- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 4, 2004

BAGHDAD — Members of the 91st Engineer Battalion’s Alpha Company were trying to fix a broken armored personnel carrier in Baghdad’s Amariyah neighborhood last month when three teenagers approached. One boy wore a “Titanic” T-shirt; another wore a September 11 shirt. It was the third boy who spoke. “Hey,” he said in near-perfect English to Staff Sgt. Paul Benningfield, who was standing guard over the repair team, “can I have a flag?” “I told him no, that the only flag I carry is the one on my uniform,” said Sgt. Benningfield, a platoon sergeant for Alpha Company. “I asked him why he wanted it, and he said, ‘I need one. I love America. I want to go there one day.’” The young man may not speak for all Iraqis, but he clearly is not alone. It was the second time in a week that a boy in this rough neighborhood had asked Sgt. Benningfield, of Cleveland, Texas, for an American flag. “Maybe he loves it for the fact that we have PlayStation games, our way of life, maybe, the freedoms we have,” the soldier mused last week. “Actually, it’s quite comforting. It brings a little bit of home to you. It’s nice to see that someone appreciates what we’re doing in Iraq.” Members of the U.S. armed services are spending their second Fourth of July holiday in Iraq today, but the mood is a little lighter than it was a year ago. Last Monday, the 15-month occupation of Iraq officially ended, and responsibility was transferred to an Iraqi government. And on Thursday, former dictator Saddam Hussein was arraigned on charges relating to war crimes and genocide. It was the kind of week that puts the Iraqis well on the way to having a new Independence Day of their own, say many of the American civilians and soldiers who are stationed here. “A lot of people lose sight of what we’re actually doing here,” said Staff Sgt. Richard Brannon West, a member of Alpha Company, 91st Engineer Battalion of Fort Hood, Texas. “Everybody talks about how America is 300 years old. This place [Iraq] is thousands of years old and they’re just getting what we’ve had in our short existence. So for us to be the ones to come here and help foster that for them … it’s mind blowing.” For most soldiers, today won’t be much of a holiday, even if they are relieved of their duties. They may change out of the heavy dust-colored camouflage uniforms and slip into regulation cotton T-shirts and running shorts. But they won’t get to attend parades, shop the big sales or kick back for a three-day weekend. “Yeah, even when you don’t have to [work], you still don’t get very far,” shrugged one soldier, who spends about five hours a day standing guard at a busy Baghdad checkpoint. He wears up to 50 pounds of “battle rattle” — the body armor, helmet, M-16 rifle, ammunition and accessories that make up the modern soldier’s kit — and drinks several liters of water to counteract the dehydrating sun. “I don’t really know how you relax here,” he added. “My buddy has a computer, and I guess we watch a lot of movies.” Spc. Lonnie Lyle Bickford, 22, with Alpha Company, is deep into his first tour of duty in Iraq. The former junior high band teacher from Spokane, Wash., seemed philosophical about the notion of a July Fourth celebration here. “When you wear this [uniform], there’s no holidays, there’s no fun days, there’s no celebrations,” he said with a mixture of pride and resignation. Of course, there will be July Fourth parties in Iraq today, but they will not be visible to very many Iraqis. This is partly out of respect for the universal concept of “host-nation sensitivities” and partly because almost no Iraqis are invited. Newly arrived U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte will be hosting a small barbecue for senior U.S. diplomats, top members of the Iraqi government and a handful of key foreign ambassadors. PHOTO2 Not invited? Not to worry. The U.S. Embassy has contracted with KBR (formerly Kellogg, Brown & Root) to throw a pool party for nearly 1,000 American citizens on the grounds of the Republican Palace, complete with food and soft drinks. Most of those in attendance will be working for the newly opened U.S. Embassy, including clerks, diplomats, advisers and security personnel. Lots of them are private contractors, here to rebuild the infrastructure. Others are fortune seekers or believers in the new, free Iraq. The sunset party is an effort to give people a good time, according to organizers, and reward them for working 6-day weeks. And if it makes them feel a little more connected to their friends and family at home, well, that’s good, too. So there will be plenty of hot dogs and hamburgers and corn on the cob. But one thing — besides the beer — will be missing. “Fireworks? Are you kidding?” said Robert Frye, the chief of protocol for the U.S. Embassy. “The only fireworks would be the kind we don’t want.” There are small celebrations and even some live entertainment planned at military bases around Iraq, according to the Army’s public affairs office. “It’s no one you’ve heard of,” said one soldier morosely. “I don’t think the [Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders] come this way.” Most soldiers said they didn’t need a party to feel patriotic, or a flag to remind them what makes American values worth exporting. Sgt. Mark Suckfiel, 25, of Port Vue, Pa., an Army reservist with the 91st Engineer Battalion, said he shows his pride by “displaying all the values that our country represents: honesty, valor, honor.” He pauses and adds: “Everybody here understands that.” The U.S. armed forces generally frown on overt displays of nationalism by service members overseas, and Iraq is no different. Just like soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in Afghanistan, Japan and Bosnia, military forces in Iraq are subject to strict rules governing dress code, flag etiquette and even parties. Every service member in Iraq wears a DCU, or “desert camouflage uniform,” a dust-colored pattern embroidered with name and rank, and a single flag on the right shoulder. Lapel pins or other accessories are strictly forbidden in an effort to keep things neat and professional. The flag is supposed to be stitched on backwards when the soldier is in combat, to give the effect that the flag is flying when the soldier is running past. However, according to the U.S. Army Study Guide, all soldiers currently deployed wear the flag backward in recognition that they are all fighting the war on terror. Most American civilians in Baghdad are generally confined to the Green Zone, a sprawling and heavily secured fortress inside central Baghdad. Inside the de facto American colony, the women are free to wear whatever they like — including the bright skirts and sleeveless blouses that would cause a scandal on Iraq’s conservative streets. If they want to wrap themselves today in the Stars and Stripes, there would be no one to take offense. There is plenty of liquor inside the Green Zone, but not, at least officially, at parties where there are soldiers. Every soldier in theater can recite General Order No. 1, which prohibits the consumption of alcohol in Iraq and many other duty stations. The military exchange store next to the Republican Palace sells alcohol-free wine — on sale last week for the July Fourth parties — but by Friday afternoon the display was untouched, a sign that most remained unsold. A display of $8 flags appeared similarly untouched, although that could have been the result of extremely efficient stock clerks. By nearly any measure, this should have been a flag-waving week for both the Iraqi people and the foreign governments who helped make it happen. But lingering security concerns, not to mention the specter of rebuilding a desperately dilapidated nation, have dampened a party mood. Despite tangible progress in Iraq, there is little sense among troops that their job here is done. Both the transfer of authority and the public appearance of Saddam were conducted behind an impenetrable cordon of U.S. military security, far from the Iraqi people who need to believe that the old regime is finished and that it is now up to them to rebuild their country. Daily attacks on foreign targets, domestic infrastructure and even the Iraqi people continue to illustrate Iraq’s instability. If martial law is declared, as appears increasingly likely, U.S. troops will be required to help enforce it. Rebuilding Iraq will require significant patience and a certain amount of trust. “Every morning, I wake up and ask myself why am I doing this?” says Spc. Randall Archie, also a member of Alpha Company, who has an eagle tattooed on his right shoulder. He looks at photos of his family and friends back in Raceland, Ky., and a previous generation of soldiers in his family. “It’s what I feel I have to do, because of the guys in the past that did it for us. Really, there’s only four things that matter to me: God, my family, my country and my friends.”

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