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For returning unit in Iraq, a battle with doubts

Airborne vets see long-term, uncertain mission of training security forces

Click the play button above to hear The Globe's Thanassis Cambanis describe
four days he spent with US 101st Airborne Division in Kirkuk, Iraq.
(Audio and photos by Thanassis Cambanis/Globe Staff)

First Lieutenant Brett Bean talks about what he says is the murkiness of the Army's mission in Iraq.

Sergeant Matt Somma describes the trouble he had relating to his friends when he returned from his first Iraq tour in 2004.

Captain John McLaughlin confronts an Iraqi Army lieutenant he is training after a group of Iraqi soldiers allegedly terrorized prostitutes at a gypsy camp in Kirkuk.

Captain John McLaughlin gives a pithy summation of his loyalty to the Army.

KIRKUK, Iraq -- Captain John McLaughlin's company of combat veterans has returned to Iraq. They have brought far fewer illusions this time around, exchanging unalloyed enthusiasm for Operation Iraqi Freedom in the spring of 2003 for a mix of professionalism, resignation, and cynicism.

The enlisted men from the 101st Airborne Division now know much more about the country, confidently factoring in competing ethnic agendas as they navigate the claims of Kurds, Arab Sunnis and Shi'ites, and Turkomen.

Most dismiss the American debate over the merits of the war as irrelevant, many of them saying they fight out of loyalty to the Army even if they think its mission in Iraq is unrealistic. Most profess no love for Iraq and its people.

When these air assault paratroopers returned to Iraq in October, the theater of battle was barely recognizable to them.

In April 2003, the Second Battalion 327th Infantry of the 101st fought its way through the nastiest combat of the Iraq invasion, leaping out of helicopters to fight Saddam Hussein loyalists in Najaf and Mosul, where they eventually established a forward-fire base south of the city and stayed until February 2004.

The division suffered 59 deaths that year. They returned to their post at Fort Campbell, Ky., for a year and a half before returning to Iraq in October.

But 2003 seems like ages ago to the young veterans.

The battalion that arrived in Kirkuk -- about two-thirds of them veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan -- found a base so cushy that commanders worry the soldiers will go soft, forgetting they're stationed in a war zone. Instead of sleeping on the floors of gutted warehouses, eating military rations, and burning their own sewage in trenches behind their quarters, soldiers now benefit from the infrastructure of a long occupation.

FOB Warrior, as the air base is known, boasts hot showers, a dining hall, a gym, a swimming pool, two barbershops, and a beauty parlor that gives massages. There's a Burger King and a 24-hour Green Beans Coffee shop, where soldiers line up for chai lattes and brownies in the middle of the night.

The permanence of facilities at the Kirkuk base also hints of a mission without end.

The surrounding city is still a deadly place -- less lethal than Fallujah but more so than the Shi'ite south. On this tour, 26 soldiers from the 101st had been killed by mid-December.

After the 2003 invasion, US troops had clear marching orders: Catch Hussein and his lieutenants and stabilize Iraq. During the first few months, criminal gangs posed the greatest law-and-order challenge, not insurgents.

Some returning soldiers said that while they once believed they could quickly train Iraqi police to replace American troops, they've now set their sights much lower, hoping perhaps to set a decent example for police and soldiers they train but don't entirely trust.

''Regardless of whether this is the great march of democracy or protecting the shores of America, whether I bought into that or not, it doesn't matter," McLaughlin said late one night at his command post after returning from a long day of meetings with Iraqi police chiefs and army commanders. ''My obligation as a soldier, as an officer, as a leader is to do the mission to the best of my ability. That's the only saving grace out of the whole thing."

During a four-day visit by a Globe reporter to the Kirkuk base, soldiers and their commanders -- most of them returning veterans -- said they see the Iraq mission as less ambitious, less achievable, and more stressful than they did almost three years ago.

The soldiers still work at battle rhythm, always on call and with no days off. And while still dangerous, their daily routine involves patrolling between Kirkuk's police stations and army bases, investigating assassinations and bomb attacks against Iraqis -- and, often, investigating the very Iraqi security forces they're trying to train.

An unclear enemy
Everywhere he looks, McLaughlin sees ambiguity. As he and his troops see it, most Iraqis don't like the Americans and tolerate their presence only when American interests coincide with their own.

In that sea of doubt, there are a few safe harbors.

For McLaughlin's Charlie Company, one is the putrid settlement they call the Gypsy Camp, an abandoned factory inhabited by squatters that doubles as a brothel.

McLaughlin enjoys the company of his soldiers, trading jokes delivered in his thick Boston accent. But he's intense while on the job, which is most of the time. While riding in his Humvee, he listens to updates from southern Kirkuk through an earpiece while chatting with the driver, gunner, sergeant, and interpreter who ride with him.

All of the city's major ethnic groups -- Kurds, Arabs, Turkomen -- share contempt for the gypsies. To McLaughlin, they represent the most blameless victims of the complex conflict in Iraq, and their mistreatment at the hands of Iraq's American-trained security forces reflects the greatest pitfall of the US Army's new mission: that Iraqi authorities might abuse their growing powers.

Many of the Iraqi soldiers and police McLaughlin trains violate the ban on visiting the brothel. In mid-December, Iraqi soldiers allegedly beat several of the women and burned the tents the squatters had pitched behind the dingy, half-finished shell of a building.

''If we aren't here to protect these people, who are we here for?" McLaughlin asked during a visit to the camp.

Families live in a row of tents, while the prostitutes, wearing heavy makeup, magenta scarves, and velveteen pantaloons, stand in the factory entryway.

When McLaughlin pulled up in his Humvee to investigate the day after the Iraqi raid, four Iraqi soldiers tried to flee down a side road. McLaughlin's driver blocked their way.

The incident exemplifies the military's new mission in Iraq: The top priority is no longer to kill insurgents and search neighborhoods. Now, US troops are supposed to pour their energy into training Iraqi forces to do the job.

McLaughlin's superiors in Kirkuk boast that two-thirds of all patrols combine US and Iraqi forces and that within three months Iraqi units -- like the one that McLaughlin suspects routinely raids the brothel -- will be ready to take the lead policing Kirkuk.

The soldiers in the 101st Airborne have taken on this training mission with an arsenal they didn't have the first time they fought in Iraq. Most of the officers know rudimentary Arabic and have learned to spend time developing personal relationships with local police and army officers who can provide intelligence. They drink tea with their Iraqi counterparts and encourage them to concentrate on their mission.

On one Saturday morning patrol, McLaughlin grilled two police chiefs about an array of attacks and insurgent cells, prompting them to follow up specific leads and steering them back on track when they tried to shift the conversation away from crime and toward meaningless platitudes about Iraqi politics.

He also confronted the Iraqi Army company about the gypsies.

''We -- you, me, police -- we're all here to secure everybody within the city, and that includes the gypsies," McLaughlin thundered at a young Iraqi Army lieutenant. ''By going down there and slapping them around, burning down their tent, it makes you look no better than a criminal."

Boredom and bureaucracy
Sergeant Matt Somma and Private Gregory Miller patrol together in a heavily armored Humvee that's prone to roll over. It's a much safer cocoon than the doorless Humvees that Somma patrolled in at the beginning of the Iraq war in the northern city of Mosul.

Both men came to Kirkuk in October with a vivid sense of Iraq.

Somma, 22, fought his way through some of the worst battles of 2003 and stayed until the end of February 2004. He sees no other life for himself but the army.

The Iraq war in its present phase, however, bores him: There's too much politics and not enough shooting for his taste.

As a team leader within his platoon, Somma spends much of his time enforcing new safety regulations for soldiers, making sure they're wearing goggles, they unload their guns when they return to base, and they don't let down their guard just because the conflict doesn't summon so much adrenaline.

''It kind of sucks sometimes," Somma said of the bureaucratic aspects of his job.

Tall, skinny, with a hooked nose, Somma towers over the other men in his platoon. He walks with a swagger and keeps up a constant verbal patter like a stage musician -- the only other career he says appeals to him. On patrol, he plays a game called ''What are you thinking?" with the other sergeants on the radio, mixing absurd observations about the Iraqis in their area of operations, lyrics, and references to American television shows.

Somma also focuses much of his energy on the video game ''Age of Empires III," which he plays on his laptop while huddled in his wooden bunk. Somma dedicates most waking hours when he's not on patrol to the game, in which he directs a civilization trying to conquer 17th-century America.

Miller, his platoon's old man at 27, quit his job as a diving instructor last year to fulfill a promise he made to his best childhood friend, Matt Brown, whom he refers to as his brother. Brown, an Army officer deployed in central Iraq a year ago, lost an eye when insurgents ambushed his convoy.

''I promised my brother that if he got hurt, I would join the Army," Miller said. ''Eight months later, here I am. I knew what I was getting into."

The pace of life on deployment is draining, but it's also addictive. Somma said he wants a break from the Army to go to college but can't imagine blending back into civilian society. He and Miller both said they feel alienated by a society where they believe people don't take individual responsibility.

In Iraq, despite the murkiness of the mission, they have found crystal clarity in their relationship to their own unit -- so much so that on his last deployment Somma didn't take any of the leave to which he was entitled.

Somma said the Iraq war is slowly becoming like Korea or Germany for career military personnel, a grueling ticket that everyone committed to the Army will have to punch. Even though this deployment has seen more soldiers from the 101st killed per month than in 2003, the mission feels more like work and less like war to Somma.

''There's not much contact" with the enemy, Somma said while driving his Humvee late one night down a rutted dirt road in the Arab section of Kirkuk. ''Nothing's 100 percent safe, but Kirkuk is a pretty safe city."

He compared it wistfully to Mosul, where he was stationed last time and where his division won accolades for killing top Ba'athists, including Hussein's sons. ''Mosul was just chaotic when we were there," he said with a smile.

A false sense of security
At Kirkuk Air Base, combat soldiers live on the far end of the airstrip. The support units and contractors -- the majority of whom never go ''outside the wire" -- live on the other side.

A flier posted in nearly every building warns soldiers against taking false comfort from the amenities: ''Quality of Life Warning!!!" it reads. ''Quality of life on FOB Warrior is excellent. DO NOT get complacent and get lulled into a false sense of security. We are in a dangerous place and there are people outside of the FOB who want to kill you. Stay alert, stay alive!"

''Last time, we got here and there was nothing. It was weird coming back and seeing all this," Somma said.

On his last tour, Captain McLaughlin lived in an ammunition bunker with no power and no air conditioning. Now he has his own room with a door, a desk, a cot, and a shelf for his book of Tennyson poems and a library of other tomes he still hasn't gotten to -- ''Don Quixote," a history of Islam, a polemic about reform in the Arab world.

Soldiers in Somma's platoon inherited a wireless Internet network set up by an Iraqi contractor. Commanders ordered it dismantled after Christmas, in part because it seemed too cushy.

Sophisticated soldiers and an Iraq mission no longer geared toward the climactic moment of national elections constitute a tough challenge for McLaughlin's company leadership: how to keep soldiers motivated when their success can be measured only through the goal of improving Iraqi security forces?

The answer, they say, is to think narrow.

''The guys look for small, incremental little victories," said the company's first lieutenant, Brett Bean.

First Sergeant Jason Larson, who turned 35 on Christmas Day and has spent 15 years in the Army, said he had always thought the Army would be his last job. But the inevitability of returning to Iraq, he said, has persuaded him to leave the military when his contract runs out in five years.

''I won't stay a day longer, even if I have to go work as a greeter at Wal-Mart," Larson said.

In a war without any benchmarks coming up, he said, commanders have to constantly refine their message to soldiers, billing small turning points like the improvement of an Iraqi battalion as major victories. ''For us, the challenge will be to keep everyone focused," he said.

Thanassis Cambanis can be reached at

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