Baghdad, Iraq (AP) – Ask any soldier in Iraq with a 3rd Infantry Division patch on the shoulder how it’s going, and the reply will be some version of the following four words: ”Ready to go home.”
The thrill of victory that followed the division’s capture of Baghdad in early April has faded. As Iraq’s summer heat builds, so do soldiers’ anxieties.
After more than six months in Kuwait and Iraq, tempers have begun to flare, both among the soldiers themselves and with the civilians they encounter. Adding to the worries, eight American soldiers have died in Iraq since Sunday in attacks, accidents and explosions, including two killed by gunmen early Tuesday in Fallujah.
”We were told that once we entered Baghdad and we won the war they would send in other units to do the peacekeeping,” one senior soldier said on condition of anonymity. ”Those who did the killing should not be the ones keeping the peace. They need to send us home.”
But more than six weeks after the fall of Baghdad, the troops who fought from the Kuwait border all the way to the capital are patrolling the streets. Troops from the 1st Armored Division have arrived in recent days, but the commander of the Fort Stewart, Ga.-based 3rd Infantry said he doesn’t know when his unit will be allowed to leave.
”We’ll continue to do our mission here until we are relieved. I don’t have any time estimate on that, but hopefully it’ll be soon,” Maj. Gen. Buford Blount III said. He said the redeployment would be discussed when he meets with Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of all coalition forces in Iraq.
Blount and other officers say that their men are ready to accept any mission given them, even if that means staying in Iraq until August. But unit commanders say privately that morale is plummeting, especially as repeated rumors of an imminent departure fail to materialize.
There are indications that the stress of combat, compounded by weeks of chasing looters and dealing with Iraqi demonstrators, has affected the troops. Leaders report more heated arguments between soldiers and more soldiers declining to re-enlist.
”This is when leadership gets tough,” Lt. Col. Philip DeCamp recently told his officers in Task Force 4-64, the unit that captured the two main presidential palaces when U.S. troops entered Baghdad on April 7.
U.S. Army psychiatrists who have been screening troops for combat stress have told many soldiers to seek help when they get home, but none know when that will happen. Soldiers have also been quicker to lose their tempers in dealing with Iraqi civilians, the troops said.
Spc. Robert Blake of Westover, Penn., said that while his experience as a peacekeeper in Kosovo helps him keep his cool, some soldiers in Baghdad still have a combat soldier’s mindset.
”Just coming out of combat it sounds like a crazy thing to tell someone, but I found myself telling people: `Relax, dude not everybody here is out to kill you,”’ said Blake, 20. ”There are some people that no matter what they were doing, they wouldn’t lighten up.”
Blount said the Army is working to improve living conditions for the soldiers, making sure none are still living in tents and that they have running water and electricity. He said they have also begun distributing ice to soldiers to help keep them cool during walking patrols with more than 30 pounds of combat gear in 100-degree heat.
One reason some senior officers cite for keeping the division in Iraq was the widespread looting and lawlessness in Baghdad that began as U.S. troops took control of the city. But as security is restored and more troops arrive, commanders hope the 3rd Infantry will be allowed to return home.