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After a Year, Soldiers See Future Out of Iraq

Times Staff Writer

Huddled in the back of a mud-splattered Humvee, Army Spc. Robert Carver scans the dark, wet streets in search of something he doesn’t really want to find.

Carver, 21, and his squad are looking for hidden roadside bombs. He’s done almost daily patrols since arriving in Mosul six months ago with the 502nd Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. He’s never found a roadside bomb, and now it looks as if he never will.

“This,” Carver says over the diesel engine’s rumble, “may be my last patrol.”

Carver and about 19,000 other soldiers in the 101st are finally going home. The troops of the 502nd, one of the last units remaining in Iraq that saw major combat, expect to rotate out this week after nearly a year

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At U.S. bases around the northern city of Mosul, soldiers are packing up, saying their goodbyes and thinking about the future -- one that doesn’t include daily attacks, cold stares from locals and bad food.

“Ten days from now I’ll be eating a 22-ounce Longhorn steak,” Carver tells his patrol buddy, Pvt. Adam Berken, 18. “I’ve been thinking about that for days.” The steakhouse dinner will be followed by “about a week of drinking,” he predicts.

Throughout the bases, soldiers are making similar plans. A trip to Amelia Island in Florida. Holing up in the bedroom and ordering pizza for a week. Mardi Gras. One soldier has already rented a cabin in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

“I can show you the hot tub on the Internet,” says Sgt. Jason Cox of Missouri. “Man, I look at that website every day.”

It’s a welcome distraction, but at the same time soldiers say they are trying to focus on their duties in these final days, making sure they get home safely. Two helicopters have crashed in the Mosul area in the past week, leaving two pilots dead and two missing, a painful reminder that Iraq is still dangerous.

“When we first got here and the mortars would hit, you didn’t think about it so much,” Sgt. Jeremy Prickette of Wisconsin says as he adjusts his flak jacket for his final patrol. “Now that it’s getting close and I’m leaving, I’m like: Keep that stuff away from me, I’m almost home.”

The patrolling for roadside bombs -- improvised explosive devices, or IEDs in Army speak -- is risky work. On the morning of Prickette’s final patrol, two 101st soldiers were seriously wounded when they were struck by one of the devices.

Soldiers have nicknamed the various patrol routes. There’s IED Alley. Circle of Death. Tonight’s patrol runs down Baghdad Street, a narrow road just outside the base that, according to locals, eventually reaches the capital, 225 miles south.

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Fifteen guys start the patrol on foot, slogging through muddy fields along the road, looking for anyone who may be hiding nearby with a radio device or cell phone to detonate a bomb. Not far behind, five Humvees -- including one carrying Carver and Berken -- begin a slow procession. The troops use night-vision goggles and shine high-powered flashlights into fields and onto piles of trash, suspicious-looking rocks, old grain sacks, anything that might hide a bomb.

“At least the rain stopped for a while,” Carver says. Pointing an M249 automatic weapon into the darkness, Berken shakes a plastic hand-warmer packet and stuffs it into his glove. After a blistering Iraqi summer, the rain started to fall in November and seemingly has not stopped, turning their camp into a swamp.

Accustomed to the nightly patrols, shopkeepers take little notice as the convoy passes. Carver shines his flashlight into a vacant lot. “You see that dog?” Carver asks, illuminating its fangs. “That dog is evil.”

They won’t miss the stray dogs. Or the patrols. But some soldiers express mixed feelings about leaving and are anxious about how they’ll adjust when they get home.

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Cox voices a low opinion of things in Iraq, but goes on to say, “I guess I’m used to it.”

Another soldier, who married shortly before being deployed, worries about settling down to a daily routine with his wife.

To help ease the transition, soldiers coming home are required to return to their base at Ft. Campbell, Ky., for about a week.

“It’s a time to de-stress,” Carver says. “They watch you to make sure you don’t freak out.”

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A few of the soldiers say they’ll miss the Iraqis who work at the bases. The barber. The interpreters. Tears welled in the eyes of an Iraqi who runs a snack stand on one base when soldiers said goodbye. “I told him, ‘Suck it up, man,’ ” one soldier recalled.

A 7-year-old boy named Yunis has become a mascot of sorts for the 502nd camp in downtown Mosul. One of the few local boys permitted to roam the base, Yunis shows up every day to accompany the foot patrol through the city’s thriving open-air marketplace. “He’s our bodyguard,” quips Sgt. Matt Zais, from Pennsylvania.

Asked if he’ll be sad to see the troops leave, Yunis says: “It’s OK. They have to go see President Bush.” The boy figures he’ll stay home for a few days, at least until the 502nd’s replacements set up a new camp a couple of blocks away that will accommodate their large vehicles.

The 101st will hand over authority in the north to the Stryker Brigade, a relatively new unit known for its distinctive, high-tech vehicles. The 9,500 Stryker troops started arriving about 10 days ago, much to the relief of soldiers in the 502nd.

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“Boy, it was a real good feeling to see those trucks start rolling in,” said Capt. John Peters, an intelligence officer with the 502nd. “Things don’t seem to bother me as much anymore.”

Aside from a few days of training and some haggling over the sale of used TVs and VCRs, the interaction between the outgoing soldiers and their replacements has been minimal.

The outgoing officers have introduced Stryker commanders to local community leaders and tried to convey the lessons they learned in Mosul. The two units have conducted a few joint patrols.

But there is no camaraderie evident between the groups. In the football field-sized mess hall, members of the 101st sit together. The Stryker soldiers do the same.

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“It’s hard,” says Sgt. Mike Dover, 31. “We’re going home and they’re not. But then, they’ve been at home for the last year while we were here.”

For Carver, it’s not a time to make new friends. The Albany, Ga., native has his eye on finishing his last year of military service and heading to California, where he hopes to enroll at UCLA Film School and produce skateboarding videos. “I like anything to do with camera work,” he says.

Just as it seems that Carver’s final patrol will close uneventfully, the radio crackles with a report of a partially exploded IED near an Iraqi police station. The soldiers on foot jump into one of the Humvees and speed to the scene. A squad leader shouts instructions for securing the area.

They surround the block, diverting traffic and questioning a family of Iraqis in a car nearby.

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“Keep your eyes on that corner,” the squad leader tells Carver. “I don’t want anyone peeking around.”

“Don’t worry,” Carver says. “I don’t want to get blown up my last week.”

Thirty minutes later, the tension dissipates when orders come to pack it up and head back to the base. It’s a false alarm. The IED had exploded hours earlier, and the area was cleared by Iraqi bomb experts.

Berken shakes his head. “Man, we’ve just been guarding nothing.”

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Carver beams. “Who cares, dude?” he says. “We’re almost outta here.”


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