U.S. Troops Too Busy for Vote Returns

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 6, 2008

BAGHDAD, Nov. 5 -- As Americans flocked to polling stations on Election Day, Sgt. 1st Class Jonathan West and his men walked out of a small outpost in western Baghdad shortly after sunset, each carrying 40 pounds of gear on his back, for yet another foot patrol.

The infantrymen walked in silence on poorly lighted streets, rifles at the ready, scanning through night-vision goggles. There had been chatter all day inside their small outpost in the Dora neighborhood about the election of their next commander in chief. Most of the several dozen soldiers said they wanted a Republican in the White House. They were rooting for Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the guy who has served in uniform, the guy with a son serving overseas.

The soldiers wondered: Would a Barack Obama presidency mean a speedy withdrawal from Iraq? Would an Obama White House cut defense spending? Would Americans elect a black man to the highest office? Was the focus about to shift to Afghanistan, where many in the company have served?

"A lot of the guys are still young and have a long time left in the Army," said West, 35, a platoon leader who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan. "This election is going to define what they're going to do in the next few years."

Few soldiers of Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment, had the luxury of plopping down in front of their outpost's lone television set to watch election coverage. There were guard towers to man, patrols to conduct, reports to write. Because of the time difference, they would not know the result until after dawn Wednesday.

"I don't have time for it," Capt. Ryan Edwards, the company commander, said earlier in the day. "I don't worry about it. All I have time for is what happens in this country now."

West's patrol began with visits to business owners he wanted to notify about a loan program the U.S. military is launching with local banks. After nearly 10 months in Dora, the soldiers have come to know virtually every merchant in the neighborhood, every Iraqi police officer in the sector and every house.

West kissed several of his Iraqi acquaintances on the cheek, a customary greeting among Arab men who are friends.

"The big thing we're trying to do is get the bank system started and build trust between banks and the Iraqi people," West told the owner of a small, brightly lighted cellphone store.

They then moved toward darker streets, where soldiers rummaged through garbage and cracks along cement walls, looking for hidden explosives. They checked in with Sons of Iraq, U.S.-organized armed guards who man checkpoints, and later with Iraqi National Police officers.

They stopped at the home of a man who was struck by an Iraqi army vehicle months ago. Medics in West's unit reset the man's displaced hip some time ago. He was walking with crutches Tuesday night, making steady progress.

After leaving the man's house, West said he favored McCain.

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