- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2004

BUTLER RANGE COMPLEX, Iraq — As the U.S. military begins the largest troop rotation of its recent history, soldiers of the 1st Armored Division are gathering their thoughts and their belongings in anticipation of heading home.

As much as the past year has transformed Iraq, so it has changed the U.S. Army, giving soldiers new combat and survival skills, as well as new insights into another part of the world.

Trained for tank battles on the rolling green hills of Europe, the Germany-based 1st Armored Division has learned to fight a guerrilla war in cramped cities, sandy deserts and steamy river valleys — ever wary of nighttime mortar rounds and hidden roadside bombs.

“We’ve learned many tactical lessons — how to look out for homemade bombs, how to maneuver the vehicles in an urban environment,” said 1st Lt. Reies Flores of Harlingen, Texas.

During a break at this makeshift training base, where soldiers conduct mock raids on houses manned by dummy rebels holding cardboard machine guns, Lt. Flores and other members of his unit eagerly offered advice to the troops who will replace them.

“You need mosquito nets, mosquito repellent and sunscreen,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Russell Sadler, whose unit operates in and around Baghdad.

“It’s an ever-changing environment,” said the U.S. Virgin Islands native. “At night, it’s cold; in the daytime, it’s scorching hot. You have to maintain focus and vigilance. And you have to have a will to survive.”

Spc. Kelly Leonard of Northfield, N.H., said her time in Iraq has given her a new understanding of Islam and Muslim women.

“I thought that they were controlled by their men, that they couldn’t do what they wanted,” she said. “But when I asked a woman why she wore a veil, she said her beauty was just for her husband and her family, and I really appreciated that.”

Almost all American soldiers in Iraq learn a few words of Arabic and acquire other cultural tips, said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, spokesman for coalition forces in Baghdad.

“All of our soldiers that come into theater go through a significant amount of training on not only how to fight and conduct their combat operations, but also to understand the cultural context of where they’re going to be operating in,” he said.

U.S. officials will not release details of the rotation for security reasons, but reports say 125,000 soldiers and Marines will leave Iraq and 110,000 will replace them through April. The Associated Press reported that 120,000 of those forces would pass through Turkey’s Incirlik air base.

Among other movements, the 1st Armored Division will be replaced by the 1st Cavalry Division, based in Fort Hood, Texas, a senior source familiar with the plans said. Both divisions will be crowded together in Baghdad for several weeks while the new arrivals learn the ropes.

The arriving soldiers will live far better than the first troops, who often slept outdoors and had only the most primitive facilities. Most bases now have satellite-powered Internet cafes and televisions.

Soldiers pass around satellite phones to make calls home. Sleeping quarters have air-conditioning, and each day tractor-trailers bring more and more mobile homes into Iraq.

Still, life will be tough, soldiers said, offering various tips to the incoming troops: Spend quality time with your family and sort out money issues before leaving. Bring a positive attitude, extra socks and some DVDs to pass around.

“I watch a movie every night. It kind of gets my mind off all this,” says Sgt. Thomas Edwards of Milton-Freewater, Ore. “You can buy pirated new releases for seven bucks over at the little Iraqi stores.”

And, soldiers say, don’t forget to bring a favorite pillow for those rough nights on a folding cot.

“Prepare yourself mentally more than physically,” said Maj. Ron Peaster of Andersonville, Ga. “I wish I could have spoken more of the language before I got here.”

Brig. Gen. Martin Dempsey, commander of the more than 30,000 troops attached to the 1st Armored Division, said the most important thing to bring is a positive attitude.

“There are places in Baghdad where there was little left and it’s been rebuilt,” he said. “There was no police force and now there is. There was nothing called the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps and now there is. I think my advice to my successor is going to be not to allow the periodic setbacks to deter him.”

The most important part of the handover, Gen. Dempsey said, will be making sure that valuable bits of acquired street wisdom — such as the names and faces of friends and enemies — don’t fall through the cracks.

“If we can hand over the intelligence piece of this, the rest will be relatively easy,” he said.

Gen. Dempsey, who spent two years training soldiers in Saudi Arabia before heading to Iraq, said his time in the Middle East has broadened his knowledge of the world.

“When you think about the way religion and ethnicity and family and economics are intertwined in this part of the world, it’s far different than our world,” he said.

“In our world, religion is a big part of our life. In this part of the world, religion is their life.”

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