- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 19, 2008

FORWARD OPERATING BASE NORMANDY, Iraq — At the five-year mark since U.S. troops entered Iraq, warriors here continue fighting and dealing with the consequences.

It is doubtful that Army Capt. Vince Morris, a hard-charging company commander with the 3rd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment normally stationed in Vilsek, Germany, is tracking the anniversary debates. He is in a military hospital recovering from the severe concussion he suffered when his armored vehicle exploded immediately outside the entrance to this base, northeast of Baqouba.

Sgt. Rob Robertson will be working from his combat operations post — without television, radio or newspapers — in the town of Himbus, in Diyala’s “breadbasket.” He will be conducting foot patrols and searching for improvised explosive devices (IEDs), weapons caches and terrorists who went into hiding after a major U.S. and Iraqi push into the region in January.

When he is not on combat duty, he and other men of Iron Company will comb through scores of applications from people in his area wanting to join Concerned Local Citizens groups, the armed neighborhood-watch units renamed Sons of Iraq, which are viewed as a major contributor to increased security in parts of the country.

“What about this one, this Ahmed guy?” he asked a colleague recently while sitting in his tent. “He was a sergeant in Saddam’s army.”

Ahmed was photographed, questioned and fingerprinted during a recruitment drive. If he passes initial vetting, he could be given a midlevel leadership spot in a Sons of Iraq unit at $450 a month.

Capt. Matt Ross and Lt. Andy Teague of Golf Company are absorbed elsewhere. They are trying to persuade Sunni residents forced from their village by Shi’ite Mahdi militiamen — who also are thought to be members of the local Iraqi police force — to identify the culprits so they can be arrested.

“I showed [one of the displaced families] the book of photographs of the IPs,” Lt. Teague told the captain, referencing the records of Iraqi police.

“They picked 10. When I told them I needed statements to see about arresting the guys who forced them out they suddenly picked every Shi’ite IP they could recognize. I don’t know what’s true. How do we sort this out?”

“Joes,” as soldiers call themselves, will be immersed in other, usually monotonous, duties elsewhere across Iraq. They will show their presence in the streets of villages, towns and cities to enhance a sense of security for the locals and to gather information on al Qaeda and nationalist insurgent groups. They will turn wrenches to keep aircraft aloft and armored vehicles running. They will push the piles of paper that coordinate with deployment and operations.

It is dangerous out here. Every journey off a forward operating base or combat operations post risks an encounter with a mine, a vehicle packed with bombs or a terrorist wearing an explosive vest.

Nearly 4,000 Americans have died in Iraq since 2003, most as a result of hostile action. In the past year, the majority of deaths have resulted from IEDs, U.S. military officials say.

About 160,000 Army, Marine, airmen and Navy personnel are serving in Iraq this year, many back for their second or third tours.

Those working “outside the wire” — nonadministrative or nonsupport personnel — are less likely now to be assigned to kick down doors in search of the enemy. Their duties involve peacekeeping: mediating community disputes, helping rebuild infrastructure, fostering projects to create local jobs and mentoring their Iraqi counterparts.

All of those 160,000 know how many months they have left in their 15-month deployments, and as departure nears it becomes an exact number of days.

“I’m great — 78 more days,” Ensign Jamie Allen called out to his fellow troops when one asked how he was. “Just 78 more days.”

Ask Ensign Allen or other members of U.S. forces here what day of the week it is, though, and there will be a pause as they try to figure it out.

“What day is it?” a soldier said with a laugh when asked by a reporter who was equally without a clue, before he added, “How … do I know? This is Iraq, man. Who cares?”

His attitude is understandable. One day blends into the next here.

One year has blended into five now. Soldiers don’t speak about it. Gripes accumulate by the truckload, of course, and expletives flow like rivers, but deeper thoughts are revealed in quieter moments.

Most are convinced they are doing good. They see children playing in the streets or going to school, people filling the open-air markets and life proceeding almost as usual. They marvel at the potential of Iraq, its agricultural land, its history.

Then, of course, they swear profusely over the slow progress Iraqis seem to be making in taking control of their communities, but note that under Saddam Hussein, and even earlier, they were never allowed to.

All want to leave as soon as they can. The question for them, as for all Americans, is how soon and in what manner.

“[The soldiers] always say they hate it here, but this is our job,” said a lieutenant who had been in Iraq just seven months.

“We all signed up in a time of war. We can’t just say we don’t want to do it anymore. We go out of the wire, see [al Qaeda Iraq] cut off heads and others burn down homes, and we do our best to fight it, to stop it.

“We’ll go home with a sense of accomplishment. We’ll go home knowing we did something in our lives that nothing will compare with. But most people don’t care what the soldier wants to say. They’ll hear what they want to hear.”

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