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It's easy to forget how daunting and dangerous everything seemed on the eve of the Iraq War. U.S. forces were braced for the worst. Hardly anyone believed Iraq's claims that it no longer possessed any weapons of mass destruction—untold stockpiles of lethal biological and chemical agents—and there was no doubt that Saddam Hussein would use whatever he had. And American servicemen and -women spent months enduring real and simulated gas attacks. Hadn't the Butcher of Baghdad already gassed entire Iraqi villages in the 1980s when they had defied his rule?
But as American forces raced across the desert to Baghdad, they encountered a far different threat—mostly scattered militias, often in civilian clothes, attacking strung-out supply lines with AK-47s and car bombs. The pinprick attacks were unsettling. Still, they hardly seemed a threat to the mighty war machine America had assembled. Less than two months after the initial "shock and awe" bombing runs, President Bush would announce from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln an end to major combat operations, under a banner declaring MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.
I don't even recognize myself anymore. I have a completely shaved head, Army uniforms, and zero fat. The very few seconds I get to look in the mirror while I shave each morning, I try to remember who I used to be. Every soldier is going through the same change. It doesn't matter who you are: prom queen, high school football star, scholar, idiot, or whatever. As soon as you get here, you become a copy of the person next to you. It sounds like hell, and to tell you the truth, it is. But I'm loving every minute. I'm learning so many cool things.
Army Pfc. Jesse A. Givens
April 2003, Camp Victory, Kuwait
Hey, angel. [ ... ] Every day I think, worry, and pray for you. I want so bad to hug you. I want to listen to your breath beside me while I sleep. Please don't get used to me being gone. I am sorry I'm not there with you right now. I know it doesn't seem like it all the time, but I try to be there when you need me. Usually I can make it happen but there was no way to get out of this. I guess this way at least I can give you and Toad and the Bean food and a home. [ ... ] It may be awhile before we can make phone calls but I will continue to write as much as possible. I love you! Give Toad and Bean hugs and kisses. Count the stars ...
[ ... ] In the next few days we will be moving again. We are heading into a real bad place, I guess. We have a bunch of want-to-be GI Joes who say they can't wait to kill someone. Personally I [don't] give a s--t if we kill someone or never fire a shot. I don't want medals or to be a hero. I just want to come home and be a husband and daddy again.
Army Sgt. Patrick Tainsh
April 7, near Nasiriya
We are sitting at Al Salem Iraqi Air Base. [ ... ] I have a little time so I thought I would write. We've been in Iraq for 2 days now. Light resistance on the way here, and nothing but sand and mud-built shacks. The majority of the people greet us with open arms, but there are those who hate us. I'm doing good. This morning U.S. forces entered downtown Baghdad. We cheered [ ... ]
It's weird, Dad, to be at war. These people are so oppressed that to see the kids living like this hurts. I cried the other day when 2 kids asked for food and I couldn't give it to them. We are very close to Baghdad, and sometimes you can hear the bombers overhead. I am glad to be here with these guys. They are really good men. Aside from lack of sleep we are all doing well. Please do me a favor and call Tracy and tell her I'm thinking about her and I miss her. [...] Gotta go. Write back.
April 10, near Baghdad
We had a mission yesterday vs. a Baath Party-occupied village, and took 14 POWs with no casualties. [ ... ] We are advancing very rapidly with aggressiveness. It's really awesome to see a cavalry troop work and win. [ ... ] Everyone is doing their job well, and the commander is very pleased. I can't tell you where we are, but we are close [to Baghdad]. The region isn't desert; it's like a tropical region of the country—palm trees, vegetation and rivers.
The people are very friendly and welcome us with open arms. They want to give us gifts, but we don't take anything. [ ... ] I traded a Marlboro to an elder yesterday for an Iraqi-made cigarette, and it was OK. He wanted me to take the whole pack, but I insisted he take mine, which he did. He said "Bamerican, Bamerican," and was very happy. They really want us here. You can see it in their eyes. They are very affectionate and appreciative, chanting "Bush, Bush."
Marine Cpl. Jeffrey B. Starr
April 17, Baghdad
Dear Mom & Dad,
What's up!! Almost home! We leave this godforsaken palace either today, tomorrow or sometime next week. Then we hoof it back to nasty Kuwait. We will be there as long as a month or as short as a week. Either way home is almost here. Most importantly the fighting is over. We got in our last firefight, knock on wood, about 2 days ago. I am fine, I'm in one piece (no purple heart here, thank God), mentally I am still sane. No postwar trauma, [not] too bad anyway.
I got your two packages, bubble-wrapped ones. Thank you very much, they were perfect. Well that's the latest, I'll hopefully call before I write again. I'm almost home and you can stop worrying.
I love you guys.
July 7, Baghdad
How can I possibly put the last 7 days into words? We got into Baghdad on the 2nd of July. It was about an 8-hour drive from the Kuwait border to Baghdad. When we crossed the border it was like entering a new world. The sides of the roads were covered with starving Iraqis begging for food. Kids as young as what looked to be 4 or 5 would run up to the vehicles. We were given a direct order by the company commander not to throw food or water to the starving people because there are too many Iraqis getting run over by our convoys when they run after the food. It is so hard to tell a starving 5-year-old who is begging for food to go away. Every time our convoy would stop, we would be ambushed by kids trying to get food; it was one of the hardest things I have ever had to watch.
Finally I gave in. Sitting up in the gunner's hatch, I can see everything. A sickly barefooted 6-year-old approached the vehicle; he looked so sick. He was touching his lips saying "please, please." I told him to go away and he just looked up at me. It looked like he wasn't going to make it much longer in the 133-degree weather we had that day. Again, I shouted "kief!" which is "go" in Arabic, and I pointed. As we drove away, I threw an ice-cold bottle of water out the window to him. Luckily no one saw me.
I love you guys. And please try not to think too much about it, it sounds a lot worse than it is.
Army First Lt. Kenneth M. Ballard
July 27, Baghdad
Things have really started to calm down [ ... ] One of the areas we patrol is largely Christian. They made/make up the middle class. We have little to no anti-American activity, [although] there is a lot more Iraqi on Iraqi violence. With more and more public services coming back on line, people are slowly getting back to normal. [But] no matter how hard we help to get the services back up, it is not fast enough. They don't understand that after 12 years of decay it will take some time, plus they don't want to work. Life is slowly getting better for us as well. Our new base camp (Kamp Krusty) will be finished in October. It is at their old War College. It will have a full-size pool. Our barracks building, which 3rd Infantry Division is still in, will have a private gym for us, [illegible], an Internet café, and last but not least, AC in every room [ ... ]
Marine Capt. Alan Rowe
Summer 2003, Najaf (audio recording)
Right now I'm getting ready for bed. It's been a long day. Got to go out in town, I saw some interesting things [ ... ] I had a meeting at a restaurant and ate Iraqi food, which was very good. We had rice, and we had shish kabobs and we had an interesting meat, kind of a sausage thing, called tikit. [ ... ] There were some beans and some sauce, and we had some yogurt and some cucumbers and tomatoes. And it was really very good.
[Then] we went over and visited some families who didn't have a place to live and we talked to them about finding a new place to live and they had a lot of kids and I had some candy and I gave it to the kids and they really liked that. There was a little girl about your age, Caitlin, and a boy, about your age, Blake, and they were cute and they smiled and I took my pictures of you and Caitlin out and I showed the pictures of both of you to the kids and they thought that was very nice and they actually kissed the pictures and that's one of their ways of showing respect and kinda like saying hello to you.
August 2003, Baghdad
There are some times here that you are able to stop and look around you and find a moment of peace. We were crossing the Tigris River at night under a full moon. The light was dancing on the water, a light breeze floated through the trees. You think to yourself how nice this would be with someone special, then flares light up the sky and you see tracer fire off in the distance and the cold slap of reality sets in that you are in the middle of a war zone.
Aug. 12, Baghdad
Ok, so things keep changing.
My company just got traded away to the 82nd Airborne's 2nd Brigade. What that means is we will live at Kamp Krusty but work in the 82nd's area. They have been getting the snot knocked out of them and they asked for tanks, so they sent us. The unit we are going to draws 400-500 gallons of fuel a day. My tanks use 2,500 gallons a day. [ ... ] On one of my tanks I carry as much small-arms ammo as one of their 700-man units. These guys are in for a big shock.
Aug. 16, Baghdad
The locals are different in every sector. In our old sectors we were able to build "good" relationships. In our new area it is a very different place: openly hostile is closer to the mark. We view most of the locals as someone to be dealt with and nothing more. Our CO wants us to embrace them with open arms and love our fellow man. Too many of us have a bad taste in our mouths about it all. They have no respect for weapons, each other and life; and if that is the case then how are we supposed to look at them any differently?
Aug. 29, Baghdad
It's been a lot of dismounted stuff recently. After 9 hours in the heat with 80 pounds on your back, you don't want to do much except sleep when you get back. [ ... ] I saw the U.N. building today. It's pretty devastating when you see it up close. These people out here are something else. They just don't care that other people are trying to help them. But I guess that's the face of war, and yes, it's still a war. Don't believe everything you see on TV.
Army Capt. Christopher P. Petty
Oct. 30, Al Miqdadiyah, 60 miles northeast of Baghdad
Happy Halloween, sorry it has been awhile since I wrote. Things have been busy. Ramadan began the other day and so far the attacks have increased each day. [ ... ] You will most likely hear about it in the news soon, but an M1 Abrams tank was destroyed last night. Reports are unclear as to what caused it. However, it was clear that 2 U.S. soldiers lost their lives and an acclaimed indestructible tank had its turret blown off. That makes six soldiers killed in our brigade alone in the past four weeks.
Dec. 2, Baghdad
I tried calling yesterday but got the machine ... We're doing ok just busy hitting the enemy hard lately ... Long days and nights ahead ... Division is saying we'll be home in March ... I know how many days but I can't tell you on an unsecure line ... Gotta go. I'll try to call again.