Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Marking time in IRAQ
By Aamer Madhani, USA TODAY CONTINGENCY OPERATING BASE ADDER, Iraq — Pfc. Adrian Vesik heard that war could be hell. He was happy to discover when he arrived in Iraq earlier this year that his war experience also would include salsa dancing, yoga and martial-arts classes. "When I signed up for the Army, I thought I was going to be a hero – go out and do some fighting," says Vesik, 19, during a break at a Filipino-Okinawan jujitsu class. "I haven't come close to doing anything that I was trained to do. I work, maybe, four to five hours a day. I have time to try all these new things. It's not so bad." Because of new rules that require Iraqi approval for all U.S. missions, and a general decline in violence nationwide, many of the 117,000 U.S. servicemembers stationed in Iraq say they now have more idle time than at any previous point in the six-year war. Combat is still a daily reality in some parts of Iraq, and U.S. servicemembers are being killed here at a rate of about one a week. But for many troops in places such as this large military base in southern Iraq, traditional soldiering such as kicking down doors and searching for roadside bombs has at least partly given way to book clubs, karaoke nights, sports and distance-learning university programs. Many troops express relief at the diminished threat of injury or death. Yet some say they have struggled with depression because they don't feel as if they are doing enough. Others say they are frustrated by the sense they're being underutilized – particularly at a time when their comrades in Afghanistan are struggling to beat back the Taliban. "It's been hard to get used to how much things have changed," says Army Staff Sgt. Wayne Kersh, 31, of St. George, Utah, who is on his third deployment in Iraq. "During the other tours, we were always going. You went on patrol, you ate, you slept, and then you did it again. You never had to think about keeping a soldier occupied." The improvement in Iraq's security recently prompted Gen. Ray Odierno, the top commander here, to accelerate the pace of sending troops home. He announced last month that 4,000 more troops – about the size of an Army brigade – will be going home by the end of October. Even more will leave next year, until 50,000 troops remain after Sept. 1, and the rest are to be gone by the end of 2011. The drawdown is occurring as President Obama is evaluating a request for more troops in Afghanistan. Simply shifting troops from one war to another is difficult because of specialized training needs, transport logistics and other factors. But a smaller force in Iraq should, over time, free up the manpower to increase forces in Afghanistan, should Obama decide that is necessary. "An accelerated drawdown in Iraq would give the Pentagon more flexibility to meet the force requirements for Afghanistan, even if no troops were transferred directly between the two theaters of war," says James Phillips, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank. This week, Odierno canceled the deployment of a brigade scheduled to arrive in Iraq next January. The Pentagon has no plans yet to send that unit to Afghanistan. But Phillips says that brigade likely will be sent there. The USA is still spending about $7.3 billion a month on the Iraq war, training Iraqi troops, providing security and assisting Iraqi forces as they target insurgents responsible for bombings and other attacks. Yet, there has been a more relaxed atmosphere, particularly since June 30, when U.S. forces had to leave Iraqi cities and towns as part of the security agreement between the two countries. Even in rural areas, all combat operations are led by Iraqi soldiers and police; U.S. troops are asked only to provide minimal support. Such progress means U.S. troops leave their bases less frequently. And when they do, it's to train Iraqi troops or to meet with community leaders about civic projects. Lt. Col. Jay Gallivan, who commands the Army battalion that advises Iraqi Security Forces in the southern provinces of Dhi Qar and Muthanna, says there is an ongoing debate over where U.S. troops can best be used. He says the current number of troops here is adequate to train and assist the Iraqis. "As forces depart, you have to start asking the question of what are things you don't do," Gallivan says. Sgt. Jonathan Blanton, 23, says he fell into a depression during his first days here because he expected more action and wondered why he was even needed. On his previous tour in Iraq, during the massive U.S. troop increase in 2007, Blanton's infantry unit fought in some pitched battles in the restive city of Baqouba, and he was wounded by a roadside bomb north of Baghdad. He was expecting more of the same this time. "I felt like many of the infantrymen," says Blanton, of New Summerfield, Texas. "Any Joe will tell you we're not doing what we're supposed to do – we're not kicking down doors. But I eventually came to understand that things have changed. That part of the war is over, and that's a good thing." U.S. troops – particularly here in relatively peaceful southern Iraq – are seldom involved in combat operations these days, says Col. Peter Newell, who commands more than 4,000 soldiers in an advisory brigade to the Iraqi security forces in an area the size of South Carolina. "For the young soldier who thought he would be kicking down doors, I'm sure it can be disappointing," says Newell, who fought in the violent siege of Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004. Yet, the work remains intense for his brigade leaders, Newell says, as they focus on training Iraqi police and army units so they are adequately prepared to take over when the U.S. military leaves Iraq. "I would say this mission might be less physically exhausting than previous tours, but for senior leaders we're in a period that is more mentally exhausting than the war has ever been," he says. Passing the time Sgt. Neil Gussman, 56, came to Iraq knowing that deployments can be filled with torturously slow periods waiting for something to happen. Gussman, who enlisted in 1972 and later joined the Pennsylvania National Guard in 2007 – after a 23-year hiatus from the military – recalls that when he served in Germany in the late 1970s, the Army would occasionally show a movie for soldiers in the field. They mostly killed time by reading. In Iraq, he was surprised to see few soldiers reading for pleasure, so he started two book clubs. One, called Beyond Narnia, reviews essays by C.S. Lewis, who wrote the children's series, The Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis' religious themes have made the club popular with chaplains here at Adder, Gussman says. The other club, the Dead Poets Society, is reading works by Dante and Virgil. At one recent meeting, soldiers debated the notion of romantic love, a concept that Gussman argues was introduced in Virgil's The Aeneid. The soldiers discussed whether marrying for love was logical, and whether some of the Iraqis they've met have it better through their arranged marriages, Gussman says. "When I asked if any of them wanted the group to arrange a marriage for them, there weren't any takers," Gussman jokes. Although the book clubs are heady endeavors, Chief Warrant Officer John Dorman might have them outdone. The former helicopter pilot is using his spare time to teach himself calculus and advanced geometry. His office is littered with origami figures he's made to study the tetrahedron, math textbooks and a white board covered with formulas and diagrams unrelated to his job as a human resources administrator in Iraq. Dorman, 32, of Orlando, says he has a fairly busy work schedule most days and regularly puts in 12-hour shifts. That still leaves him with 12 hours to fill, and Army life is free of many of the routine chores of home life. "I have plenty of time to focus on this," says Dorman, who is considering becoming a math professor once he gets out of the Army. "Working on this stuff helps me get away from it all. It's a good distraction." Dancing and fighting Each night, as many as 15 soldiers gather for mixed martial-arts training at what has been dubbed the "fight club." On a recent evening, advanced students of Army Staff Sgt. Aaron Martinez are drenched in sweat after several hours of intense exercise. One of the last drills of the night requires one fighter to try to unlock himself from an opponent and then knee him in the face. One of Martinez's students quickly bloodies his sparring partner's nose. The injured soldier shakes it off, and the class resumes. "This is a huge stress relief," Martinez says. "It's a great way for some of these guys to blow off steam." The most popular spot on this base, which houses more than 8,000 people from all five branches of the military, seems to be 6 Pazzi – an Italian restaurant with an outdoor dance floor surrounded by 10-foot-high blast walls. Three nights a week, troops wearing T-shirts and training shorts come to dance salsa, merengue and bachata. Weekly hip-hop and country music nights also are held. The dance floor is basically a concrete patio, and the only decoration is a neon palm tree. That's enough for troops to forget for a couple of hours that they're in Iraq, says Pfc. Lisandro Lantigua, 19, of Corona, Calif., who spends much of his day preparing containers of military equipment to be shipped back to the U.S. or sent to Afghanistan. Lantigua says his work likely will get busier in a few months as the U.S. begins to withdraw from Iraq. For now, he wants to take advantage of the downtime. Salsa night is one of his favorites. Crowds gather early, and by 9 p.m. most tables are filled with soldiers drinking non-alcoholic beer and smoking from hookahs. Lantigua and his buddy, Sgt. Hector Saillant, 29, of Albuquerque, are regulars and snag a table. On this night, Lantigua is eyeing a dark-haired soldier. After a couple of hours of watching her, he asks her to dance. After one song, Lantigua rejoins Saillant, who is surprised that his friend returns so soon. "She's (based) up in Baghdad," Lantigua explains. "She's just down here for tonight." Across the floor, Sgt. Mark Lewin, 28, a Miami native on his second tour in Iraq, is dancing with Pfc. Bianca Peralta, 19, of San Antonio, who is just a few weeks into her first deployment. Peralta says she was pleasantly surprised by the atmosphere on the base, while Lewin says he is still overcoming his initial shock about how much more relaxed the situation seems. "On my last tour, I was sleeping in my Humvee most of the time," Lewin says. "These deployments are long; anything that can provide a little distraction is great." a recent soccer game at a post southeast of Baghdad. Improved security has created free time for troops.