A Unit's Fitful Year at War

By Steve Fainaru
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 13, 2005

BALAD, Iraq Long before he came to Iraq, Spec. Russell Nahvi hoped to save the world. In a spiral-bound notebook filled with math equations, he jotted his secret yearnings: "I PRAY one day I can make the world proud of me. I hope I can restore an unknown peace to wartorn nations, peoples, families, friends."

Nahvi's ambitions led him to a dark road on the outskirts of this town, where, on a patrol Oct. 19, a bomb hidden in a pothole dismembered him and incinerated his Humvee. Two other Americans were also killed. One soldier survived: a platoon sergeant who managed to wrench himself out of the vehicle, flames rolling off him.

Afterward, the Pentagon tersely attributed the soldiers' deaths to "enemy indirect fire." An officer handed Nahvi's mother, Nancy, a form asking if she wanted her 24-year-old son's body parts returned if they were recovered. President Bush sent his parents a three-paragraph condolence letter. It contained a typo: "God less you."

"It was just a grunt's death," said Nancy Nahvi, an Arlington, Tex., nurse, her voice tinged with bitterness.

Nahvi was assigned to the 5th Battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment, part of the 3rd Infantry Division, based at Fort Stewart, Ga. The unit's year-long combat tour, now in its final days, is a study in the banality of war: ordinary American lives confronted by moments of extraordinary violence, set against the backdrop of an inscrutable culture and an unfamiliar land.

This account of the unit's year at war was drawn from soldiers' diaries, from correspondence and from interviews in Balad, in the heart of Iraq's Sunni Triangle, where the 5th Battalion is based. It also draws on interviews in the United States with relatives of the soldiers, as well as Vietnam veterans of the same battalion, many of whom sponsored troops in Iraq. The experience has reverberated in a profound way among soldiers and their families, much as it has divided the nation over the price of a war now nearing the end of its third year.

"What is the purpose of us really being over there?" asked Latisa Baker, whose husband, Staff Sgt. L.B. Baker, 38, of Belcher, La., was the sole survivor of the attack that killed Nahvi. As she spoke, Baker had just been released from an Army hospital in San Antonio. He sat stiffly on the couch in his redbrick house near Fort Stewart, nursing a beer, second-degree burns covering nearly 10 percent of his body.

"People dying every day, for what? That's the question: For what?" Latisa Baker said. "If you give me a reason for why we're really fighting, then maybe I can handle it a little better. But we really don't know."

"You know, when I was in Iraq I never even thought about why I was over there," Baker told his wife. "I was just doing my job."

'Is This Even a War?'

Balad is a washed-out agricultural city near the Tigris River, about 50 miles northwest of Baghdad. With 450 men, the 5th Battalion controlled a 300-square-mile area of 120,000 people that included the mostly Shiite Muslim city and dozens of Sunni Arab villages tucked into a fertile labyrinth of apple and date palm orchards, canals and winding tributaries.

The 5th Battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment was deactivated as a unit designation after Vietnam. The battalion lay dormant for nearly four decades until July 21, 2004, when the Army revived the name and retrained an air defense unit to fight as scouts in Iraq. The Vietnam veterans who once served in the unit, many of whom were shunned after their own unpopular war, rallied behind the soldiers headed off to the Iraq war the following January.

"They're like our children," said Don Quick, a Methodist minister from Roanoke, Ala., who lost his left arm in Vietnam and heads the sponsorship program. "This is a terrible thing to say, but we want them to have what we didn't get."

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