By Tom Aspell Correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/15/2004 7:18:43 PM ET 2004-03-16T00:18:43

Last spring, just a few weeks after Saddam Hussein was toppled, 18,000 soldiers of the First Armored Division had orders for Baghdad. Their mission: take charge, but win hearts and minds at the same time.

“It’s a tough sell to convince them that this is going to work out for them,” said Brig. Gen. Martin Dempsey.

Baghdad’s 5 million people were terrified of looters and revenge killers. Anarchy ruled. Rob Yllescas remembers confusion and danger, “I’m like, ‘Holy cow! What’s going on?’ Because RPGs were flying over our window, and mortars were landing all around us.”

The 1st AD’s hardened combat soldiers suddenly found they were policemen.

When NBC first met up with them last August, they were patrolling on foot.  It was a learning curve.  Mistakes were made.  The foot patrols were easy targets.  One soldier explained, “People are getting shot in the head, the stabbings under the flak vests.”

So by December, as insurgent attacks become more sophisticated, the 1st AD changed more tactics and put more heavy armor on the streets, with Yllescas on an Abrahams tank.  “It’s a surreal feeling,” Yllescas added.

Intelligence went high-tech with databases to keep track of bad guys.  There were also big raids to capture high-value targets.

The changes are working.  Since September, attacks against Americans in Baghdad have dropped from 15 a day to five.

But even just days from going home, there is no escaping the danger here. On Saturday, three 1st Armored soldiers were killed by roadside bombs.

The men of the 1ST AD’s 26 are getting their combat infantrymen’s badges — Army recognition for the action they’ve seen during their tour of duty here.

Rob Yllescas, now a lieutenant, is counting the seconds until he leaves,“560,000 left.”

Yllescas’ year of living dangerously is finally over and, for the 1st AD, mission completed.

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