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BAGHDAD — As Iraq inches toward self-sufficiency, the morale of U.S. troops trying to help the Iraqi people ranges from disillusioned to upbeat.

In many places, the emotional and physical rebuilding of Iraq is well under way and troops feel appreciated. But almost daily, far from the ribbon-cuttings and candy giveaways, an improvised bomb or missile kills another American servicemember.

In a recent interview on the Pentagon Channel, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy operations director for Multinational Forces Iraq, said that the troops’ morale was high because they were focused on their mission and seeing positive results.

That does not appear to always be the case, according to random conversations with scores of servicemembers for this story at various locations in Iraq and Kuwait and feedback from troops over the past six weeks.

Some members of the 1st Armored Division recently said that, except for the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the U.S.-led invasion and occupation have been a waste of time, especially after their one-year tour was suddenly extended in April by three months.

Others believe positive things are still getting done, and that sense of accomplishment lifts their spirits.

“Morale was low, really low,” Sgt. Eric Wilkinson of Corpus Christi, Texas, and 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment, said as he waited at Baghdad International Airport for a flight home. “And then we got extended and [morale] was nothing.

“The extension, from our point of view, was not needed.”

“There’s no reason for us to be here, just getting killed, when the entire Iraqi nation doesn’t want us here,” said Spc. Edward Wisdom of Amoret, Mo. “Why are we helping them?”

For some servicemembers, keeping morale up is a result of keeping in mind how their job fits into the overall mission.

Petty Officer 2nd Class David King, for example, analyzes information that troops use to keep track of the enemy and its tactics.

“Being here to protect my fellow soldiers as they do their patrols, and as they protect the gates while I do my job, helps my morale,” said King, of the Norfolk, Va.-based 2nd Fleet. “And I think they enjoy knowing that somebody like me is sitting behind the gates, doing my job to help them.”

Morale comes from within, according to Spc. Matt Kellum of the 141st Signal Battalion, which was attached to the 1st AD. As he waited in Kuwait for his flight home, Kellum said he’d been deployed for 15 months and tried to make the best of it.

“The media only shows all the bad things happening,” Kellum said. “You don’t see the good things like schools being built. People aren’t really going to see the good we’re doing here for years down the road.”

Staff Sgt. Travis Muth of 1st Battalion, 160th Infantry Regiment, California Army National Guard, has a relatively cushy job and pretty good morale. He stands guard by a gate inside Baghdad’s Green Zone, an area that is already secured.

Still, he has to be on guard, and it’s hot outside and he misses his family.

“Everybody can nit-pick at their job,” said Muth, of Riverside, Calif.

“When important people come in here, they want to feel safe. We don’t want them to feel threatened.”

When told last week that some soldiers had doubts about their mission — “No matter how worthless the cause, we gave it all we had,” said one — Kimmitt blamed the commanders who let their troops become unfocused.

“When you’ve got leaders out there who aren’t doing their jobs, the soldiers are going to say, ‘I don’t know why I’m here,’” Kimmitt said.

“You’ve got to tell a soldier why he is here. Sometimes you’ve got to take them down to a car-bomb site and let them walk around, as I have done with my soldiers, to understand why they’re here.”

But he added that having good morale and being happy aren’t the same things.

“Do we have a right to be happy? No,” Kimmitt said. “It gets real hot around here. There are people shooting at you.

“In my case, there are people who will give $15 million if somebody cuts off my head and gives it to them. Does that make me happy? No. Do I have high morale? Yes.

“They [soldiers] are 19 years old,” Kimmitt said. “They’d rather be back home bird-dogging chicks and fixing their car but they’re not.

“They’re in a country that’s going through a hell of a transition and they are here to do what they’ve got to do to help.

“And they’re putting their lives on the line to do it and that’s not fun and that’s not easy.”

According to the Department of Defense, 858 servicemembers have died since March 2003 and the start of what the military calls Operation Iraqi Freedom. On June 28, an interim Iraqi government took control of the country’s ministries, such as agriculture, electric and health.

Iraq plans to hold free elections in early 2005. It is unknown how long U.S. troops will remain in the country, but military leaders have said it will be as long as it takes for Iraqi security forces to become able to defend themselves and the Iraqi people.

In October, a Stars and Stripes survey of 2,000 troops in Iraq showed 34 percent of the troops rated their personal morale as “low” or “very low” while 27 percent said it was “high” or “very high.”

Since then, many of the places where the troops sleep and work have been outfitted with air conditioning. There are more cafeterias serving better food and more creature comforts such as Internet cafes, fitness centers and movie theaters.

Those niceties only soften the unpleasantness of being away from home. Kimmitt said troops need four other things in order to have good morale — an understanding of their mission, trust in their leaders, tools to do their jobs, and the support of people back home.

“It’s not,” he said, “about whether they like the chow.”

But for many, there is no substitute for home cooking.

“We’ve got decent food and a good place to sleep,” said Pfc. Billy Cook of Huntington, W.Va., and the 141st Signal Battalion. “But being away from the wife and kids, it would make paradise not so great.

“That’s the hardest part for me, but it’s also what keeps me going — having somebody counting on me keeps me trying.”

Reporter Fred Zimmerman in Kuwait contributed to this report.

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