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To boost morale, soldiers celebrate Army's `warm and magical' side

BAMBERG, Germany—They came in dress blues with medals. They came in uniforms with ribbons. They wore ball gowns and swept-up hair. They had shoulder boards and gold ropes.

For the 500 or so soldiers from the 7th CSG, an Army corps and combat support group based in Germany, Friday's dinner-dance gala was a chance to celebrate their return from Iraq after a year's deployment in which they suffered only one fatality among 2,000 soldiers.

It was a chance to show "that the Army has a warm and magical side," said their commander, Col. John P. Gardner.

"They've seen everything ugly and hard about the Army. They need to see the opposite," Gardner said.

As the party approached, many acknowledged that it was hard to feel good about what was going on in Iraq.

"We do our best because that's what soldiers do, but with this war, with the dead and the prisoner abuse, it's hard not to be sad," said Capt. John Wilson, a military intelligence officer who graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1997.

Wilson ticked off a list of items that are weighing on soldiers, as the deadline nears for the U.S.-led coalition to turn over at least some of the business of running Iraq to an Iraqi government. "There is the prisoner abuse and the loss of life of friends," he said. "There is also how the war is being fought."

Wilson spoke of the need for soldiers to have "increased cultural awareness in Iraq" for "more thinking and less shooting." He said it upset him that wounded soldiers have to fight the Army for decent benefits when they return with missing limbs. He also said he worried about a lack of equipment, such as protective plates for flak jackets.

Earlier, Wilson confessed he'd looked on the Internet to see what jobs civilian life might hold.

Just how seriously morale has plummeted is an issue for which there are no current studies. An Army spokeswoman, Ali Bettencourt, said, "We know there are Army morale problems." But, she added, "Only the soldiers can tell you specifics."

On Friday, no one faulted one another for the problems in Iraq. They praised Gardner as a hero for getting them through the desert. They listened as 3rd Corps Support Commander Gen. Vincent E. Boles acknowledged their disappointment over the prisoner-abuse cases.

"I know you feel bad," he said. "I feel good you feel bad."

From a stage in the front of the room, Boles told the soldiers that it was their duty not to blindly obey, but to think and question. He said that if the soldiers see something wrong, "stand up and say something."

"People take their cues from their leaders, and if there is a problem, look to the leadership," he said.

He reminded the men and women in the room that, at Abu Ghraib prison, "it was a soldier who stood up and said something was wrong." He implored everyone in the room to be that soldier.

The speech seemed to do the trick.

"He made it clear that a thinking soldier is preferable to a soldier who never questions," said Maj. David Allen, a 7th CSG staff logistics officer.

Wilson agreed. He said Boles gave him hope "that hating the war and wanting to help Iraqis doesn't put me at odds with the Army."

When Boles finished, the soldiers scooted tables off the parquet floor and peeled off their jackets. They jitterbugged and danced the salsa and cha-cha. They formed a conga line and snaked through the room, under multicolored lights. They laughed and cheered.

Later, Boles said: "I know the soldiers need their morale built up, but not as much as I do."

The next day, he offered this explanation: "Our soldiers are stressed by the evolution of this war. ... It's tough when they see the behavior of other soldiers deviate from their values."


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.