concerned about their reception and worry that the negative press about the US inability to stamp out resistance, heavy-handed behavior, and mismanaging the occupation will take some of the shine off their swift assault on Baghdad.

"We are not seeing people exhausted, but people with discipline problems - another sign of combat stress," says Colonel Knapp. "If they had gone home sooner, they would go home to a parade, put on their ribbons, and felt much better about themselves."

The combat stress unit at the palace usually receives five or six cases a day, who are screened, and often stay for several days, for counseling and group therapy on issues like anger management.

Separation is especially difficult now, since the "war mission" has changed, Knapp says. "The message they hear from home is: 'The war is over, why aren't you coming home?' The feeling from the US of being needed is not as much as it could be."

Maintaining a sense of pride and self worth is the message the chaplains send repeatedly, despite what they see as disparaging reporting in the US media about the occupation.

"These guys are still heroes, did a fantastic mission, and are still up to it," says Chaplain Jensen. "If you ask them to go back to the front line to combat and give them bullets, they would do it."

Still, for most, the war ended three months ago, and they were expecting a civilian administration, and Iraqis themselves, to take over. Going home has become a fantasy.

"I never thought I would miss so many things: washing the dishes for my wife, a shower once a day, a beer here and there, and relaxing and listening to music - all this sort of good stuff," says Cardona.

"I can't wait just to curl up with my wife, and wake up and not worry if I am going to get killed."

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