From fighters to family men

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Is it still considered bad form to talk politics during a social gathering?

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BAGHDAD — Thoughts have turned to home and family for soldiers in the 2-3 Stryker Brigade Combat Team, one of the first units set to complete extended deployments ordered by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to meet demands of the U.S. troop surge.

The conversation in the evening darkness outside the soldiers’ “hooches,” or where they live, is focusing more on wives and children, buying new trucks and that first cold beer.

“I’m looking forward to picking up my daughter from school,” said Sgt. 1st Class Douglas Hale.

Other soldiers are more blunt about the first thing they want when they hit the ground. “Booze,” said one staff sergeant, who quickly retracted that and said he was glad to be able to see his family again.

Some soldiers know they are coming back to Iraq within 15 months after they return home. The dates being mentioned are in 2009 — and that news has forced some to switch jobs to avoid spending another 15 months here.

Others are ready to return to the fight.

“I feel like it’s my obligation. It’s what I volunteered to do. It’s what I trained to do,” said Lt. Col. Barry Huggins, battalion commander of the 2-3 Stryker Brigade Combat Team out of Fort Lewis, Wash.

While the soldiers have had continued tactical successes on the ground during the six-month surge, the lack of significant visible change on the trash-filled streets of Baghdad and the perceived attitude of the Iraqis has left many discouraged.

There is a level of bitterness among some departing soldiers, many of whom have lost close friends to bombs and sniper fire.

“I hate Iraq,” said one, asking that his comment be kept anonymous.

Privately, many soldiers also think the U.S. war against the “bad guys” here has reached a stalemate because of a lack of political progress, even if the American military presence is the only effective bulwark against even more violence.

Asked in the small on-base coffee shop — which serves ice-cold strawberry smoothies and lattes — whether the war was worth the misery it had caused, one soldier just said:

“No, it’s not worth it.” He also declined to give his name or rank.

Maj. Alfred Williams of the 2-3 Stryker Brigade, who will have completed a total of 27 months in Iraq by the time he leaves for home in September, is philosophical.

“The new strategies in place were slowly gaining traction,” he said, and winning in Iraq “was all about time.”

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