U.S. soldiers settle down to life in Iraq

TIKRIT, Iraq – There are doughnuts and peanut butter in the mess hall where American flags hang alongside the green-and-white banners of the 4th Infantry Division. Soldiers sit at long Formica tables or wait patiently in the chow line. In the corner, a brass band is practicing for Thanksgiving.

This could be Fort Hood, Texas, remarked Capt. Jahme Bell.

But beyond the walls surrounding this complex of Saddam Hussein’s palaces lies Tikrit, a city of 120,000 people, many of whom view the troops as invaders. The nights are punctuated by gunfire and mortar rounds aimed at the base.

“There can be no doubt you’re in Iraq,” said Bell, 30 from Killeen, Texas, one of thousands of Americans stationed in the U.S. Army base 120 miles north of Baghdad.

The base is in a complex of gaudy marble palaces strewn along the banks of the Tigris River.

When the U.S. division moved in seven months ago, dust had already covered the lawns and clogged the artificial waterfalls and swimming pool. Looters had stripped the palaces bare.

“On the surface the empty monstrosity looked good, chandeliers still hung from the ceilings, wooden engravings adorned the halls,” says Maj. Josslyn Aberle, spokeswoman for the 4th Infantry Division.

“We called it Vegas-gone-wrong-on-the-Tigris,” Aberle said.

With the soldiers’ stay in hostile surroundings likely to stretch on until April, the army has sought to make life easier for them.

The mess hall is an air-conditioned prefab built on an open field. In July one palace was converted into “Ironhorse Resort,” complete with Internet cafe and theater.

The Internet room is always packed.

Sgt. Eddie Woody of Oklahoma City, opened an e-mailed photo of Psalm Rose, the 6-week-old daughter whose birth he missed. “My, she has some fat cheeks,” Woody exclaimed. He’s hoping for a Thanksgiving furlough home.

At another terminal, Sgt. Anthony Wilfong, of Pontiac, Ill., chatted online with his cousin, best friend and aunt all at the same time. With a time difference of eight hours, “getting hold of people at home is difficult,” he said. “I was lucky.”

Meanwhile, Spc. Dennis Hartson, of Marquette, Iowa, waited two hours in line to phone home with an AT&T card and forty minutes of phone time.

“I don’t regret coming to Iraq,” said the welder from the 229th Civil Engineers. “Iraqis are nice people. If you show them respect, they will respect you back.”

On radio watch for the night shift, Spc. Erin Kotchian, of Falmouth, Mass., passed time with magazines from home and watched “Gangs of New York” and “Anger Management” on her DVD player.

“I’ve wanted all my life to be an MP,” says Kotchian, 23, from the 720th Military Police Battalion. “But when I look at the Tigris, I miss the ocean back home.”

Some things are harder to bear, like the memorial service in mid-October for two soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division, killed days apart in land mine and grenade attacks.

“On a day like this, there is a lot of sadness. It affects us all,” Sgt. Maj. Cesar Castro of Dallas said before the ceremony in one of the palaces. “But we seek comfort that they did not die in vain, they died for their country and for the noble hope that Iraqis will have a better life.”

Chaplain Maj. Oscar Arauco says the comradeship of these soldiers “is something few people know in peacetime.”

“Look at the soldiers riding out on missions, sitting on the Humvees, their backs to each other. They guard each other’s backs with their lives,” Arauco said.

“Yes, everyone wants to go home, but everyone is also aware of their duty. No one is going to up and leave.”

Capt. Justin Cole, a social worker from Pendleton, Ore., says he and his 85th Combat Stress Team have treated about 20 soldiers with stress problems in the past 2 1/2months. The signs range from anger, irritability and sadness to feelings of numbness and introversion, he says.

It’s normal, he says. “To go out of this gate here and not have a sense of anxiety or nervousness would not be normal.”

Cole recently asked about 35 percent of the troops in the Tikrit base to rate their stress levels on a 1-10 scale, 10 being the highest. The average was 5.8.

“The majority handle stress very well,” he said, and the Tikrit base has had no suicide attempt.

Cole encourages soldiers to write their daily thoughts and experiences in diaries.

“Combat, heat, dust, living in close quarters, lack of privacy – there is no closing the door when you are in the Army,” he says.

Copyright ©2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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