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

By Andrew Tilghman
Sunday, July 30, 2006; B01

" I came over here

because I wanted

to kill people."

Over a mess-tent dinner of turkey cutlets, the bony-faced 21-year-old private from West Texas looked right at me as he talked about killing Iraqis with casual indifference. It was February, and we were at his small patrol base about 20 miles south of Baghdad. "The truth is, it wasn't all I thought it was cracked up to be. I mean, I thought killing somebody would be this life-changing experience. And then I did it, and I was like, 'All right, whatever.' "

He shrugged.

"I shot a guy who wouldn't stop when we were out at a traffic checkpoint and it was like nothing," he went on. "Over here, killing people is like squashing an ant. I mean, you kill somebody and it's like 'All right, let's go get some pizza.' "

At the time, the soldier's matter-of-fact manner struck me chiefly as a rare example of honesty. I was on a nine-month assignment as an embedded reporter in Iraq, spending much of my time with grunts like him -- mostly young (and immature) small-town kids who sign up for a job as killers, lured by some gut-level desire for excitement and adventure. This was not the first group I had run into that was full of young men who shared a dark sense of humor and were clearly desensitized to death. I thought this soldier was just one of the exceptions who wasn't afraid to say what he really thought, a frank and reflective kid, a sort of Holden Caulfield in a war zone.

But the private was Steven D. Green.

The next time I saw him, in a front-page newspaper photograph five months later, he was standing outside a federal courthouse in North Carolina, where he had pled not guilty to charges of premeditated rape and murder. The brutal killing of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and her family in Mahmudiyah that he was accused of had taken place just three weeks after we talked.

When I met Green, I knew nothing about his background -- his troubled youth and family life, his apparent problems with drugs and alcohol, his petty criminal record. I just saw and heard a blunt-talking kid. Now that I know the charges against Green, his words take on an utterly different context for me. But when I met him then, his comments didn't seem nearly as chilling as they do now.

Maybe, in part, that's because we were talking in Mahmudiyah. If there's one place where a soldier might succumb to what the military calls "combat stress," it's this town where Green's unit was posted on the edge of the so-called Triangle of Death, for the last three years a bloody center of the Sunni-led insurgency. Mahmudiyah is a deadly patch of earth that inspires such fear, foreboding and uneasiness that my most prominent memory of the three weeks I spent there was the unrelenting knot it caused in my stomach.

I was nervous even before I arrived. Although Mahmudiyah is only a 15-minute drive from the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, I was taken there by helicopter. Military officials didn't want to risk my riding in a truck that might be hit by a roadside bomb. I'd chosen to go to Mahmudiyah because I wanted to be on the front lines of the war and among the troops fighting it.

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."

Green had been in country only four months at that point, a volunteer in a war he now saw as pointless.

"I gotta be here for a year and there ain't [expletive] I can do about it," he said. "I just want to go home alive. I don't give a [expletive] about the whole Iraq thing. I don't care.

"See, this war is different from all the ones that our fathers and grandfathers fought. Those wars were for something. This war is for nothing."

A couple of days later, I ran into Green again, and he invited me to join him and another soldier in a visit to the makeshift tearoom run by the Iraqi soldiers who share the base with the American troops. It was after dusk, and the three of us walked across a pitch-black landing zone and into a small plywood-lined room where a couple of dozen barefoot Iraqi soldiers were sitting around watching a local news channel.

"Hey, shlonek ," Green said, offering a casual Arabic greeting with a smile and a sweeping wave as he stepped up to the bar. He handed over a U.S. dollar in exchange for three Styrofoam cups of syrupy brown tea.

Green knew a few words of Arabic, and along with bits of broken English, some hand gestures and smiles, he joked around with the Iraqis as he sipped their tea. Most U.S. soldiers didn't hang out on this side of the base with the Iraqis.

I asked Green whether he went there a lot. He did, he said, because he liked to get away from the Americans "who are always telling me what to do."

"These guys are cool," he said, referring to the Iraqis.

"But," he added with a shrug, "I wouldn't really care if all these guys got waxed."

As we talked, Green complained about his frustration with the Army brass that urged young soldiers to exercise caution even in the most terrifying and life-threatening circumstances.

"We're out here getting attacked all the time and we're in trouble when somebody accidentally gets shot?" he said, referring to infantrymen like himself throughout Iraq. "We're pawns for the [expletive] politicians, for people that don't give a [expletive] about us and don't know anything about what it's like to be out here on the line."

The soldiers who fought alongside Green lived in conditions of near-constant violence -- violence committed by them, and against them.

Even in my brief stay there, I repeatedly encountered terrifying attacks. One night, about a mile from Green's base, a roadside bomb exploded alongside the vehicle I was riding in, unleashing a deafening crack and a ball of fire. In most places in Iraq, soldiers would have stopped to investigate. In the Triangle of Death, however, we just plowed on through the cloud of smoke and shower of sparks, fearing an ambush if we stopped. Fortunately, the bomb was relatively small, its detonation poorly timed, and the soldiers all laughed about it moments later. "Dude, that was [expletive] awesome," the driver said after making sure no one was hurt.

A few days later, I was standing outside chatting with an officer about the long-term legacy of the Vietnam War when a rocket came whistling down and struck the base's south wall. A couple of days after that, a mortar round blew up a tent about 20 feet from the visitors' tent that I called home.

My experience, however, was nothing compared with that of Green and the other young men of his Bravo company who spent months in the Triangle of Death.

In the end, I never included Green's comments in any of the handful of stories I wrote from Mahmudiyah for Stars and Stripes. When he said he was inured to death and killing, it seemed to me -- in that place and at that time -- a reasonable thing to say. While in Iraq, I also saw people bleed and die. And there was something unspeakably underwhelming about it. It's not a Hollywood action movie -- there are no rapid edits, no adrenaline-pumping soundtracks, no logical narratives that help make sense of it. Bits of lead fly through the air, put holes in people and their bodily fluids leak out and they die. Those who knew them mourn and move on.

But no level of combat stress is an excuse for the kind of brutal acts Green allegedly committed. I suppose I will always look back on our conversations in Mahmudiyah and wonder: Just what did he mean?

andrewtilghman1@yahoo.com

Andrew Tilghman was a correspondent in Iraq for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. He lives in Houston.

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