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Dangers of war persist for soldiers left in Iraq

By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 28, 2010; 12:13 AM

FORWARD OPERATING BASE WARHORSE, IRAQ - Col. Malcolm Frost knew there would be questions. The official end to the U.S. combat mission in Iraq was approaching, but his soldiers, operating in two of Iraq's most dangerous provinces, would still be here.

He sat down and penned a letter to the soldiers' families. "01 Sept. 2010 does not mean a light switched on or off in Iraq," the brigade commander wrote. ". . . The weight of responsibility upon our shoulders is great, because we must follow through to the very finish."

For the soldiers in Frost's brigade, Sept. 1 will mark an arbitrary milestone. There are fewer troops here, just under 50,000 now, consistent with an Obama administration pledge, and the troops leave base less often. But Americans still die in Iraq, and the fight for stability is far from over.

Iraq remains a battleground, American soldiers say, even if they are no longer kicking down Iraqi doors.

Instead of carrying out combat missions, Frost's unit has been designated an "advise and assist" brigade, like five other American brigades left behind in Iraq. Its task is to train Iraqi security forces, gather intelligence, assist Iraq's fledgling air force, and, ultimately, close up shop and go home. The lower-profile approach under Operation New Dawn is the latest step in a transition that began more than a year ago when American soldiers were pulled back from Iraq's urban centers and for the most part retreated into their bases.

But less than two months into the unit's deployment, two of Frost's men have already been killed. The mission still involves risks as the soldiers escort commanders and trainers to appointments with Iraqi officials. Around them, assassinations and violence seem to be on the rise, although at drastically lower levels than during the darkest days of Iraq's civil war, between 2005 and 2007.

Last week, as news reports in the United States hailed the departure from Iraq of the last designated combat brigade, family members eagerly called their loved ones here, asking whether they too were headed home. No, the soldiers told wives, mothers, fathers and grandmothers. They have more than 300 days left in Iraq.

The day after other troops celebrated their exit from Iraq, soldiers at FOB Warhorse mourned the passing of Sgt. Jamal Rhett, a young medic killed on Aug. 15. A grenade was lobbed into his vehicle as he and his platoon left federal police headquarters in Baqubah, northeast of Baghdad. They were escorting a police training team.

Despite their new title, soldiers know that the battle is not over, not for them and not for Iraq. The names of Rhett and 1st Lt. Michael L. Runyan, both from the 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, were added to a memorial of the fallen that spans at least five concrete blast walls at the base.

At the trailers where the Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment lives, Staff Sgt. Gilbert Ayala, 28, limped to the showers. Shrapnel ripped into his side and legs about two weeks ago, when Rhett was killed.

Ayala said it doesn't matter to him what the mission is called. This is his third deployment, and he has been wounded and lost friends before. But this wound was the deepest, this loss the hardest.

"I find new holes in me every day," Ayala said. He scoffed at the idea that the war was over. "It can't be, because things like this are still going down. Boom, and my friend is gone, right in front of me."

"On a lighter note, we got coffee," joked Staff Sgt. Rick Penkala, 32, nervously trying to change the subject.

"I just hope we leave this place better than when we came," added Staff Sgt. Paul Roderick Jr., 29.

A 'tactical taxi'

In many ways, Iraq is better, the soldiers said. There are more Iraqi forces, they are better equipped, and the violence is down compared with the days of the U.S. troop surge, when U.S. casualties spiked and Iraqis were being killed in far greater numbers. But the soldiers' interactions with the community are limited, and they see very little of what happens outside their bases.

First Lt. Mike Makrucki briefed his men outside their Stryker armored vehicles. "Yesterday there was a [car bomb] in Baqubah that killed two and wounded 12 others. The [Explosives Ordinance Team] disabled another bomb targeting the provincial government," he said. "Assassination attempts are running rampant."

Their mission on this day was to escort their captain, Burt Eissler, to a meeting with an Iraqi commander in Muqdadiyah, just outside the provincial capital. The road was new for them, and Makrucki warned that roadside bombs were prevalent. He told the soldiers to keep their heads inside the vehicles as much as possible.

"We're a tactical taxi now," said Spec. Joshua Johnson, 25, the gunner on one vehicle, as he put on his gear and assumed his position. On most of their missions they escort people to their destination and sit outside.

"Pray for the best," he told the four other soldiers in the vehicle. They rolled out of the base. Halfway to their destination they stopped and waited for an Iraqi police escort before continuing. Eissler went in to meet an Iraqi army commander as most of the soldiers waited outside. They rolled down the hatches of their vehicles and took off their helmets.

"We're pretty safe in here now," said Staff Sgt. Justin Austin, 23, as he gestured toward the towering concrete walls surrounding the area. "Muqdadiyah is one of the worst spots in Iraq right now. The war may be over, but combat is definitely not. People still die here."

Sudden violence

Since the death of their brother-in-arms the soldiers have been more careful. They train their weapons on people to scare them away, he said.

"It was a lucky day for them and unlucky for us," Austin said. "It's kind of a slap in the face to see on the news that all combat troops are out. We're infantry guys, and that's just a name change. It means nothing."

"We're going to do our mission, no matter what," Johnson added.

"It seems a lot better. The Iraqi security forces seem a lot better," Austin said. "But honestly I don't really care. I just care that we go home."

Then a powerful blast rocked the vehicle, and Austin threw on his helmet.

"Start the truck," he yelled to the driver. They closed the hatch, and the soldiers rolled out to see what had happened. "I don't know what's going on right now," Johnson said. "It's a car bomb, I think."

At the time they didn't know that Sunni insurgent groups were setting off bombs in at least a dozen towns and cities across the country in what seemed to be a message that they were still here as U.S. troop numbers dwindled.

The soldiers stayed in their vehicles and waited for the bomb squad. A half-hour later, another explosion ripped through an Iraqi army truck in front of them. A man was carried away. "At least it's not us this time," said Pfc. Stephen James Lapierre, 23. Rhett had been his roommate.

They waited in their vehicles and watched as people walked by, cars drove around them and Iraqi security forces blocked off the area. After the bomb squad had finally come and gone, they left.

Johnson handed Lapierre a slab of wood.

"Knock on it for luck," he said.

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