1st AD soldiers resigned to longer stay
BAGHDAD — They stood guard up on the rooftops and down on Al-Sadoon Street, where a loudspeaker-equipped Humvee rolled by with a message in Arabic: Please stay away; anyone with a gun would be shot on sight.
Soldiers from the 1st Armored Division spent the first day after they’d learned they could be staying in Iraq for at least four more months working to prevent a demonstration they’d heard could turn violent.
“We’re not suppressing their freedom of speech,” said 1st Lt. Jonny Fields. “You’ve got a threat of a violent nature. You want to keep peace and order.”
The anniversary of the fall of Baghdad — exactly one year after Iraqi crowds cheered U.S. soldiers as Iraqis tore down the statue of Saddam Hussein — was an unusually tense day, with trouble and its portents all around.
Areas near the former Paradise Square, now called Protest Circle, were blocked off for the first time since the Baghdad Hotel was car-bombed about three months ago. Members of the 1st AD in Humvees, tanks and Bradleys patrolled the perimeter.
In the heat of the day, the 1st AD soldiers, who have been the U.S. military stalwart in Baghdad from the beginning, kept guard.
They said they’d heard the news through their chain of command Thursday that they would be extended at least 120 days, although they’d heard the rumors days earlier.
While Department of Defense and U.S. Central Command leaders have said this week that additional troops may be needed in Iraq, no official announcement has come down that the 1st Armored Division will stay. Delaying the return of 1st AD soldiers is only one of many possible plans, military officials said this week.
However, 1st AD troops say they are ready for the delay.
Pvt. Craig Nalley, 19, said he was “a little sad, a little depressed” about the plan, but that he’d deal with it, just like he deals with the 140-degree temperatures the soldiers endure in their full gear. “You just grit your teeth,” Nalley said. “This is what I chose to do for a while.”
Spc. Joshua Crawford, 19, sitting behind his Humvee’s 50-caliber machine gun, said he had not told his parents yet about the extension but that he knew how they would react. “My mom will cry,” he said. “My dad will say, ‘It’s more money.’”
With plans still in flux, it’s unclear how many of the 1st AD’s 18,000 soldiers will stay in Iraq, and if some of those who’ve already returned to bases in Germany will be ordered back.
1st Lt. Jason West, of the 1st AD’s 1st Brigade, said he’s been told his brigade will definitely be staying. “First Cav is coming; they need our hand,” West said. “Us being here with armor could save a lot of soldiers’ lives.”
Some soldiers interviewed seemed proud that the burden could, in part, fall on them.
“I feel better knowing I can do a little bit more,” said Sgt. Nick Torres. “I’ve been here a year and I’ve seen this city grow, I’ve seen schools built. Most of the people — they appreciate what we do.”
For those who don’t appreciate it, Torres said, “I got my brothers here. They always watch my back.”
Torres said his mother knew of his extension, from the news, before he did.
“She wants me home,” he said. “But she knows this is a way of life for me.”
Spc. Joshua Peyton, 24, said he felt pretty much the same way.
“It’d be nice if somebody else could do it,” he said. “But due to our experience, it’s best that we stay here, I believe,” he said.
Staff Sgt. Ray Vejar was on the roof of the Palestine Hotel, waiting and watching “for something to happen, basically,” he said.
Vejar has a wife and three children all awaiting his return, and he had a practical response to the delay.
“They say, ‘Stay,’ we got to stay,” he said.
He said he had a five-minute phone call to tell his wife he wasn’t coming home yet. “I don’t know if she had time to cry,” he said. “She wasn’t too happy about it.”
Fields said his soldiers were taking the news well and staying motivated and willing, even if they weren’t happy.
Fields said he preferred not to respond to observations that, a year after Baghdad’s fall, Baghdad seemed as dangerous, or more so, than ever.
But asked if he ever wondered about the decisions of generals and policymakers, he said, “I support them. I’ve got faith in them. If they’re telling us we’ve got to stay here, it’s for a good reason. Good will prevail. Ma’am, if the nation needs us to stay and fight, we’ll stay and fight.”