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Soldiers downcast at spending Christmas in Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq—A few hours after Staff Sgt. Lenneth Kim awoke in Baghdad on a clear, chilly Christmas morning, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades exploded around his base.

Later in the day a barrage of rockets launched by insurgents hit the Sheraton Hotel and a nearby apartment building. In one apartment a rocket pierced the corner of an Iraqi man's bedroom, punctured the opposite wall, crossed over his children's bedroom and landed in the kitchen wall without exploding. There were also reports of gunfights near downtown Baghdad and rockets landing outside of the Iranian and Turkish embassies.

"Well, it's Baghdad, just another day," said Kim, of U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division, which helps patrol the capital. "Every time you go out of the gates, you worry."

Walking around his northwest Baghdad base, the target of frequent rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) attacks, Kim carried an M4 machine gun and wore a red Santa hat. On his hat the Hawaii native had written a two-word message in black marker: The first word was an obscenity starting with the letter F and the second was "Iraq."

Kim is attached to the third brigade of the Army's 1st Armored Division, the main U.S. security force in Baghdad. Many of its soldiers celebrated the holiday by competing in tug-of-war, volleyball, basketball and a number of other diversions. For this one afternoon, they were allowed to wear gray Adidas T-shirts and warm-up pants instead of uniforms and flak jackets.

But many, like Kim, had a hard time getting into the Christmas spirit.

Pfc. Roger Vandervoord, a combat engineer from Detroit, said he wasn't surprised by the mortars and RPGs.

"They don't stop for Christmas, they don't stop for the holidays," he said.

Back at the 1st AD base, troops played cards on white plastic tables. There was a box of O'Doul's beer and a fake Christmas tree.

Spc. Antoine Clay, a tanker with the 1st AD from Philadelphia, said he spoke with his mother on Christmas Eve.

"She said the best Christmas present would be for me to show up on her doorstep," Clay said. "But it's not going to happen."

In a room down the hall, others sat at computer terminals. Some played solitaire. Others e-mailed loved ones back home, thousands of miles away.

"We try to get guys' minds off missing their family," said Sgt. 1st Class Richard White, a 1st AD tank commander from Detroit. "It's difficult."

The 1st AD troops spend much of their time these days doing patrols and guarding gas stations and government buildings. Their tank guns are burnished with titles like "COWBOYS FROM HELL," "COFFIN STUFFER" and "COME GET SOME."

The soldiers spend hours sitting in tanks around Baghdad, watching traffic go by and wondering who is friend and who is foe in a country where they don't speak the language.

Capt. Brian Vogt, a tank company commander from Wisconsin, said he thinks that a full 50 percent of the Iraqi population supports American troops. The problem, he said, is that 45 percent are not only undecided, but passive in the face of the remaining 5 percent that "will do anything they can to kill us."

Leaning against a tank, Pfc. Joel O'Connor watched a group of friends throw a Frisbee disc. O'Connor, of Denver, said he was certain of at least one thing about Iraq.

"It's no place that I'd choose to be," he said. "Anything's better than this."

(Lasseter reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Tom Pennington also contributed to this report.)


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

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