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Graphic images of death confront U.S. soldiers

NEAR KARBALA, Iraq—The Army taught 20-year-old Elio Villegas to kick a dead man in the groin.

"I didn't know if he would wake up," the private first class from Miami, Fla., recalled of the first time he used the technique.

"It sounds cruel, but you have to kick them in the sensitive areas to see if you get a reaction."

A trickle of blood running from the silent Iraqi soldier's nose was the only sign of injury. "I was scared. That was the first dead body I'd ever seen."

The images of death that Villegas and his infantry squad have seen in the first two weeks of the war in Iraq have been graphic: bodies on fire; one crushed by a tank; dogs feeding on burnt corpses; and the inside of a blown-up van-turned-guerrilla "technical" splattered with body fragments.

But few think they will want to talk much about those scenes when their tours of duty are over.

"I might tell a few friends about it when I get home, but I'm sure I'll get tired of talking about it," said 24-year-old Sgt. James Dalton, the squad's Bradley Fighting Vehicle gunner, smoking a cigarette and looking a little like a red-headed Sean Penn.

The squad of the 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division's 1st Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment, has fought in every major city of the war—Nasiriyah, Samawah and, most recently, Karbala. They've held a bridge on the Euphrates River, near Kufah, where bodies littered the street.

They're young and tough. They've traveled more than 200 miles in a cramped Bradley. They've cleared darkened buildings and braved artillery and gunfire, while averaging about three hours of sleep a night.

"We haven't had a shower since, what, Feb. 26?" said Spec. Shawn Rice, the other squad members laughing and nodding in agreement.

They smoke cigarettes and joke with each other during the few minutes of down time. They pass around a copy of "Stun" magazine, looking at lingerie shots of young women—images more pleasant than the ones they've seen recently. The horrific images of war seem to roll right off of them, even in those rare moments when they do talk about them.

"We all expected it coming in," said Cpl. Thomas Lannom, 28, of Ojai, Calif. "It's better than our guys being dead. That's kind of the way I think about it."

Earlier this week, they were in the desert. They got in their Bradley, rode about 12 miles and got out near Kufah in the lush, palm-tree clustered Euphrates Valley.

They had to search for Iraqi soldiers in eye-high grass in the Valley grassland.

"It looked like a scene from one of those Vietnam movies," said Rice, 22, of Sarasota, Fla.

Vietnam comes up frequently in the squad. They want to know what people are thinking about them back home. They express concerns about being "Vietnamed."

Dalton wears a silver bracelet bearing the name of James A. Champion, who went missing in action in Vietnam. "If I ever turn up missing, I hope someone will remember me," he said.

When the killing is done, the squad members said they hope they will be remembered as soldiers who did what they were supposed to do.

"We just think about going home, about living day to day," Rice said. "The whole Vietnam thing—about soldiers being baby-killers and all that—I hope it doesn't happen."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.