BAGHDAD — Spc. Grover Gebhart has spent nine months at a small post on a Sunni-Shiite fault line in western Baghdad. But the 21-year-old soldier on his first tour in Iraq feels he's missing the real war — in Afghanistan, where his brother is fighting the Taliban.
With violence in Iraq at its lowest level in four years and the war in Afghanistan at a peak, the soldiers serving at patrol station Maverick say Gebhart's view is increasingly common, especially among younger soldiers looking to prove themselves in battle.
"I've heard it a lot since I got here," said 2nd Lt. Karl Kuechenmeister, a 2007 West Point graduate who arrived in Iraq about a week ago.
Soldiers who have experienced combat stress note that it is usually young soldiers on their first tour who most want to get on the battlefield. They say it is hard to communicate the horrors of war to those who haven't actually experienced it.
"These kids are just being young," said Sgt. Christopher Janis, who is only 23 but is on his third tour in Iraq. "They say they want to get into battle until they do, and then they won't want it anymore."
Testament to change
That soldiers are looking elsewhere for a battle is a testament to how much Iraq has changed from a year ago, when violence was at its height. Now it's the lowest in four years, thanks to the U.S. troop surge, the turn by former Sunni insurgents against al-Qaida in Iraq, and Iraqi government crackdowns on Shiite militias.
At least 29 U.S. soldiers died in Iraq last month, and there were 19 deaths in May — the lowest monthly toll for American troops since the war began in March 2003. By comparison, in Afghanistan, 28 Americans died in June and 17 in May, but there are four times as many U.S. troops in Iraq.
American military deaths in Iraq are also down sharply this month, in a trend that could take center stage during Sen. Barack Obama's planned visit to Baghdad and the debate over whether America's main battle is shifting back to Afghanistan.
At least eight soldier deaths had been reported for July by the military as of Wednesday — four in combat, two not connected to fighting and the recovery of remains of two soldiers missing since last year.
The daily average of 0.50 deaths so far is significantly below any month in the war. The lowest for a full month was 0.61 deaths in May, and the next lowest was 0.71 in February 2004.
The relative calm is apparent in Baghdad's Ghazaliyah neighborhood, patrolled by troops stationed at Maverick from the 1st Squadron, 75th Cavalry Regiment of the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division.
Instead of facing gunfire and roadside bombs, the soldiers' armored Humvees are chased by waving children as they weave through streets crowded with pedestrians out to shop or just to stroll.
Some of Maverick's troops saw combat a few months ago when they helped the Iraqi army take over the Ghazaliyah office of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in a battle complete with gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades.
Is quiet boredom?
But their days in Ghazaliyah have mostly been filled with routine patrols. The soldiers' job is to serve as a critical presence that helps keep violence down in the mixed Sunni and Shiite neighborhood.
"Ninety-five percent of the time it is perfectly quiet in Ghazaliyah now," said 1st Lt. Shane Smith, who leads one of the three platoons at Maverick.
Quiet can mean boredom, as Gebhart and a colleague turn in another four-hour shift in one of Maverick's guard towers, looking over a landscape of two-story concrete buildings and green fields dotted with a few cows and goats.
To while away the time, the young soldier from Omaha, Neb., talks of his brother, who is fighting the Taliban in the mountains outside Kandahar city in southern Afghanistan.
"He spends 20 days at a time camped out in the mountains, and the Taliban come engage them in serious firefights," said Gebhart. "At least it sounds exciting."
That excitement comes with a price, the officers here point out.
Militants in Afghanistan killed nine American soldiers Sunday, the worst attack on U.S. forces in the country in three years. More U.S. and NATO troops have been killed in Afghanistan than in Iraq over each of the last two months.
The soldiers at Maverick have faced tragedy during their tour, losing one comrade to a sniper in April and another to a roadside bomb in June.
But those deaths have only heightened the frustration of younger soldiers who joined the Army with the classic notion of fighting an enemy.
"These kids who joined the Army since the Iraq war started in 2003 are more fearless than when I joined during the Cold War," said 1st Sgt. John Greis, the senior enlisted soldier at Maverick. "They knew they were going to war."
But with violence down in Iraq, they have little opportunity to prove themselves as warriors to fellow soldiers, some of whom are only a few years older but have already battled al-Qaida in places like Fallujah and Mosul on previous Iraq tours.
Saying they want to go where the combat is — in Afghanistan — is one way for young soldiers to prove their toughness, colleagues say.
Heading for a new front?
Some may get their wish. There is broad consensus in Washington that some U.S. forces can now leave Iraq and that more are needed in Afghanistan.
Both of the main presidential candidates — Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain — called this week for more troops to be sent to Afghanistan to battle the Taliban and al-Qaida fighters operating along the border with Pakistan.
After recently returning from Afghanistan, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said more troops are needed for the Afghan conflict. On Wednesday, he said he expected to be able to recommend American troop reductions in Iraq later this year if security continues to improve.
Not all soldiers in Iraq are pining for service in Afghanistan.
Greis, a 21-year veteran, isn't eager to seek out battle. "There is nothing cool about seeing your buddy on the ground during his last dying seconds of life," he said.
He rolled up his sleeve and pointed to a Latin phrase tattooed on his right shoulder: "Dulce Bellum Inexpertis" — "War is sweet for the inexperienced."
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