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"I came over here because I wanted to kill people."

When I arrived in February, Green's battalion -- the 101st Airborne Division's 502nd Infantry Regiment -- was losing an average of about one soldier per week. Whenever I asked how many of the nearly 1,000 troops posted there had been killed so far, most soldiers would just frown and say they'd lost count.

Danger was everywhere. Inside the American base camps, mortar shells fell almost daily. In the towns where U.S. forces patrolled, car bombs were a constant threat. On the rural roads, the troops kept watch for massive artillery rounds hidden under piles of trash that could shred the engine block of an armored Humvee and separate a driver's limbs from his torso.

About a month before I arrived at Green's base -- an abandoned potato-packing plant lined with 20-foot concrete walls -- the soldiers there fought off a full-blown assault that rallied dozens of insurgents in a show of force almost unheard of for a shadowy enemy that typically avoids face-to-face combat. It took more than an hour to quell the attack of gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades coming from all sides of the camp.

Morale took another nosedive soon after, when the hastily rigged electrical wiring system caught fire and burned down the Americans' living quarters. The soldiers watched as the early-morning blaze destroyed all reminders of home: the family photographs, the iPods and the video games that provide brief escapes from combat. When I got there a week later, a chow-hall storage room, packed with radios and satellite maps, was serving as the base command center. The sergeants were still passing out toothbrushes and clean socks to the young troops who had lost everything.

The company commander in charge of Green's unit told me that the situation was so stressful that he himself had "almost had a nervous breakdown" and had been sent to a hotel-style compound in Baghdad for three days of "freedom rest" before resuming his command.

And yet despite the horrific conditions in which they were daily being tested, I found extraordinary camaraderie among the soldiers in Mahmudiyah. They were among the friendliest troops I met in Iraq.

Green was one of several soldiers I sat down with in the chow hall one night not long after my arrival. We talked over dinner served on cardboard trays. I asked them how it was going out there, and to tell me about some of their most harrowing moments. When they began talking about the December death of Sgt. Kenith Casica, my interview zeroed in on Green.

He described how after an attack on their traffic checkpoint, he and several others pushed one wounded man into the back seat of a Humvee and put Casica, who had a bullet wound in his throat, on the truck's hood. Green flung himself across Casica to keep the dying soldier from falling off as they sped back to the base.

"We were going, like, 55 miles an hour and I was hanging on to him. I was like, 'Sgt. Casica, Sgt. Casica.' He just moved his eyes a little bit," Green related with a breezy candor. "I was just laying on top of him, listening to him breathing, telling him he's okay. I was rubbing his chest. I was looking at the tattoo on his arm. He had his little girl's name tattooed on his arm.

"I was just talking to him. Listening to his heartbeat. It was weird -- I drooled on him a little bit and I was, like, wiping it off. It's weird that I was worried about stupid [expletive] like that.

"Then I heard him stop breathing," Green said. "We got back and everyone was like, 'Oh [expletive], get him off the truck.' But I knew he was dead. You could look in his eyes and there wasn't nothing in his eyes. I knew what was going on there."

He paused and looked away. "He was the nicest man I ever met," he said. "I never saw him yell at anybody. That was the worst time, that was my worst time since I've been in Iraq."


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