For some troops, vote affirms purpose
KIRKUK, Iraq – As he walked through the mud surrounding his temporary barracks, 1st Sgt. Ken Agueda carried an M-4 assault rifle without its essential lethal components: bullets. Earlier in the day, Agueda had turned in his ammunition – cartridges, assorted grenades – in preparation for his journey home after nearly 13 months in Iraq.
“It’s like walking around without your pants,” said Agueda, a 17-year U.S. Army veteran from Bayamon, Puerto Rico.
With their departure just days away, Agueda and his unit, the 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division, were euphoric and reflective. In more than a dozen interviews over three days this past week, soldiers with combat experience in all corners of Iraq offered up a mixed final assessment of a conflict that is burned into them forever. Its ultimate outcome, all agreed, remains highly uncertain and far away.
Soldiers ranging from privates to senior officers described last Sunday’s national elections as vindication for more than a year of hard service. The unexpectedly strong turnout, they said, altered their perception about the willingness of Iraqis to embrace the American mission here and helped project a rare positive image of the U.S. military following such stains as the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal last year.
“This was the opposite of Abu Ghraib,” Agueda said. “I think it’s safe to say that this is the biggest thing that any one of us has ever done. I mean, in our humble positions, we helped make history. We did something that could have a positive effect on the entire world.”
Spc. Andrew Field, 31, of Tallahassee, described the elections as “the culminating event for our whole deployment. If it hadn’t gone well, it would have been incredibly demoralizing to everyone. It gave meaning to everything we were doing.”
But the soldiers were reluctant to say that the elections were a turning point in the war. “Leaving with the elections will definitely be a positive in our minds, but I don’t know if I’m optimistic or pessimistic,” said Capt. John Hussey, 26, of Uvalde, Texas. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the entire country descends into chaos. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it flourishes, either.”
Asked how long he thought U.S. troops would remain in Iraq, Hussey said: “Probably 10 or 15 years, if we want to do it right. I don’t think there’s going to be 135,000 Americans in Baghdad 10 years from now, but there are going to be Americans in Iraq for a long, long time.”
The unit, based at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, arrived in Iraq in December 2003. The battalion ranged from as far south as Najaf, where it twice battled the militia of Muqtada al-Sadr, a rebellious Shiite cleric, to the northern city of Mosul, where it helped provide security for the elections.
The 700-man battalion handed out at least 550 Combat Infantryman Badges for participation in close combat. The unit suffered no combat fatalities. It has been nominated for a Presidential Unit Citation, which honors units that display “extraordinary heroism in action against an armed enemy.”
The battalion experienced everything from snow to extreme heat; one day last summer, Sgt. 1st Class Greg Baker said his portable thermometer showed the temperature to be 130 degrees. During a 17-day stretch in Najaf in April, each soldier lived in the open desert and subsisted on one bottle of water and one MRE, or meal ready to eat, per day.
The unit’s final mission revealed much about the rigors of soldiering in Iraq. After the elections, the battalion had to return from Mosul to Forward Operating Base Warrior in Kirkuk. The convoy consisted of nearly 100 vehicles, from Humvees to trailers, and the journey was so complicated that commanders rehearsed it by chalking out a colored floor map that spanned an entire room. The vehicles left in stages and traveled with their headlights dark to avoid tipping off insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades.
A Humvee carrying a reporter drifted off the road several times Tuesday as the 22-year-old driver, his night-vision goggles fogging, strained to find it in the rain and darkness. The trip took six hours and, toward the end, the convoy became lost in downtown Kirkuk, struggling to find its way back to the base.
“You can never really, totally relax over here,” said Capt. James Everett, 30, of Currituck, N.C., who was also in the vehicle. “You have your downtime, but you’re always on guard.”
All of the soldiers were taking reintegration training to help cope with what senior officers predicted would be a difficult transition, especially for those with families. “A year deployment is not healthy for nobody,” Agueda said. “Every single man in this company has been through a crisis, I guarantee that. Right now, it’s going to take some time to repair, and that includes myself.”
“We’ve all aged tremendously,” Hussey said.
Capt. Chris Duncan, 28, a Johns Hopkins University graduate from Kingsland, Ark., said he staunchly supported the war. But when he heard a soldier had been killed, or saw one of his friends wounded, he occasionally found himself asking, “What was it for?”
On election day, Duncan said, he stood near a precinct and watched Iraqis stream to the polls. “First you had one, then two, then 50,” he said. “Then the line was around the polling site. And this was in a neighborhood where people really had a reason to dislike us – former Baath Party members, former military regime guys.”
Duncan, who has spent 20 months in Iraq over the past three years, said the image solidified his resolve.
“Now I know what it was for,” he said.