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Staff Sgt. Chad Caldwell, 24, of Spokane, Wash., talks on the radio while waiting to escort an ambulance from the Mosul hospital to the U.S. hospital at Forward Operating Base Marez. Caldwell is a soldier with 3rd Platoon, Killer Troop, 3rd Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, from Fort Hood, Texas.

Staff Sgt. Chad Caldwell, 24, of Spokane, Wash., talks on the radio while waiting to escort an ambulance from the Mosul hospital to the U.S. hospital at Forward Operating Base Marez. Caldwell is a soldier with 3rd Platoon, Killer Troop, 3rd Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, from Fort Hood, Texas. (Drew Brown / S&S)

Staff Sgt. Chad Caldwell, 24, of Spokane, Wash., talks on the radio while waiting to escort an ambulance from the Mosul hospital to the U.S. hospital at Forward Operating Base Marez. Caldwell is a soldier with 3rd Platoon, Killer Troop, 3rd Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, from Fort Hood, Texas.

Staff Sgt. Chad Caldwell, 24, of Spokane, Wash., talks on the radio while waiting to escort an ambulance from the Mosul hospital to the U.S. hospital at Forward Operating Base Marez. Caldwell is a soldier with 3rd Platoon, Killer Troop, 3rd Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, from Fort Hood, Texas. (Drew Brown / S&S)

Pfc. Brandon Main, 21, of Everett, Wash., pulls security duty while on the streets of Mosul, in northern Iraq.

Pfc. Brandon Main, 21, of Everett, Wash., pulls security duty while on the streets of Mosul, in northern Iraq. (Drew Brown / S&S)

MOSUL, Iraq — Staff Sgt. Chad Caldwell served almost a year and a half in Iraq the first time, fighting with the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment in fierce battles against Sunni insurgents and Shiite militiamen in Baghdad, Kut and Najaf in 2003 and 2004.

Caldwell was just a private back then, but if you had asked him if he believed U.S. forces would still be in the country five years later, his answer would have been unequivocal.

“Absolutely not,” said the reed-thin, 24-year-old native of Spokane, Wash. “No way.”

Now a squad leader with Killer Troop, 3rd Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, Caldwell is back in Iraq for his second 15-month tour, this time in Mosul, which U.S. military officials say is the last urban stronghold for al-Qaida in Iraq.

It’s a different fight, in which the U.S. mission now is as much about supporting the Iraqi army as it is about killing the enemy. While the ultimate outcome of the war remains uncertain, if there’s one thing Caldwell is sure about, it’s that U.S. forces will remain in Iraq for a long time to come.

“My kids will probably serve over here,” he said.

Caldwell’s sons are 2 and 4.

As the war in Iraq enters its sixth year, the conviction that the U.S. military faces many more years, if not decades, in the country is common in Killer Troop’s 3rd Platoon, both among veterans on their second and third tours, as well as first-deployment soldiers.

“I figure that we still have forces in Bosnia and Kosovo,” said Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Snead, platoon sergeant for Blue Platoon, also on his second tour. “We’re going to be here a while, too.”

The prospect of a long haul doesn’t surprise most soldiers. They see it as almost inevitable. With constant improvements and construction at many of the camps in Iraq, it’s hard to for troops to imagine that the U.S. might one day leave it all behind.

When new porcelain sinks were installed at the chow hall at Forward Operating Base Marez in Mosul a few weeks ago, the joke that day was it was a sure sign that Iraq was on its way to becoming a permanent duty station.

While nobody expects the military to maintain current levels of 150,000 troops in Iraq forever, they can imagine a long-term presence of 30,000 to 40,000, as in South Korea.

“I think it’s going to be a longer occupation than anyone expected,” said Pfc. Wesley Waitman, 20, of Lexington, N.C. “I think it’s going to be 10 to 15 years, unless we have a president who just pulls us out. But I don’t think that’s the answer.”

Even some of those who were opposed to the war in the beginning believe the U.S. shouldn’t leave Iraq until the Iraqi army and police can stand on their own.

“I never agreed with going in,” said Sgt. Cole “Doc” Weih, 27, of Dubuque, Iowa, a medic who joined the Army at the end of 2003 after graduating from college in Australia, where his parents worked. “But we’re here, and I don’t see us getting out of here.”

“I think it would be wrong of us just to pull out,” said Weih, who is on his first deployment. “I think we’re committed to doing a good thing, and I think the situation has improved.”

Last year was the worst in terms of U.S. casualties since the war began, but violence has dropped since last summer as the effects of the U.S. “surge” took hold. Tens of thousands of Sunni tribesmen who turned against al-Qaida in Iraq now work for U.S. forces under security contracts. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s cease-fire has also lessened attacks and kept sectarian violence at bay.

But as recent bombings in Baghdad and Diyala province show, there remains a threat.

For the first time in years, success in Iraq seems possible to many soldiers — as long as U.S. forces remain in a supporting role, and if the Iraqi people want it badly enough.

“Eventually, I think it will succeed,” said Pfc. Josh Johnson, 20, of Tecumseh, Neb., who is on his first deployment. “But I think we’ll be here at least 10 more years. If we just get up and leave, then I think al-Qaida and the insurgents will just come back in and wreck everything.”

Insurgent tactics have changed. Head-on engagements, big firefights with the enemy, are largely a thing of the past. The rules of engagement are much tighter. Some soldiers wonder if the situation in Iraq should even be called a war anymore.

“People are more cowardly now,” said Sgt. Jon Fleenor, 25, of Sacramento, Calif., who served previously in Mosul and nearby Tal Afar in 2004 and 2005 with the 25th Infantry Division. “Back then, we used to get in firefights, and they’d stand out there and you could see who was shooting at you. I think it’s a peacekeeping mission now. We get paid to drive around and get blown up.”

Staff Sgt. Jeremy Zimmerman, 33, of Madison, Wis., is on his third deployment to Iraq with 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. He agreed with Fleenor.

“In the beginning, it was more like a war,” he said. “Now it’s more of a police action.”

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