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BAGHDAD — On the same day U.S. Rep. John Murtha sparked a renewed political debate over the war in Iraq, more than a thousand U.S. Marines were pushing through booby-trapped houses in the border town of Obeidi.

On the same day President Bush attacked political opponents of the war in a speech to U.S. airmen in South Korea, five soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division were killed by a roadside bomb near Beiji.

As the political rhetoric heats up — driven by a coming congressional election and an insurgency that shows few signs of abating — soldiers and Marines on the ground do what they’ve always done: their jobs. But when asked their views on the debate back in Washington, they offer a full range of reactions.

Lance Cpl. David Rogers, a 22-year-old Marine from Rochester, N.Y., said that on some level, the debate at home is encouraging for servicemembers.

“There are a lot of college guys at home, just going to college and they have no idea we are still over here,” Rogers said as he smoked a cigarette outside a small platoon-size base about 20 miles north of Fallujah.

On the one hand, hearing about the debate at home, “is reassuring,” Rogers said, because sometimes he fears that “a lot of people forget about the fact we are over here.”

But he does not like to hear about widespread calls for a pullout.

“We’ve lost too many buddies to say let’s pull out,” Rogers said. “We’ve come so far. If we pull out now, everything the Marines have worked for will go down the tubes,” Roger said. “It definitely sucks to be over here, but I wouldn’t want to quit.”

Lance Cpl. Reece Roller, 21, of Tennessee, is posted to a small base north of Fallujah in a city called Karmah, at an observation post known only as “OP Three.”

He has only returned to Camp Fallujah for hot meals and a shower three times since he arrived in July. He had no knowledge of any debate under way in Washington until a Stars and Stripes reporter inquired about his thoughts regarding the matter.

Roller said whatever the debate was about, he seriously doubted many people in Washington political circles are sufficiently informed about the situation on the ground in Iraq.

“I don’t think they even realize what is going on over here,” he said.

Several soldiers and officers interviewed sent a pointed warning to politicians who say debate hurts morale.

“Don’t say that political speeches hurt morale. That’s an insult to me and my soldiers,” said one senior officer in Baghdad who asked that his name not be used. “What hurts morale is lack of equipment. What hurts morale is watching a soldier die. What hurts morale is not having enough boots on the ground to get the job done and keep it that way.”

Capt. David Olsen, 31, of Baltimore, commands the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment’s Headquarters and Headquarters Troop.

“I think my main concern is the idea of putting us into a concrete time line. We have to remain flexible based on the progress the Iraqi security forces are making. … Anyone involved with training soldiers and leaders know it’s something you can’t do in one- to two-year time frame. It takes years to develop competent leaders,” he said.

“I would really regret it if we pulled out before Iraq was ready to defend its security after the sacrifice all our fellow soldiers have made and all the friends and family members were lost.”

Sgt. Earkes Siler, 31, of Compton, Calif., is a human resource specialist for Headquarters and Headquarters Troop, 2nd Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment near Tal Afar.

“I don’t want to end up pulling out of Iraq if we’re not ready to. I understand that there are soldiers who want to go home, but I don’t want to end up pulling out of Iraq too early and end up coming back to a worst-case scenario,” he said.

“It’s a good idea to maintain a protective force and also have certain brigades on standby in Kansas and Kuwait who are ready to move in on a QRF (quick reaction file) basis. That way, we can downsize and still be able to maintain order.”

Soldiers at Forward Operating Base Speicher, in northern Iraq, offered a similar range of reactions to the current political debate.

“I think they’re putting the cart before the horse,” said Capt. Bill Schoonmaker, 35, of Melbourne, Fla. “Wait until we pull out from Europe until we talk about pulling out from the Middle East.”

“I think we need to be here until we’re done,” said Capt. Thomas Rehkamp, 33, of Marshall, Minn., a reservist with the 467th Engineer Battalion, 42nd Engineering Brigade, 42nd Infantry Division. “To pull out now would be disastrous.”

Some were more critical of the war.

“We’re not really over here for a reason,” said Sgt. Kelvin Owens, 30, a truck driver with the 126th Transportation Company, 7th Transportation Battalion, 1st Corps Support Command, of Fort Bragg, N.C., who is nearing the end of his third Iraq deployment. “We’re just staying over here to prove we’re big and bad. I hope I don’t have to come back. Every deployment, they give us a different reason for being here.”

Spc. Wade Leathers, 20, of Williamston, N.C., agreed.

“Instead of making more friends, we’re making more enemies,” he said.

But a fellow truck driver, Pfc. Michael Cremeans, 28, of Troy, Ohio, said he didn’t pay much attention or put much stock in political wrangling thousands of miles away.

“I don’t even know what’s going on,” he said, adding, “We just drive trucks. We don’t know the big picture.”

And others refrained from discussing politics altogether.

“I think it’s great that in our country we have the ability and freedoms to express opinions on both sides. I tell my soldiers that’s why we serve,” said Lt. Col. Welton Chase, 42, commander of the 501st Special Troops Battalion, of the 101st Airborne Division of Fort Campbell, Ky.

Besides, he said, “I don’t have the leisure time to sit and debate and discuss politics.”


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