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Saturday | June 14, 2003

Even the children scare me

Anxious and Weary of War, G.I.'s Face a New Iraq Mission

BAGHDAD, Iraq, June 14 Sgt. Jaime A. Betancourt was there in March when a taxi loaded with explosives killed four of his company's soldiers at a checkpoint. He was there in April when his battalion seized the road out of the international airport and Saddam Hussein's army made its last desperate defense.

He was there later that month when his company, part of the First Brigade of the Army's Third Infantry Division, crossed the Tigris River and began to restore order in Baghdad's eastern half as chaos threatened to unravel the victory the brigade had helped win.

He is still here today, enduring infernal heat and fetid quarters in the ransacked headquarters of Iraq's Interior Ministry, as much of the Third Infantry Division remains in the city it helped conquer, interacting with people it once saw as the enemy.

"I think that was the most scary thing trusting civilians, especially after the car bomb," Sergeant Betancourt, 21, said, referring to the taxi bombing, the worst single attack against the brigade's troops, on March 29, near Najaf, about 85 miles south of Baghdad. "We didn't want nothing to do with these people anymore."

As he stood guard at a hospital, as he enforced curfew at checkpoints, as he patrolled streets once again bustling with Iraqis, even the children terrified Sergeant Betancourt, who, at 21, appears barely older than a child himself.

"At the end," he said, "it was like, `Get that kid away from me.' "

It was not supposed to end this way for the brigade's 5,000 soldiers and officers, who were accompanied by a reporter during the war and again this month in Baghdad. After fighting their way from the Kuwaiti border to Saddam International Airport in three fierce weeks, they believed that the war or at least their part of it was over.

Six months after arriving in Kuwait and almost three months after entering Iraq, they were ready to go home. Then they discovered that, at least from a soldier's-eye view on the ground, there seemed to be no American plan for a postwar Iraq.

The mayhem that followed the collapse of Mr. Hussein's government on April 9 has thrust them into a new mission: keeping peace, even as their weary minds and bodies are still at war.

"You call Donald Rumsfeld and tell him our sorry asses are ready to go home," Pfc. Matthew C. O'Dell, an infantryman in Sergeant Betancourt's platoon, said as he stood guard on Tuesday. "Tell him to come spend a night in our building."

On guard at checkpoints and hospitals, Sergeant Betancourt has found himself alarmed even by the approach of a child.

Two months after surging into Baghdad, the First Brigade's soldiers and officers have found themselves enmeshed in yet another war less intense, perhaps, but still exhausting, still perilous and, at times, still psychologically taxing.

Some are haunted by the deaths they caused and suffered and have sought counseling. All are tired and hot and increasingly bitter. Morale has plummeted as sharply as the temperature has risen.

Last Saturday night, Sergeant Betancourt's company sent a Humvee and an armored personnel carrier on a mission to fix the satellite phone their company had bought in Baghdad. As they were returning, someone threw a grenade from an overpass. It exploded only a few feet away, rattling but not seriously injuring two soldiers.

"If it had been a split second earlier, it'd have been bad," Staff Sgt. Ray B. Robinson, a squad leader in Sergeant Betancourt's company, said."They're killing us

Steve Gilliard

Posted June 14, 2003 10:08 AM | Comments (106)


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