BAGHDAD, IRAQ — Staff Sgt. David Safstrom does not regret his previous tours in Iraq, not even a difficult second stint when two comrades were killed while trying to capture insurgents.
“In Mosul, in 2003, it felt like we were making the city a better place,” he said. “There was no sectarian violence, Saddam was gone, we were tracking down the bad guys. It felt awesome.”
But now on his third deployment in Iraq, he is no longer a believer in the mission. The pivotal moment came, he says, this February when soldiers killed a man setting a roadside bomb. When they searched the bomber’s body, they found identification showing him to be a sergeant in the Iraqi Army.
“I thought: ‘What are we doing here? Why are we still here?’ ” said Sergeant Safstrom, a member of Delta Company of the First Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry, 82nd Airborne Division. “We’re helping guys that are trying to kill us. We help them in the day. They turn around at night and try to kill us.”
His views are echoed by most of his fellow soldiers in Delta Company, renowned for its aggressiveness.
A small minority of Delta Company soldiers — the younger, more recent enlistees in particular — seem to still wholeheartedly support the war. Others are ambivalent, torn between fear of losing more friends in battle, longing for their families and a desire to complete their mission.
With few reliable surveys of soldiers’ attitudes, it is impossible to simply extrapolate from the small number of soldiers in the company. But in interviews with more than a dozen soldiers in this 83-man unit over a one-week period, most said they were disillusioned by repeated deployments, by what they saw as the abysmal performance of Iraqi security forces and by a conflict that they considered a civil war, one they had no ability to stop.
They had seen shadowy militia commanders installed as Iraqi Army officers, they said, had come under increasing attack from roadside bombs — planted within sight of Iraqi Army checkpoints — and had fought against Iraqi soldiers whom they thought were their allies.
“In 2003, 2004, 100 percent of the soldiers wanted to be here, to fight this war,” said Sgt. First Class David Moore, a self-described “conservative Texas Republican” and platoon sergeant who strongly advocates an American withdrawal. “Now, 95 percent of my platoon agrees with me.”
It is not a question of loyalty, the soldiers insist. Sergeant Safstrom, for example, comes from a thoroughly military family. His mother and father have served in the armed forces, as have his three sisters, one brother and several uncles. One week after the Sept. 11 attacks, he walked into a recruiter’s office and joined the Army.
“You guys want to start a fight in my backyard, I got something for you,” he recalls thinking at the time.
But in Sergeant Safstrom’s view, the American presence is futile. “If we stayed here for 5, even 10 more years, the day we leave here these guys will go crazy,” he said. “It would go straight into a civil war. That’s how it feels, like we’re putting a Band-Aid on this country until we leave here.”
Their many deployments have added to the strain. After spending six months in Iraq, the soldiers of Delta Company had been home for only 24 hours last December when the news came. “Change your plans,” they recall being told. “We’re going back to Iraq.”
Nineteen days later, just after Christmas, Capt. Douglas Rogers and the men of Delta Company were on their way to Kadhimiya, a Shiite enclave of about 300,000 people. As part of the so-called surge of American troops, their primary mission was to maintain stability in the area and prepare the Iraqi Army and the police to take control of the neighborhood.
“I thought it would not be long before we could just stay on our base and act as a quick-reaction force,” said the barrel-chested Captain Rogers of San Antonio. “The Iraqi security forces would step up.”
It has not worked out that way. Still, Captain Rogers says their mission in Kadhimiya has been “an amazing success.”
“We’ve captured 4 of the top 10 most-wanted guys in this area,” he said. And the streets of Kadhimiya are filled with shoppers and the stores are open, he said, a rarity in Baghdad due partly to Delta Company’s patrols.
Captain Rogers acknowledges the skepticism of many of his soldiers. “Our unit has already sent two soldiers home in a box,” he said. “My soldiers don’t see the same level of commitment from the Iraqi Army units they’re partnered with.”
Yet there is, he insists, no crisis of morale: “My guys are all professionals. I tell them to do something, they do it.” His dictum is proved on patrol, where his soldiers walk the streets for hours in the stifling heat, providing cover for one another with crisp efficiency.
On April 29, a Delta Company patrol was responding to a tip at Al Sadr mosque, a short distance from its base. The soldiers saw men in the distance erecting barricades that they set ablaze, and the streets emptied out quickly. Then a militia, believed to be the Mahdi Army, began firing at them from rooftops and windows.
Sgt. Kevin O’Flarity, a squad leader, jumped into his Humvee to join his fellow soldiers, racing through abandoned Iraqi Army and police checkpoints to the battle site.
He and his squad maneuvered their Humvees through alleyways and side streets, firing back at an estimated 60 insurgents during a gun battle that raged for two and a half hours. A rocket-propelled grenade glanced off Sergeant O’Flarity’s Humvee, failing to penetrate.
When the battle was over, Delta Company learned that among the enemy dead were at least two Iraqi Army soldiers that American forces had helped train and arm.
Captain Rogers admits, “The 29th was a watershed moment in a negative sense, because the Iraqi Army would not fight with us,” adding, “Some actually picked up weapons and fought against us.”
The battle changed the attitude among his soldiers toward the war, he said. “Before that fight, there were a few true believers.” Captain Rogers said. “After the 29th, I don’t think you’ll find a true believer in this unit. They’re paratroopers. There’s no question they’ll fulfill their mission. But they’re fighting now for pride in their unit, professionalism, loyalty to their fellow soldier and chain of command.”
To Sergeant O’Flarity, the Iraqi security forces are militias beholden to local leaders, not the Iraqi government. “Half of the Iraqi security forces are insurgents,” he said.
As for his views on the war, Sergeant O’Flarity said, “I don’t believe we should be here in the middle of a civil war.”
“We’ve all lost friends over here,” he said. “Most of us don’t know what we’re fighting for anymore. We’re serving our country and friends, but the only reason we go out every day is for each other.”
“I don’t want any more of my guys to get hurt or die,” he continued. “If it was something I felt righteous about, maybe. But for this country and this conflict, no, it’s not worth it.”
Staff Sgt. James Griffin grew up in Troy, N.C., near the Special Operations base at Fort Bragg. His dream was to be a soldier, and growing up, he would skip school and volunteer to play the role of the enemy during Special Operations training exercises. When he was 17, he joined the Army.
Now 22, Sergeant Griffin is a Delta Company section leader. On the night of May 5, as he neared an Iraqi police checkpoint with a convoy of Humvees, Sergeant Griffin spotted what looked like a camouflaged cinderblock and immediately halted the convoy. His vigilance may have saved the lives of several soldiers. Under the camouflage was a massive, six-array, explosively formed penetrator — a deadly roadside bomb that cuts through the Humvees’ armor with ease.
The insurgents quickly set off the device, but the Americans were at a safe distance. An explosive ordnance disposal team arrived to check the area. As the ordnance team rolled back to base, they were attacked with a second roadside bomb near another Iraqi checkpoint. One soldier was killed and two were wounded.
No one has been able to explain why two bombs were found near Iraqi checkpoints, bombs that Iraqi soldiers and the police had either failed to notice or helped to plant.
Sergeant Griffin, too, understands the criticism of the Iraqi forces, but he says they and the war effort must be given more time.
“If we throw this problem to the side, it’s not going to fix itself,” he said. “We’ve created the Iraqi forces. We gave them Humvees and equipment. For however long they say they need us here, maybe we need to stay.”