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Mail a lifeline amid quiet off-hours
Scripps Howard News Service


April 15, 2005

Baghdad, Iraq - Downtime.

You can tell when it arrives inside First Platoon barracks. The thin walls throb with the bass notes of rap music or shiver from the twang of the occasional country-western tune that only the toughest of sergeants seem interested in playing.

After 11 days of being in-country, of daily patrols and seemingly never-ending vehicle maintenance checks, the soldiers of Fort Carson's 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment are beginning to retreat into themselves during off-hours.

The days of incessant horseplay, razzing and card-playing that were daily staples of camp life in Kuwait have given way to more solitary pursuits, such as book-reading, DVD-watching and letter-writing.

This afternoon, just up the main hallway, three troopers have gathered in silence around a lone soldier sitting in a canvas folding chair, his feet propped on another chair, a 51/2-inch DVD player on his lap.

On the screen is an Iraqi version of Platoon, Oliver Stone's Vietnam War saga. Why soldiers in the current conflict would want to watch such a thing, I don't know. But they are enthralled.

"At least those guys (Viet Cong) aimed when they shot," one of the soldiers says, as a battle scene erupts on the screen, "not like these guys here who just spray and run."

Iraqi DVDs are all bootlegged copies of a copy of a copy of a copy. And although the audio is in English, the subtitles that run across the bottom of the screen are also in English.

It has been a time of assessment and reassessment. For 10 of their 11 days here, Lightning Troop has spread out into the countryside south of here, learning routes and mingling with rural villagers.

There has not been one reported engagement with the enemy, other than discoveries of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The lack of actual enemy contact frustrates the soldiers here, from the top commander to the rank and file.

For about 40 percent of the men in Lightning Troop, all less than one year out of boot camp, the first days here marked their initial foray into potential combat.

"When we found an actual IED that first day, that was when the reality of it all set in, that there are actually people out here trying to kill us," said Pfc. Dustin Denney, 22, of Athens, Mich.

The bomb was disarmed safely. Still, he wondered if some of the villagers with whom he had shared bread and water only a few hours earlier were among those who had planted the IED, a principal weapon of the insurgents.

He and the other men on his Bradley Fighting Vehicle have handed out candy to scores of children in the area and have been invited to play a pickup game of soccer by a group of about 40 Iraqi men.

"This place is actually nicer than I expected, based on what a lot of the veterans had warned us about," Denney said.

Up the road, they will welcome you, hug you. Down the road, you'll see a sign on a corner building that says, "Death to all those who help Americans." And then, in one day alone, the troop discovered 12 IEDs, about one for each hour on patrol.

"I'm a new guy, but what I still can't believe is we haven't found one person planting an IED or trying to set one off. It's frustrating."

Non-commissioned officers, most of whom are on their second tour in Iraq, marvel at the poise the new guys have shown so far.

"You could tell some of them were really anxious," Sgt. Gary Baty said. "But even on the first day out, all them retained their training and adapted to all of the things you can't train them to do. They've been great with the locals from day one, a time you figure some might tense up and do nothing."

It is the rookies, 1st Lt. Mike Smith said, who are the most anxious to "get into something."

"You see it when we find an IED or one goes off. The tension gets real high. They want to get the guys who put them out. But there is nobody there to get. It's hard for them."

Another difference, Staff Sgt. Justin Vasquez said, is the fact that "the rookies are guys who are happy to be here, men who joined the Army to come here. They just want to do their part."

The veterans here, he added, are "hoping we can close it all out this time. The harder we work, the less the likelihood of us coming back a third time. It motivates us."

The gathering in the hallway is interrupted with the delivery, for one of the first times since Lightning Troop arrived here, of mail.

Soldiers here pine for mail from back home. People have written, asking what they can send the troops here. I took a quick survey. The first answer: mail.

Even if it is addressed to "Any Soldier, Lightning Troop, Thunder Squadron, APO 09361," that is fine.

Other requests: mosquito repellent, athlete's-foot spray or powder, double-A and triple-A batteries, ice packs that freeze when you break them. (The temperatures here are steadily climbing toward 100 degrees).

Any homemade baked goods are always welcome, soldiers say, particularly chocolate chip cookies.

"Anything for me?" soldier after soldier inquires when the mail arrives. This mail drop, though, is a small one, only two small boxes and five letters.

There must be mail backed up somewhere, but still, disappointment abounds.


Write Bill Johnson at johnsonw(at)

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