Morale Is Called High in 'a Frustrating War'

Times Staff Writer

On the rooftop of the old Baath Party headquarters here, Pfc. Sung Hwang sits behind a .30-caliber machine gun, hour after hour, his sights trained on the marshlands where any manner of danger can lurk, including Saddam Hussein loyalists with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.

"In the first couple of months, I'd say our morale was kind of low. Time dragged," said Hwang, 20, a member of the 4th Infantry Division who arrived in Iraq seven months ago. "Now morale's good. We're used to the life. You don't ask why you're here. You just go out on mission and do it. The whole purpose is to find the bad guys."

"This is a frustrating war to fight," said Hwang's company commander, Capt. Brian Ridley, "but my soldiers' morale remains really high. You don't have to worry about them messing up. They stay focused and they have a sense of purpose. Of course, when you're getting attacked, like we've been, you don't have to push very hard to explain to someone why he has to do what he does."

In any war, morale is an intangible element that can influence the outcome of battle. It is rooted in many things: unit esprit de corps, leadership and training, belief in the mission, a sense of shared destiny with one's fellow soldiers. When morale is good, a unit becomes like family. When it is bad, a unit is just a collection of people, all looking out for themselves.

With attacks on coalition forces mounting six months after President Bush declared "major combat" over, there is growing concern about the morale of U.S. troops in Iraq. Individual soldiers have complained about tours stretching to a full year with no definite departure date, primitive living conditions and, in some cases, inadequate equipment.

Last month, the Army said 13 U.S. troops had committed suicide in Iraq and announced that a mental-health investigative team had been dispatched to the combat theater.

And Stars and Stripes, a newspaper funded by the Pentagon, conducting an unscientific but extensive survey in Iraq, reported that 49% of troops said their unit's morale was low or very low. (About 16% rated it high or very high.) Generally, National Guards and reservists gave more critical ratings to questions about morale than did members of the regular service.

But defining morale -- and assessing its level -- is a difficult and imprecise science. While the Stars and Stripes survey appeared to be cause for alarm, soldiers here in Mashahidah, in the area northwest of Baghdad that has seen some of the most intense fighting since Hussein was deposed, insisted that morale was not a problem.

"These guys gripe, make no mistake," said Sgt. 1st Class Robert Loesch. "They gripe about the mail being late, about the chow, about a lot of things. If a soldier doesn't gripe, there's something wrong. But griping is one thing, bad morale, another. And the fact is the performance of these soldiers is great. They do everything they're asked to do."

In its poll of nearly 2,000 service personnel, Stars and Stripes reported that about two of every three respondents said the war in Iraq was worth fighting and about the same number said their mission was "clearly defined."

Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of coalition forces, told reporters last month that military leaders are responsible for sustaining morale in a "tough environment" like Iraq, and are succeeding.

"When I walk around units, the soldiers I find are dedicated. They're missing their families, but they are committed to accomplishing the mission," he said. "Retention rates are high. The soldiers' quality of life is better than it was during the summer. Morale is very good."

Forty-nine percent of Stars and Stripes respondents said it was unlikely they would stay in the military when their current obligation was completed.

Sanchez, however, said reenlistment had exceeded commanders' goals by at least 20% in four divisions serving in Iraq -- the 101st and 82nd Airborne, the 1st Armored and the 4th Infantry. The 5th Corps, which is also here, has the highest reenlistment rate in the Army, he said.

The report of the military mental-health team that visited Iraq has not been made public. But Pentagon officials said 13 suicides in a force of 130,000 personnel is in line with statistical norms during combat. Taking into account periods of both peace and war, the Army and Navy annually average about 11 suicides per 100,000 personnel, the Air Force about 9.5 per 100,000 and the Marines about 12.6 per 100,000, spokesmen said.

After the Vietnam War, during which the average age of an infantryman was 19, compared with 26 in World War II, some peace groups placed the number of postwar suicides among veterans as high as 169,000. After an extensive study, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta reported the number was about 9,000 and said that after five post-service years, Vietnam veterans had a lower suicide rate than the nation as a whole. Still, the Vietnam experience was a traumatic one for many soldiers.

"The young soldiers in the Army today are an entirely different group of guys than I fought with in Vietnam," said Sgt. 1st Class Clarence Kugler, 59, an Army reservist who will soon deploy to Iraq with his Florida-based unit. "In Vietnam, the guys were drafted, they didn't want to be there. Today our guys are a hell of a lot more professional. They're much better educated, better trained. They've actually made a commitment to the Army."

Commanders undeniably had a tougher challenge maintaining morale at the height of the Vietnam War than they do in the occupation of Iraq. Alcohol and drug abuse became widespread in the Vietnam War. The temptations of Saigon -- sex, gambling, bars -- were vast, far greater than those of drab Baghdad. After the U.S. had been in Vietnam for many years, some soldiers knew they would return home to find a nation that seemed ungrateful for their sacrifices in an unpopular war. In contrast, alcohol is banned at all U.S. bases in Iraq, drugs are not in evidence and there is little fraternization between Americans and Iraqis.

"What are people back home saying about us?" asked Lt. Mat Camel, posing what is perhaps the most common question heard by visitors at U.S. bases in Iraq. Told that the nation was divided over the war but that U.S. troops appeared to have the universal support of the American public, he replied, "I'm really glad to hear that. The thought of going home and being hated for what I'd done ... that would really bother me."

U.S. morale will continue to be tested in the months ahead. Casualties are mounting; 16 U.S. troops were killed when their helicopter was shot down by insurgents Nov. 2. The victims were on their way out of Iraq for 14-day vacations that the Pentagon has instituted to help keep soldiers' spirits up.

The downing of the copter was a stark reminder of how dangerous Iraq remains.

Many soldiers, who thought they'd be on their way home months ago, still have no definite departure date as many tours have been extended to a full year. Others who fought in Iraq and came home -- such as Marines from Camp Pendleton -- have been ordered back to Iraq next year.

"Three times we were told we were going home," said Sgt. 1st Class Dave McDonald of the Florida National Guard in Baghdad. "And three times it didn't happen. We still don't have a date. Morale took a hit on that, but did it affect performance? No. Soldiers go out and they do their job and they do it well."

Some National Guards and reservists also complain they have not been issued needed equipment, from protective body armor to proper communications gear. As citizen-soldiers used to short-term deployments, they say their civilian jobs are in jeopardy and their families' lives in turmoil because their tours of duty have been extended.

"After seven months my guys are tired," said Lt. Col. Aubrey Garner, a battalion commander with the 4th Infantry Division, "but I don't have anyone refusing to soldier."

"That doesn't mean they like being here," he added. "But it does mean they understand what I'm telling [them] when I say, 'One day you're going to walk up back up the stairs of an airplane and you and your brothers will be out of here. And for the rest of your life, you're going to have to live with your actions in this war.' "

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