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Facing constant threats, U.S. troops in Iraq face depression, boredom, general malaise

FALLUJAH, Iraq—The U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division deployed to the Persian Gulf region last September to prepare for war. Its soldiers fought their way from Kuwait into Iraq in March, losing comrades to car bombs, grenades and bullets. Its tanks were the first to roll into Baghdad in April.

That's why many 3rd ID soldiers thought that, at the very latest, they would be home for the Fourth of July, the perfect time for ticker-tape parades and cheering crowds. Instead they were sent to Fallujah a few weeks ago, a city 35 miles northwest of Baghdad in the Sunni Muslim region of Iraq where support for Saddam Hussein was strongest and anti-American feelings run deep.

The threat of attack means soldiers must stay alert and on guard. They also must cope with depression, boredom and the general malaise that comes from not knowing what the future holds.

"It's a brutal environment where you don't feel welcome or appreciated," said Spc. Raymond Bremen, 21 of the Bronx, N.Y. "It's just hostile, between the weather, the water, the food, the people. It's everything."

U.S. officials see Fallujah as a trouble spot because of the large number of Saddam loyalists in the area. Tensions in the small town have increased steadily as run-ins with U.S. soldiers have left dozens of citizens dead.

On May 27, Iraqis armed with grenades and machine guns attacked an Army checkpoint, killing two soldiers and injuring nine others. On June 6, one soldier was killed and five others were injured in a rocket-propelled grenade attack on the town's police station. Since May 1, when Bush declared major hostilities over, at least 14 American soldiers have died in hostile attacks in Iraq.

"We had our hopes so high, thinking we were going home in June. We'd talk about it every day, about going home, having a barbecue. Then it was, `You're going to Fallujah,'" said Pfc. Derrick Thomas, 21, of Bensalem, Pa. "It's time for 3rd ID to go home. We fought the war, we won the war and we're still here."

Instead of riding in victory parades, these soldiers are walking patrols in temperatures of more than 100 degrees while wearing layers of body armor. Instead of being greeted with "Welcome Home" banners, they get chants of "America, go home" and read hostile graffiti—"Go out AMRKA"—on city walls.

Soldiers are forced to wear their Kevlar and body armor whenever they're outside their bases and, in some cases, in their home camps. At the 4th Infantry Division, 1st Brigade, encampment in Tikrit, for example, soldiers must wear their full gear whenever they're outside, and they can't jog around the camp for fear of a rocket-propelled grenade or mortar attack.

Alcohol is banned under military rules throughout Iraq.

"What would help morale? Just to finish the mission and get the end date," said Army Chaplain David McMillan, a major assigned to the 4th Infantry Division. "I think it's going to happen, but right now, it's a low point because we just don't know."

At 3rd ID, Chaplain Patrick Ratigan counsels his soldiers by telling them: "We're going to be proudest because we did the most. We won't remember how bad it was, and we'll wish we'd stayed even longer."

Army officials say they're working to improve soldiers' living conditions, which vary from company to company. In Tikrit, one 4th Infantry Division company sleeps in open tents in the middle of a dust bowl, where the soldiers say they're used to waking up buried under 2 inches of fine brown powder. Down the road, another part of the same brigade has air-conditioned rooms in a former palace.

In Baghdad, those assigned to the 204th Military Police company must depend on drinking water from the Tigris River, which the soldiers say tastes like swimming pool water because so many chemicals have to be added to make it drinkable.

The Army has been trying to speed up mail delivery and has started to provide satellite telephones, so soldiers can call home, and field kitchens, so hot meals occasionally can replace the packaged Meals Ready to Eat. A USO show featuring Kid Rock performed in Baghdad this week. In Tikrit, the 4th Infantry Division is opening "The Soldier's Inn," where troops can take a few days off and enjoy lying around a pool, having their laundry washed for them and not having to worry about ducking bullets or incoming rocket-propelled grenades.

The small things, the soldiers said, make a big difference.

"Real eggs for breakfast. That makes them happy," said 411th Civil Affairs Battalion Capt. Marc Alacqua, 37, of Fort Washington, N.Y. "And we keep lying to them and telling them we're going home soon."

But all that isn't enough as soldiers dodge bullets nightly and watch friends die. They also must juggle a dual mission: Befriend Iraqis, but constantly be on guard against them.

"It's certainly difficult to transfer from combat operations to peacekeeping," Ratigan said. "Everyone is a potential enemy."

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Tom Lasseter in Iraq contributed to this report.)

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

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