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'Send Me Home,' say US Third Infantry Division's Soldiers in Iraq - 2003-07-20

The on-going violence against U.S. troops in Iraq has prompted the military to delay sending home thousands of soldiers from the U.S. Army's Third Infantry Division. Some of the soldiers, many of whom have been in the Persian Gulf region for almost a year, have publicly criticized the decision as being devastating to troop morale.

A U.S. military convoy moves through the town of Fallujah, one of several street patrols the soldiers from the Second Brigade Combat Team must conduct every day.

The daily patrols may be called "routine." But each of them carries enormous risks for soldiers. By day, the troops occasionally come under small arms fire. By night, they face assailants who try to ambush them with rocket-propelled grenades.

Fallujah, about 55 kilometers west of Baghdad, has traditionally been a stronghold of Sunni Muslims who supported former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Most Fallujah residents see American troops as occupiers and say they are not welcome here.

Eighteen-year-old Private First Class Eric Jarrard describes each patrol as a harrowing experience. "It is all adrenaline," he said. "That is all you are thinking. You want to get out there and get it done."

Second Brigade soldiers say that two months ago they never imagined they would be in Fallujah. They thought they would be home in the United States, hailed as war heroes.

After training for months in the Kuwaiti desert, the Third Infantry Division was the first U.S. military unit to cross into Iraq on March 21. Battling their way up from Kuwait, the division's First and Second Brigades seized Baghdad and the airport in just three weeks. Soldiers say they fought hard to win quickly because they were told they would be going home as soon as they reached Baghdad and toppled Saddam.

But as attacks against U.S. troops increased in Baghdad and elsewhere around the capital, the U.S. military delayed their trip home. The First Brigade was kept in Baghdad. But in early June, the Second Brigade was sent to Fallujah to conduct peacekeeping missions and to help rebuild the town.

One soldier, who did not want to be identified, said many people in his unit were dumbfounded when they learned they were not going home.

"A lot of the guys did not understand why we were getting stuck patrolling, watching buildings, and sitting on our butts, when our job was basically to do what we did in Baghdad," he said.

About one-third of the Third Infantry Division's 12,000 soldiers have already left or are in the process of being sent home. But last Monday, many soldiers in the First and Second Brigade received word that the Pentagon was again extending their stay. Commanders have promised to do their best to sent the troops home by September, but only if the security situation in Iraq improves.

To ease the growing frustration among the soldiers, the Army has been doing its best to improve troops' living conditions.

At the Second Brigade headquarters in Fallujah, where daytime temperatures in July and August can rise well past 50 degrees Celsius, air conditioners are being installed in many of the barracks. There is a computer room where soldiers can surf the Internet and write e-mails home. Soldiers can also buy sodas, cookies and other goods at a military store on the base.

But everyone agrees it is the swimming pool on the base that is keeping their spirits up. The water comes from a nearby pond and is heavily chlorinated to kill bacteria. But Specialist John Peavy says the murky pool has been a lifesaver for the troops. "It is making a big difference," he said. "Having this pool here, it is a big morale booster for all of us."

But many soldiers here say they remain angry over broken promises of being sent home. Private First Class Jarrard says virtually all of the soldiers have stories about the damage their extended stay has had on their personal lives.

"Most of these guys are just married," explained Mr. Jarrard. "It is hard on any marriage to be just separated, but for this long?"

The soldiers say they will continue to do their jobs until they are ordered to return to the United States. But their anger and disappointment is easy to see.

The Third Infantry Division's motto is "Send Me." In recent weeks, the soldiers have begun adding the word "home" to the motto.