Residents of Sadr City meet Sunday with members of the 82nd Airborne's 2nd Brigade Combat Team.

Residents of Sadr City meet Sunday with members of the 82nd Airborne's 2nd Brigade Combat Team. (Zeke Minaya / S&S)

Mideast edition, Tuesday, June 19, 2007

BAGHDAD — First Lt. Paul Benfield had just counted out the money, restitution from his unit to a family for accidentally shooting a man in a home in eastern Baghdad near Sadr City.

The man was not seriously injured and was pleased with the payment, Benfield said. After the $1,500 was handed over, the man’s wife produced the shotgun pellets on a towel and set them in front of Benfield.

“She asked me, ‘What about the poison bullets?’” recalled Benfield, with the 82nd Airborne Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat team out of Fort Bragg, N.C. “I didn’t know what she was talking about.”

She maintained that U.S. soldiers used poison-tainted bullets. Benfield was dumbfounded.

The 30-year-old Florida native picked up a pellet, rolled it in his fingers and attempted to reassure the woman.

“I promise you there is no poison,” he remembered saying. Unconvinced, the woman insisted the Americans treat her husband for the phantom ailment, Benfield said.

“If we’re supposed to win hearts and minds, it’s hard when they think we have poison bullets and eat babies,” Benfield said.

Many American soldiers in Iraq have heard similar tales of far-fetched stories sprouting among Iraqis.

These tall tales — attributing outlandish abilities or fiendish practices to American GIs — would be laughable, U.S. soldiers said, if not for the implications when fantasy is accepted as fact.

The American strategy in Iraq requires the population’s trust. And few things underscore the work left to be done in that arena like a persistent rumor that, say, Americans peek through women’s clothing with X-ray sunglasses or that U.S. troops eat children.

“When you hear these you can’t do anything but laugh. They are so far away from the truth,” said 2-82nd Capt. Matthew Kuhn. “You laugh but then you think about it and after the initial shock the soldier has to worry about countering and overcoming these stories.”

Of course, not all Iraqis believe such fanciful tales, U.S. soldiers said. The outrageous stories find the most fertile ground among the uneducated and poor, they said. But with the mass exodus of the Iraqi middle class, an increased percentage of the remaining population is likely to be unschooled and susceptible to the distortions.

Sgt. Zac King, 21, of Jacksonville, Fla., and a member of the 2-82nd, said one tale was spun specifically about his unit. After their arrival in Iraq earlier this year, the 2-82nd moved into a town that was deserted by residents who believed the troops dyed their berets with blood. “They believed it so much they evacuated the town,” he said.

Benfield said the phenomenon may not be as strange as it seems. After all, he said, Americans have their own urban legends and myths.

“I think it’s just natural misunderstanding of a foreign army,” Benfield said. But, he warned, the stories, though often amusing, can be dangerous. “Insurgents, bad guys who don’t like us, use these stories to their advantage,” he said in rallying the populace against Americans.

Sgt. 1st Class Charles Smith of the 2-82nd said the tall tales slow American outreach efforts. “A lot of [the stories] are based on movies and fantasy,” said the 33- year-old North Carolina native. “It makes it harder on us because [Iraqis] fear us and don’t want to approach us.”

Barely a week goes by without a new tale, U.S. soldiers said. Recently, 2-82nd soldiers recalled, a detainee being questioned complained of the heat and asked for relief.

“He said he was hot and asked the guy questioning him for a cold pill,” Benfield said. The interrogator asked him to clarify. The detainee said “the pills Americans take so they are not hot when they walk around the city in all their gear,” Benfield said.

Soldiers of the 2-82nd said the best way to counteract the myths springing up about Americans is to continue to have a visible presence among Iraqis, a cornerstone of the Baghdad security plan.

“We’ll do it by getting out of our trucks and walking and meeting people,” Benfield said. Kuhn added that the urban legends will fade away “by [American soldiers] talking to [Iraqis] and asking their opinions, asking what their needs are and showing cultural respect toward Iraqis.”

Smith said he was hopeful. “I believe it can be done and we are doing it,” he said. “We’re knocking on doors and stopping to talk. I think with the interaction we have with [Iraqis] they will see us more as people.”

They don’t do that, either

The American presence in Iraq has inspired plenty of bizarre — and flat-out wrong — myths. “When you hear these you can’t do anything but laugh. They are so far away from the truth,” said Capt. Matthew Kuhn.

Among the stories:

n U.S. troops eat childrenn U.S. servicemembers use poison-tainted bulletsn Americans peek through women’s clothing with X-ray sunglassesn Americans’ berets are dyed with bloodn Americans have a “cold pill” that they take so they do not get too hot in their gear

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