- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 22, 2003

RAMADI, Iraq — In the wrecked skeleton of a former Iraqi military warehouse, 200 soldiers stand at attention, jaws set, faces buffeted by a hot desert wind, saluting a memorial to Staff Sgt. William Latham.

An American flag whips the air above a pair of boots with an upright M-16 between them, a helmet atop its barrel.

For the soldiers of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, based at Fort Carson, Colo., the memorial is all too familiar. Sgt. Latham was the ninth of 10 soldiers from the regiment to die in Iraq since May.

But if war and its aftermath is tough for the soldiers — their choked voices and wet eyes at Sgt. Latham’s memorial show their burden — most say it is harder still for their families back home.

“God has tested my faith here more than once. It’s getting harder and harder every day,” said Spc. Jason Richards, 32, his voice barely audible above the wind. Spc. Richards is a member of the Bradley Armored Vehicle crew that Sgt. Latham commanded.

“You think we’re helping them, and then they kill one of our buddies,” he said. “I don’t understand how they can hate us so much. It just clouds your reasons for being here.”

As he speaks, members of his unit kneel before the Latham memorial, crossing themselves.

Spc. Richards, originally from Yardley, Pa., feels torments beyond the death of his crew chief. In June, he chased and shot an armed Iraqi man who ignored calls to stop. Before shooting the man, Spc. Richards says, he fired 17 warning shots. Afterward he and his crew rushed over and administered first aid. The man died.

Spc. Richards recalls talking with an Army counselor to help him deal with his conscience.

“I asked him ‘Why is God testing me so much?’” Spc. Richards said. “Now I’m going to suffer in hell for killing this guy.”

Spc. Richards says he calls and e-mails his wife, Stephanie, to talk about his troubles. Each time he does, he increases her fears.

After killing the Iraqi, he called Mrs. Richards, who’d just given birth to their first child. He tried to tell his wife about the shooting but couldn’t.

“I started choking up. I told her I had to go. I hung up.”

At the beginning of the war, Stephanie Richards was upset to see peace demonstrations, considering them an insult to soldiers. Now she’s distressed to see Iraqis protesting the American presence.

“He’s missing all of this at home to help them, and they’re throwing rocks at him and killing his friends,” the 23-year-old wife and mother said, sitting at her parents’ kitchen table in Colorado and holding 2-week-old Andie.

Lately, she’s upset to hear people saying the war is over. To her, it seems like her husband and other soldiers are sitting ducks.

“I’m not going to have my husband killed after the war is over,” she said.

“I don’t want him there, they don’t want him there, and he doesn’t want to be there. So let them come home.”

Growing up in the shadow of Fort Carson, she saw the unpredictability of military life and swore she never would marry an Army guy. But she changed her mind after meeting Jason Richards, and married him three months later. They moved up their wedding date by a year because of rumors he would be sent overseas.

After he got his orders, the couple met with a chaplain to help each understand what the other would be going through, and to help them remain a strong couple after the war.

She misses cooking pirogies and sausages for him and talking with him as he took a bath after a long day of training. But her daughter is a comfort. Andie reminds her of Jason in little ways — her voracious appetite, her ability to sleep through vacuuming.

Every day Mrs. Richards takes a picture of the baby so her husband can catch up when he gets back. Though she’s never met her father, Andie calms down when she listens to a tape of him reading Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go.”

Spc. Richards eventually told her about shooting the Iraqi. He didn’t say much, but she could tell the shooting was tearing him up inside and she tried to reassure him.

“If it’s between you and the other guy, you’re the one who has to come home,” she recalls saying.

But she also felt helpless that she couldn’t hold him or cheer him up.

“I just said, ‘I’ll hold you when you’re back home,’” she said. “He can cowboy up for work, but when he comes home he needs TLC.”

Justin Armstrong, 23, a sergeant in the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, and his wife, Dorie, had grown accustomed to gathering at Tom and Kelli Broomhead’s house at Fort Carson to play softball, drink beer and eat homemade gumbo.

The Broomheads, a decade older than the Armstrongs, helped show the younger couple the ropes of military life.

Tom Broomhead died May 27 in an ambush. His house on Fort Carson will be a lot different now.

“That’s going to be my first stop when I get home,” Sgt. Armstrong said, eyes moist, square-jawed face smudged with dirt. “I’m going to go and give Kelli a hug.”

Since his friend’s death, Sgt. Armstrong has been more careful. “Some say paranoid. I say cautious.”

He checks every last thing on his Bradley, going through all the security and safety minutiae. For good reason: He’s been shot at 10 or 15 times. Three or four times, he’s fired back.

The dogged Iraqi resistance puzzles Sgt. Armstrong and others in the 3rd ACR’s 2nd Squadron, known as Saber Squadron.

Sgt. Armstrong thinks some Iraqis believe the Americans have come to steal the country’s oil. Others say the Iraqis think U.S. troops are Israelis in disguise. It makes Sgt. Armstrong angry to think his best friend was killed because of such rumors.

“They don’t understand that we’re here to free them from a dictator. They think we’re here to kill them,” said Sgt. Armstrong, his uniform encrusted with white salt stains from sweating under heavy body armor.

A few weeks ago, the 3rd Infantry Division took over in restive Fallujah and Saber Squadron got sent to Ramadi — still rough, but not quite as bad. Soon, though, the 3rd ACR will be sent back to Fallujah.

“They keep sending us letters saying, ‘We’re so glad you’re out of there.’ They don’t realize we’re going back in,” Sgt. Armstrong said. “I don’t have the heart to tell her. There’s no sense in worrying her.”

Sgt. Armstrong’s wife mails him disposable cameras so he can take pictures of absolutely everything — his cot in the dust-caked barracks, his Bradley and the Iraqis’ living conditions.

He and his unit live in a former Iraqi paratrooper barracks with ragged holes in the walls where windows used to be. Sgt. Armstrong keeps a sniper rifle wrapped in burlap camouflage hanging on the wall. A copy of “The Count of Monte Cristo” is on his cot, an old-fashioned wood-frame version patched with parachute cord.

There’s a pinup girl on one wall, a poster of a Wendy’s double cheeseburger on another. The stenciled visage of Saddam Hussein stares down from the ceiling, its eyes scratched out.

Even though the base is near the banks of the Euphrates, there is almost no vegetation. The fine “moon dust” that covers the ground billows through the open windows every time a Bradley vehicle passes. There’s a quarter-inch on the floor under Sgt. Armstrong’s cot. It falls on him as he sleeps.

“She’d think it was disgusting,” he said of his wife and present living conditions.

Mrs. Armstrong, 22, knows her husband doesn’t tell her everything that’s happening. She knows he doesn’t want her to worry as she waits in Colorado for his return.

“Sometimes he’ll just say, ‘I have a story to tell you, but I’ll wait till I get home.’”

She does the same and tries to stay upbeat, sending photographs of her brother’s new baby to her husband, a proud first-time uncle.

“I don’t want him to have to worry about me,” she said.

The Armstrongs met in high school in La Grande, Ore., and married three years ago, just a few days after Justin finished basic training. Their honeymoon was a trip to Fort Carson, where the young couple were quickly adopted by the Broomheads.

These days, Mrs. Armstrong writes funny stories to her husband about the newest addition to their family: a 5-month-old Labrador retriever named Daisy. As their older dog Roscoe apparently stood by, Daisy somehow knocked down Mrs. Armstrong’s flower pots and ate all the evidence.

She sent her husband a picture of the two dogs sprawled on the couple’s bed.

“He’s always saying there won’t be a spot in the bed when he comes back,” she said.

Mrs. Armstrong has been busy since her husband left — studying to become a registered nurse during the day and working at a nursing home at night — and that helps keep her worries at bay. She and a neighbor whose husband is also in Iraq take turns cooking dinner for each other and take day trips to keep their minds off what’s going on.

Every day, she wears half of a Mizpah pendant the couple bought the day before deployment, along with an American-flag pin on top of a yellow ribbon. She tries to follow news reports about what is happening in Iraq without dwelling on them.

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