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Dread Takes a Toll on GIs in Iraq

Times Staff Writer

FORWARD OPERATING BASE FALCON, Iraq -- A handful of Delta Company soldiers leaned against a barracks wall the other night, smoking. The subject of conversation: what limb they would rather part with, if they had a choice. On the door of a portable toilet a few feet away, someone was keeping the company death toll amid a scribble of obscenities: five KIA.

“When I first got here, I felt like I could actually do some good for the Iraqi people,” Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Barker said. But the last six months had hardened him, he said. “We’re not going to change the Iraqis. I don’t care how many halal meals we give out,” he added, referring to food prepared according to Islamic dietary laws.

Of the 160,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq, some have been deployed to the country for the first time. Others are returning for their second or third tours of duty. Those returning find a country that has become even more dangerous. Since the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion, attacks on American troops using roadside bombs have steadily risen, as have military casualties.

In conversations with troops in the tense cities of Baghdad, Mosul and Tikrit during the last four weeks, morale seemed a fragile thing, especially among those in the line of fire, shot through with a sense of dread.

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Many expressed pride in their mission, and the hope that the budding political process would eventually destroy the insurgency. But others described a seemingly never-ending fight against an invisible enemy, and the toll of seeing friends die.

“Morale is a roller coaster,” said Lt. Rusten Currie, who has spent 10 months in Iraq. “We were all idealistic to begin with, wanting to find Osama bin Laden and [Abu Musab] Zarqawi, and bring them to justice -- whatever that means. Now we just want to go home.”

The bracelet on his slim wrist read: “Let them hate, as long as they fear.”

“We’ve become the cliche of every war movie -- the grizzled veterans,” said Currie, who became embittered after losing a friend, Capt. Raymond Hill -- “a big, happy-go-lucky guy,” killed by a roadside bomb Oct. 29.

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“It doesn’t make any sense to kill Roy Hill,” Currie said.

Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, a spokesman for Multinational Force Iraq, says tensions are understandable when troops are attacked with remotely detonated explosives and there’s no way to fight back.

“Soldiers can indeed get frustrated because they’re not looking at an enemy who’s looking back at them,” Lynch said. But he added that “morale is generally good.”

Barker remembers the day -- it was Sept. 15, a Thursday -- that changed how he felt about Iraq. Afterward, the mission no longer made sense.

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“It’s the most helpless feeling I have ever felt,” said Barker, of the California National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 184th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, who lost his friend and second in command, Sgt. Alfredo Silva, to a roadside bomb that day.

“We were the walking dead,” he said, speaking of the days after the attack. “It was no longer a matter of making it home alive and in one piece. Just alive would be fine.”

After that day, the explosions never seemed to stop. In Delta Company, morale plummeted after four men were killed in nine days, Barker said.

In the mess hall at Forward Operating Base Falcon, just south of Baghdad, soldiers on crutches precariously balanced food trays and sodas as they hobbled among the rows of tables. There were other, invisible injuries -- backs and legs refusing to heal.

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Many soldiers have been struck by explosives repeatedly -- three or four times -- since arriving at Falcon base this year. The medics call them “frequent fliers.”

Delta Company soldiers have had trouble sleeping.

“One of my buddies, he’s also a gunner,” said Spc. Evan Bozajian, 23, from Inglewood. “In the beginning, he was really gung-ho. Not anymore. Some of the guys, they hate it. They don’t want to do this anymore.”

Bozajian, however, still thinks he’s doing something worthwhile.

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“Back home, there are a lot of issues about why we’re here -- if it’s because of the oil,” he said. “I don’t even care about that.”

When he’s “gunning,” politics disappear, he said.

“If I die -- if my truck gets blown up -- there’s one less bomb for the 4-year-old to walk on.”

Bozajian has been hit three times, the last time in August. Two and a half months later, he still hadn’t recovered. Despite the crutches, walking was painful.

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While Barker and his men in Baghdad were hit by roadside bombs, Spc. Jose Navarette stood in a tower, peering into the darkness.

Behind him in a palace complex built by ousted dictator Saddam Hussein in Tikrit, 42nd Infantry Division troops slept next to their packed bags. Navarette would be one of the last Americans to stand guard there. A few weeks later, the palace complex would be handed over to Iraqi officials.

On this night, Navarette watched the lights of Hussein’s hometown still sparkling past midnight. Memories returned and his thoughts drifted as the Tigris River flowed by below his perch. This had been his world for 10 months in Iraq -- a 6-by-6-foot guard tower.

Thousands of miles away, at home in Odessa, Texas, his youngest son finished kindergarten and began his first day of school while Navarette guarded the palace. The 26-year-old regretted lost moments with his young family.

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The Iraqi kids who came begging, barefoot in ragged clothes, made him think of his own, three boys and a girl, unable to understand what their dad was doing in Iraq.

“All they see is what’s on TV,” he said. “They always ask, ‘Did you kill someone?’ ”

But for Navarette, Iraq had been more contemplation than battle. In the guard tower, the war was almost an abstraction. While thousands of Iraqis and Americans were getting killed elsewhere, he watched life on the river -- children swimming, their parents washing their cars by the water’s edge. Occasionally, Navarette talked about politics as he shared night watch with other soldiers.

“This whole war is like a modern-day Vietnam,” he said. “You see more people dying every day. That makes you wonder if it’s worthwhile.”

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After 10 months in the northern city of Mosul, Capt. Mick Mineni of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment thinks it is.

A year ago, the 37-year-old from Fullerton was role-playing in the Box, a vast stage in the Mojave Desert used by the Army to simulate military operations in Iraq. Mineni played an Iraqi mayor.

In Mosul, he worked with Iraqi election officials, and although cultural differences frustrated him, he also got “closure,” he said.

Leading up to last month’s referendum on the country’s constitution, Mineni often worked past midnight in his palace office -- desk duties he despised. Several of his friends hadn’t left Forward Operating Base Courage even once during the 10-month deployment. “It’s an odd way to experience this kind of conflict,” he said. “While you’re here fighting for freedom, you lose your own.”

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Although he looked forward to going home, he felt proud looking back.

“We’ve accomplished something,” he said, after October’s referendum.

“That feels good.”

During this bloody fall, Maj. Robert Blessing, the chaplain at Falcon, talked to soldiers who were dealing with flashbacks and nightmares about mangled bodies. The official, and anodyne, title of these sessions: “critical event debriefings.”

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Blessing went to the bedsides of victims, visiting the dying first, then the wounded, he said. For a man of faith, the kind of relativism Iraq brought was hard. Telling a soldier, “Hey, you’ve only lost a hand -- hallelujah -- you’re going to make it,” is bizarre, he said.

“So many deaths, so many wounds,” said the 47-year-old Blessing, his voice thickening with repressed tears. “Supposedly it’s peacekeeping, but it’s a war.”

Although the battalion was getting ready to leave Iraq, the chaplain feared he would be talking to troubled soldiers for years to come.

“They’re going back with all these memories,” Blessing said. “The wound they carry back with them is the loss of innocence.”

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