U.S. troop morale holds steady as war enters fourth year

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Some say conflict is why they enlisted in the first place.

ROMMANA, Iraq -- The seasons swing from cold and muddy to unbearably hot, the roadside bombs are deadly and the long separations from wives and newborns are more draining as third and fourth deployments loom. Re-enlistment is down, and generals acknowledge victory is uncertain.

Yet morale among U.S. troops in Iraq remains somewhat upbeat -- without the fraggings, suicides and insubordination that shook the draft-era army in the last years of the Vietnam War.

Morale in today's military may reflect an American society knit closer after the social upheaval of the Vietnam era -- or the fact the Iraq war has taken a fraction of the lives lost in Southeast Asia. Many troops also see their efforts here as eroding global terror groups.

It also helps that the restructured military doesn't rely on conscripts, but on a professional corps of volunteers. Indeed, some say conflict is exactly why they enlisted in the first place.

"Why else would anyone join the Marine Corps?" asked Sgt. Maj. Bryan Ward of the 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, a 29-year Marine veteran whose first tour was also in the Middle East during the Iran hostage crisis.

"My take is that they like to deploy -- but that they just don't like to deploy so often," the San Diego resident added, pointing to a widespread weariness over multiple tours in the war zone.

Sgt. Jon Beck of Rock Hill, S.C., also considers the combat an attraction.

"I was volunteering to come back. It's our generation's war. And it's the place where the money is as an infantryman," said Beck, who is assigned to the 6th Civil Affairs Group.

Unlike in Vietnam, most of the troops live on bases with easy links to home, via telephone and Internet, and there are bonus comforts like video-conferencing on Valentine's Day and dining halls.

Many of the troops say, however, that more important are the personalities of those in their platoons and the leadership style of commanding officers.

"Having a good platoon is key -- just having your friends around," said Lance Cpl. Michael Surber, a native of Kenosha, Wis., who also is in the 1st Light Armored.

"The biggest thing is the guys you're with, and not having to see your buddies get hurt," Surber added as his squad trudged through a field in Romanna, one of a string of cities along the Euphrates River where hundreds of Marines are based near the volatile Syrian border.

Surber's squad lived this winter in a cluttered room with dirt barriers for walls and a wooden roof topped with sand bags. Hot showers were available only every one or two weeks and heat came from a black diesel stove that gurgled through the night.

"You're going to go through the same hardships. If it rains, you and your buddy are both going to get wet," said Ward, who quietly sips coffee at his base chow hall to observe his Marines and gauge their morale. "These guys are fighting and jumping on hand grenades for their buddies."

Despite the better morale, psychological stress on U.S. troops is evident even after tours are over.

A Pentagon report released last month said 12 percent of the more than 222,000 returning Army soldiers and Marines in the study were diagnosed with a mental problem. In all, 35 percent got psychological counseling soon after returning from Iraq, the report said.

'Change is coming about'

Harsh conditions and lingering effects aside, many U.S. troops point to last year's Iraqi elections and the growing ranks of the Iraqi army as validation of their mission. Many Marines see progress in the fact that fewer battles are being fought with insurgents in western Iraq compared to previous tours.

"I've been here four times and I think we need to stay out here," said Capt. Russell Becker of Houston, a communications officer based near Rutbah in western Iraq. "Change is coming about, but I don't know how many more years it's going to take."

Others say they can speak only about their assigned areas and know little about the insurgency in the rest of Iraq.

Even for those whose confidence in the war remains, however, consecutive deployments have taken a personal toll. One Marine inside a wood shack that serves as his home quietly showed a sheet of paper with pink footprints of an infant daughter he has never seen.

Others say they try to make the days go by faster.

"I'm just doing my time. You know, they say you don't have to be in prison to do time," Lance Cpl. Kevin Bourbon of Redondo Beach, Calif., said as he watched Iraqi police recruits do sit-ups and run sprints during physical fitness tests in Romanna.

Some find relief in efforts to rebuild a corrupt Iraqi police force that collapsed last year.

"Now that brought my morale up, that they're trying to help themselves without us," said Surber, surprised to see a turnout of 300 police recruits, who commanders hope can eventually take over responsibility for security in Romanna.

Faith also helps many.

At a base in Qaim near the Syrian border, Marines file into a makeshift chapel, complete with a chaplain, set up inside an abandoned railway passenger car on rusty tracks. They call it the "Soul Train."

Inside dining halls across Iraq, it is common to see soldiers and Marines bow their heads and pause to pray before they eat.

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