- The Washington Times - Monday, October 13, 2003

The first group of U.S. Army soldiers given a two-week respite from duty in Iraq headed back to work yesterday, more rested and relaxed but still uneasy about returning to a dangerous environment.

“It is kind of a shock,” said Spc. Rodney Williams, among the 193 soldiers clad in desert fatigues and toting duffel bags through Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

“I’m surrounded by civilization and beautiful girls,” he said. “And in 14 hours I’ll be in Baghdad surrounded by sand and filth and garbage. It’s quite an adjustment.”

This is the military’s first large-scale R&R;, or rest and relaxation, program since the Vietnam War. About 200 troops have been arriving daily in the country since Sept. 26, and thousands more are expected.

The leave policy differs from that during Vietnam. Soldiers fighting in that war received five to seven days in either Australia, Hawaii or one of several Asian cities. They were not permitted to return to the continental United States.

Most of the current soldiers, who reported to the airport Saturday night and stayed in nearby hotels, said they supported the war in Iraq and the continued military presence, though none was happy about the living conditions.

Pvt. Emma Merriel, 21, of the 864th Engineers Division, spent her 15-day leave at home in Okanogan, Wash., with her 2-year-old son, Sam.

Though Pvt. Merriel was upset about leaving her toddler again, she said serving her country was something she had to do.

“It is better us being there than them coming to attack us here,” she said.

“That way everyone here doesn’t have to experience what we are experiencing over there.”

Spc. Andre Watson, 20, of Dover, Del., serves in the 511th Military Police Company and had hoped his time at home would coincide with the birth of his third child.

Instead, he spent the final hours of his vacation with his two children and pregnant wife, Melissa, inside the airport’s USO lounge.

Spc. Watson previously served in Afghanistan and is now returning to the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

“I wish he wasn’t going, but he has to,” said Mrs. Watson, who admitted to constantly worrying about her husband and wanting him home for the birth.

Lt. James Garnett of Paris, Texas, was heading to Baghdad, then north to Balad, where he will rejoin the 318th Field Artillery Division.

“It was nice to have a good break,” he said.

“But it will be good to get back to the soldiers and the whole unit. It was hard to leave them behind. You know what they are going through back there.”

Lt. Garnett, 24, said the United States was helping Iraqis by building schools and modern power and water systems, adding that while the terrorist attacks have slowed the rebuilding effort they have not diminished the troops’ commitment.

Loyalist to Saddam Hussein and to other terrorists “are out there, and you worry about them, but there is only so much worrying you can do,” Lt. Garnett said. “You have to get the mission done. It’s good what we are doing. I only hope the loyalists over there will come around and see the good we are doing for them.”

Many soldiers said they were unhappy with the media’s focus on the terrorist attacks and setbacks.

They said bringing electricity and clean water to towns outside Baghdad that previously had neither was a major achievement and mostly overlooked in stateside news accounts.

“A lot of people want to complain, but the reality is that things are better now than under Saddam,” said Spc. Lino Ferreira, 23, of the 82nd Airborne Division. “We had to get rid of Saddam for the sake of his people, if not for our own sake.”

Spc. Ferreira took his R&R; at home in Sacramento, Calif., where he spent time with his wife, Melanie, and for the first time saw his 7-month-old son, Joshua.

“It is definitely harder to leave the second time,” he said.

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