Iraq to Afghanistan: A radical adjustment
December 18, 2009
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Sometimes in Iraq, it almost felt like a normal job for the soldiers of the 4th Engineer Battalion: Fieldwork for six to eight hours with little action and then back home, where high-speed Internet, reliably hot showers and real beds with a roof overhead awaited them.
Three months into their tour, however, they were transferred and faced frontline fighting in southern Afghanistan, days that regularly stretched for 15 hours or more, and a cot in the dust during chilly desert nights for the little sleep they were afforded between missions.
The combat engineers, pulled from Baghdad to Afghanistan midtour in April, are part of a migration of people and equipment from the relatively quiet front in Iraq to a war in Afghanistan that has been steadily increasing in ferocity.
The soldiers were switched to Afghanistan to help clear roads in the increasingly bomb-plagued south.
"Just as we unpacked our stuff, they said, ‘You’re going to Afghanistan,’ " said 1st Lt. Spenser Bruning, 24, of Seattle.
On one recent patrol, the soldiers inched through a collection of mud huts, passing fields of marijuana and the eviscerated carcass of a camel that stepped on a bomb likely meant for them. It’s a long way from the teeming metropolis of Baghdad.
For many U.S. troops, the hope that a phased withdrawal from Iraq would mean a break from war has met the reality that many of them will be needed in Afghanistan, where eight years after the U.S. invaded in the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the war seems to have just begun in earnest.
On Dec. 1, President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. will send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, bringing the number of U.S. troops here to nearly 100,000.
Marines who are part of this new surge have already started to move into Helmand province.
Even before the surge, though, some troops, such as the soldiers of Fort Carson, Colo.-based 4th Engineer Battalion, have already been shipped straight from one theater to another.
This year, 3,200 troops have moved to Afghanistan from Iraq, according to Air Force Maj. John Redfield, a Central Command spokesman in Tampa, Fla.
Just a small amount of equipment has also been shipped from Iraq to Afghanistan.
Redfield said that most of it is still being used by troops in Iraq.
Soldiers whose war experience is confined to Iraq, with its largely urban, educated population that, despite decades of repression under Saddam Hussein, is relatively connected to the outside world, have had to make a major adjustment in Afghanistan — an overwhelmingly rural, poor country whose population has had limited contact with the wider world.
"We trained for an urban environment and to have such a drastic shift takes some getting used to," said Sgt. 1st Class John Teets, 34, of 4th Engineer Battalion, 569th Engineer Company, 2nd Platoon.
Many troops in Iraq now, especially those on their first deployment, say they are disappointed they didn’t go to Afghanistan, where they are more likely to do the fighting they trained for.
Others, mainly those whose early Iraq deployments gave them more than enough combat experience, warn their compatriots to mind what they wish for.
Weary as the 4th Engineer Battalion soldiers are from day after grueling day on bomb patrol and the pain of losing friends — 11 from the battalion have been killed since the move to Afghanistan — most say they are happy to be in Afghanistan, despite the Spartan conditions.
Iraq, for many troops, involves too many city council meetings these days and too little soldiering.
"It just feels like we’re doing a lot more here," Pfc. Charles Andrews said.