GIs in Iraq Are Asking: Why Are We Here?

August 14th, 2004 - by admin

Anne Barnard / The Boston Globe – 2004-08-14 23:55:35

RAMADI, IRAQ (August 12, 2004) — Four months into their tour of duty at one of the most dangerous American bases in Iraq, young marines say the slow pace of progress is shaking their faith in their mission.

Playing cards one recent evening while on call to respond to any sudden outburst of violence, Lance Corporal David Goward and the rest of his squad voiced two growing concerns: that the U.S. military would linger here indefinitely and that the troops’ very presence was provoking the fighting it was meant to stop.

They are ready for any battle, they said, but a pervasive sense that Iraqis do not want their help has killed their enthusiasm for the larger goals of introducing democracy and rebuilding the country.

“I don’t think any of us even care what happens to this country,” Goward said, as a half-dozen marines, all stationed here in the capital of the restive Anbar Province, nodded in agreement. “I’m here to make sure these guys get home safely. And they’re here to make sure I do.”

Senior Marine Corps and Army commanders in this Sunni Muslim region west of Baghdad, an area they say must be tamed for the new US-$ backed Iraqi government to succeed, repeatedly cautioned a reporter that junior-level troops did not see the big picture.

Grunts don’t hear Anbar’s governor asking the United States not to leave, the senior officers said. They don’t see Iraqi officials shouldering new responsibilities; they don’t see Iraqi police doing a better job on the outskirts of Ramadi, the provincial capital, than they do in the more anti-American downtown.

But Goward and his squad — and others who echoed them from Ramadi to Falluja — are sending a signal from the enlisted men who bear the brunt of the military’s burden.

Many are on their second tour of duty in Iraq and may face a third if US forces are needed, as expected, to guarantee security through the election of a permanent Iraqi government in late 2005.

They can recite by heart their stated mission, to protect the fledgling local government until Iraqi security forces are strong enough to take over. But as continued attacks and new US tactics have cut down on their interactions with Iraqis — other than in combat — many say they witness little gratitude and little progress.

‘What’s Left?’
From Goward’s point of view, the United States has fulfilled its goals in Iraq: toppling Saddam Hussein, capturing him, handing off formal sovereignty to Iraqis. “What’s left?” he asked.

His squad belongs to Golf Company, part of the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, which occupies three bases in downtown Ramadi and has faced some of the country’s largest insurgent attacks.

The battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Kennedy, a Boston University graduate from Bloomfield, Connecticut, calls Golf his “fightingest” company. Golf has fended off the most company- and platoon-size attacks, he said, with 4 marines killed and 43 injured.

Last week, Lieutenant Donovan Campbell, a platoon commander, busily typed up citations for his men, one for a young marine who grabbed a heavy machine gun he was not trained to use and laid down covering fire from a rooftop to help fight off a major attack.

Yet, for the marines, it is sometimes hard to see the results.

Goward’s squad was assigned one recent evening to act as a quick reaction force. If fighting broke out, they would be first to respond. They played spades, using an empty cot as a card table. A hole in the wall showed where a rocket had burst through a few weeks earlier; it hit the floor without exploding.

‘I Haven’t Seen Any Improvement’
Asked about their experiences in Iraq, they first reacted with sheepish silence; then poured out their own questions about their situation.

“I haven’t seen any improvement since I’ve been here,” said Corporal Jaime Duenas, 23, of Nogales, Arizona. He contrasted Ramadi to southern Iraq, where he was stationed last year just after the invasion and worked with locals happy to see Saddam toppled.

“Last year, it was pretty chill; kids ran up to us and waved,” he said. “Here, kids throw rocks.”

“People are tired of us being here,” said Lance Corporal Anthony Robert, 21, of Charlottesville, Virginia. “It’s the same as if someone came to the U.S. and started taking over. You’d do what you’d have to do.”

Lance Corporal Kenneth Burke, 22, of Lufkin, Texas, looked up from his cards. “OIF-1 had a purpose,” he said, referring to Operation Iraqi Freedom 1, the Marine Corps deployment in the invasion. “This one, I don’t think so.”

Burke is one of two marines called back to Iraq from stateside duties to fill out the ranks of the squad, which has 10 members instead of the typical 13 because several of have gone home with injuries. The squad boasts nine Purple Hearts.

“It makes your day to be in a firefight,” Duenas said. “It gets your blood flowing,” Robert added.

But they are disappointed that they spend little of their time working with Iraqis to rebuild their country. An increase in violence since April and a US decision to take a lower profile in the area have prevented that.

US Troops Resent Iraq Security Forces
The squad members said they had come to resent Iraqi security forces who seemed unwilling to take risks and Iraqis who did not want them there.

“It doesn’t matter how much America looks like it’s trying to help,” said the squad’s leader, Corporal Glen Handy, 26, of Las Vegas. “If we stay 10 years or if we stay one year, we’re going to leave and there’s going to be chaos here.”

The marines are surprised at some of their own ugly emotions. The Army troops whom the marines replaced told them, “You’re going to learn to hate these people,” Goward recalled. “I thought, ‘With that attitude, no wonder you’re having a hard time.’ But you know what? They’re absolutely right.”

Goward, 26, said he would serve in whatever way his country demanded. But like the rest of the squad, he does not plan to re-enlist.

Handy has been overseas 19 of the last 24 months and had spent just 5 months with his 2-year-old daughter. He worries that he will be called up involuntarily — as is permitted for four years — after his active duty ends.

“Are they going to come back and die next time?” he asked, pointing to the younger marines.

Some troops in calmer areas find the job more rewarding. Across the river, in an outlying neighborhood, Army Private Second Class Jose Ortiz, 22, was on patrol recently when Iraqis approached and asked him to stop a local businessman from overcharging for electricity.

Ortiz’s unit has worked extensively with the neighborhood to start a fairer system of electricity distribution. He said he would never want the United States to pull out: “We’ve done too much here.”

‘Kill Like a Champion’
Downtown, where insurgents are more active, marines face a grimmer situation. They live on small bases in refitted warehouses. Sandbags encircle the portable toilets in case of mortar attacks. A sign in the command center exhorts: Kill like a champion today!

The dangers and frustrations of the job were apparent as Golf’s commanding officer, Captain Christopher Bronzi, met Kennedy on a street corner one recent morning.

They were searching for a new observation post to spot people planting roadside bombs. Local religious leaders have asked the marines to leave their current post, a blue-domed building called the Agricultural Center. The locals call it a religious site; it has often drawn rebels’ gunfire.

Walking the streets, the marines got no friendly smiles, just hard stares. They settled on an old hotel, but to make it an observation post, they will have to block a busy alley to foil car bombs, reinforce the roof and cut down some of the few tall trees for a better view — investments suggesting the marines will be there for a long time.

Corporal Nat Canaga, 18, whom Bronzi commends for staying dedicated even after being wounded and witnessing another marine’s jaw shot off, has adjusted his expectations.

“I can’t say we’re failing in our mission,” he concluded at the end of the talk around the card table. “Our mission has changed. It’s just to kill the bad guys. And we’re doing that.”

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