11 Days Till Baghdad
Sunday, February 25, 2007
FORT RILEY, Kan. -- Their camouflage on, their wives carrying infants, their older children carrying flags, the soldiers of George W. Bush's surge crowded into a gymnasium for their brigade deployment ceremony, a last public viewing before they disappeared into Iraq.
Baghdad, long an abstraction, was now imminent. Of the 21,500 additional troops President Bush decided to send to Iraq in the coming months, about 3,500 were coming from here. "Are you frightened?" a TV reporter called out. "I'm confident," one of those soldiers replied. An enormous American flag hung on the back wall. A military band lined up in formation. "Ready to go," another soldier said.
Outside, snow was coming toward this isolated place. Inside, as the bleachers filled and the doors swung closed against the cold, a 41-year-old soldier near the middle of the floor began clapping his hands in anticipation.
And now waved at his wife and children.
And now took his position in front of the soldiers he would soon be leading into combat.
This was Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, the commander of an Army battalion called the 2-16 -- the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment of the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division. The unit has 800 soldiers, most in their late teens and deploying to Iraq for the first time under the command of a man who, in this gymnasium filled with believers, was among the biggest believers of all.
"We are America," is how Kauzlarich would describe his belief a few days later, just before boarding a plane that would take him and his soldiers for a year's deployment into the center of an increasingly unpopular war. "This nation can do anything that it wants to do."
Down the hill, in another part of Fort Riley, a different ceremony was underway. That one, a private memorial service, was for a 21-year-old sergeant from a different battalion who five days before was traveling through northern Iraq when a makeshift bomb detonated near his vehicle, making him one of 25 American troops to die that day in the war.
The ceremony in the gym was a celebration, however, and now, from the band, came a stirring series of notes from a trumpet, followed by a moment of quiet, interrupted by a single boom of a bass drum so sudden and explosive it caused people to flinch, including some of the soldiers.
Ralph Kauzlarich, who perhaps would be an American hero a year from now, or perhaps would be an American tragedy, didn't flinch, though. Instead, just for a moment, he smiled.
What is it like to be a soldier in an unpopular war? To be part of a troop increase that the American public is overwhelmingly against, and to lead 800 soldiers into a war being described as "barbaric" and a "meat grinder" and the result of a "failed policy" and down to "the last chance" and "lost"?