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Veterans back from Iraq with stories to tell

Troops from all walks of life reflect on their experiences in Iraq -- from the unforgettable to the mundane -- as the war enters its fourth year.
Americans And Iraqis Treated At Balad Trauma Hospital
Sgt. Nathan Greene, of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division out of Ft. Carson, Nev., is treated on Saturday after being wounded in a firefight in Bacouba, Iraq. Chris Hondros / Getty Images
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The heat, which is like living under a french-fry lamp, like standing in front of the world's biggest hair dryer, like sitting in a sealed car on the hottest summer day in Washington with the heater blasting and someone throwing sand in your face.

The mud, which follows the hot season, cold, slimy, sticky mud that makes you wish it would turn hot again.

The green that erupts after a spring rain and astounds you the first time you see it. The blue of the timeless sky above and beyond all the troubles. The black of the inky desert night, thickly dusted with stars and galaxies.

The eyes of the children.

These are some of the things they remember from their service in Iraq.

War: In their own words
Over the past year, The Washington Post conducted in-depth interviews with 100 of the more than 500,000 veterans of the war. They included men and women, officers and enlisted, active-duty and reserves, combat and support troops. The questions were open-ended. The intent was to hear from them, in their own words, what the experience was like.

They remembered the camel spiders, big, fast and scary-looking. The sand flies, scorpions, mosquitoes and flying crickets. The long, hard days -- 12-hour shifts that easily turn into 20-hour shifts when they don't turn into round-the-clock marathons.

They remembered the roaring metal of System of a Down and Adema, the throbbing rap of Public Enemy and 50 Cent, the soldier-celebrating anthems of Toby Keith:

And I can't call in sick on Mondays/When the weekend's been too strong/I just work straight through the holidays/And sometimes all night long. . . .

Stringing Xbox cables from bunk to bunk to play Madden football or Tony Hawk skateboarding games in the two-man residential trailers known as "cans." Visiting the "hadji marts," clusters of enterprising Iraqis who sell everything from bootleg DVDs to rotgut alcohol on the roadside just beyond the wire of nearly every camp. Watching an entire season of "The Simpsons" or "CSI" or "Saved by the Bell" on your laptop. Watching your baby grow up via e-mail and webcam.

Wondering how honest to be with the folks back home. You don't want them to worry. So you try to sound cheerfully vague and remind them to send gummy candies, which don't melt, rather than chocolates, which do. But all that loving deception ends in a whoosh if a mortar hits during a telephone call to Mom.

Iraq was bad, nearly all of them agreed. "Not knowing day to day what was going to happen." "Hard to figure out who the enemy was." "Never being able to relax." "The rules are that there are no rules."

Tales of loss and progress
But it was not bad in the ways they see covered in the media -- the majority also agreed on this. What they experienced was more complex than the war they saw on television and in print. It was dangerous and confused, yes, but most of the vets also recalled enemies routed, buildings built and children befriended, against long odds in a poor and demoralized country. "We feel like we're doing something, and then we look at the news and you feel like you're getting bashed." "It seems to me the media had a predetermined script." The vibe of the coverage is just "so, so, so negative."

No two sets of memories were identical. This almost goes without saying, but not quite, because it underscores a point made by many of the veterans. Some of the deepest impressions left over from Iraq were not the externals -- the sights, sounds, smells, scenes -- but the internal marks. In Iraq, they saw, did and endured things they hadn't seen, done or imagined before, and this affected each one uniquely.

"Each individual over there has his own little war he is fighting," Army medic Joe Drennan explained. "No two people are going to have the same experiences." These personal wars add up to the war they share.

A lot depended on when they were over there.

Welcomed by Saddam's victims
The invasion -- three years ago today -- was a blur, pulsing with excitement and wired on Adderall. Invasion vets remembered villages of blank-faced Iraqis lining the roads as the armor sped past, and ranks of empty Iraqi tanks bombed out in the desert, and busloads of men in civilian clothes suddenly opening fire, and a sandstorm so thick they could hardly see their hands in front of their faces.

Arriving in Baghdad, "I had an Iraqi citizen come up to me," said Lance Cpl. Daniel Finn, a Marine infantryman. "She was a female. She opened her mouth and she had no tongue. She was pointing at the statue" of Saddam Hussein. "There were people with no fingers, waving at the statue of Saddam, telling us he tortured them. People were showing us the scars on their backs."

After the initial victory came lean months when the war had too much death and not enough infrastructure. Troops slept in their armored trucks -- if their trucks were armored. They ate cold chow and drank hot water and dug pit toilets where they suffered "Saddam's revenge." They scraped the grime from their skin with baby wipes mailed from home. No one had planned for so many Americans to live in Iraq for so long.

Little by little, the cans arrived with their cushioned bunks and air conditioning. Showers and restrooms were built. Apart from the improvised explosive devices, the ambushes, the suicide bombers and the mortar attacks, life became sort of bearable. Rec centers opened with large-screen TVs and air-hockey tables. Dining halls began serving hot food and icy sodas.

Comforts of home, a world away
Once-a-week phone calls home gave way to broadband Internet connections. Movie theaters and coffee bars opened. Gyms were built on most bases.

"The great stress reliever was exercise" -- veterans reported this again and again. Opportunities for sex apparently varied from one part of the country to another, and drinking was forbidden. A few veterans admitted that they had a swig, or more, of bootlegged or smuggled booze. But the most common way to vent the tension was to pump iron and work the cardio machines for an hour or two at the end of a long day.

With a few exceptions, the veterans described a highly professional, almost spartan force, characterized by resilient morale and good discipline. "I didn't touch a girl or alcohol for seven months, and that was tough," said Sgt. Christopher Johnson of the Marine Reserve. Many said they were ready to return to Iraq.

In some ways, they talked about a war much like all wars for all troops in all times. It was a test, personal and elemental. To understand it, you must go through it; no words could entirely convey the experience to those who were not there. Many veterans described a moment, different for each person, when the test boiled down to a single yes-or-no question -- again, slightly different for each person.

Fighting to save a friend
Would you fight or flee? Would you crack under pressure? Would you shoot or freeze? Was it better to know that you hit your target, or not to know?

Army Staff Sgt. Christopher Day spoke of wondering "what I would do when I start getting shot at. Will I fire back or curl in a ball? And sure enough, I fired back right away."

The reason he fired back was also timeless. "It was not so much for myself, but for the guys beside me," Day said. "I was shooting and trying to kill the people that were trying to kill my friends."

He used the word "friends." Others preferred family terms. GIs talked about their "brothers." Officers spoke of their "kids." The intense bonds they formed had little to do with like-mindedness and everything to do with shared risk and mutual dependence.

"Soldiers are nonpartisan," explained Staff Sgt. Larry Gill of the National Guard. "We could give a rat's heehaw about same-sex marriage or other issues. We're given a job to do, and you go out and do your job. Because if you don't, someone's going to get hurt or die."

Changing face of war
The officers are often gung-ho. "We are professionals," said Capt. Tyler McIntyre of the Army headquarters staff. "If you just step back, give us some breathing space, let us do our job, we'll get it done."

The enlisted troops, sometimes less so. You "meet a lot of active-duty hoorah guys and then some of us who were National Guardsmen who weren't so sure why we were there," said Spec. Amy Capistran, a mechanic with the Virginia National Guard. In other ways, it has been a war like no other.

Civilian contractors performed many of the support roles that would have been handled by GIs in past wars. Some of these were menial jobs few would have wanted. Other contractors did security work. To many troops, it didn't seem fair that these mercenaries earned big salaries and could party after work.

Technology shaped the war experience in ways both good and bad. The distance between troops and their families was closed by e-mail and satellites and instant messages and blogs. But officers worried constantly that families might discover bad news inadvertently. The bad news as of this weekend was 2,313 killed and 17,124 wounded.

The presence of women in a wider variety of roles also sets the Iraq war apart. Commanders have struggled, in some cases, to know how to manage a coed military. 1st Lt. Tanya Lawrence-Riggins of the Army National Guard said she and the other women in her unit had to bathe outdoors, screened by parked trucks, because an active-duty commanding officer didn't want them in the showers.

Other women complained that every friendship they formed with a male soldier was grist for gossip. "The rumor mill was horrific," said National Guard Lt. Connie Woodyard, whose husband served at another base in Iraq. "I was just like, 'I'm not getting that much sex! If I were, I'd like war a whole lot more.' "

Fighting in a land of extremes
The difference between a hot day and a cold day in Iraq is more than 100 degrees. The historical sites are among the oldest in the world -- the ruins of Babylon, Nineveh and Ur. The poverty in some places is appalling. Iraq is an extreme land, where American troops must cope with extremity.

Extremes of doubt: "It was hard to figure out who the enemy was. Everyone practically looks the same and dresses the same. You didn't know who was a terrorist and who was not," said Spec. Greg Seely, a Virginia National Guardsman.

Extremes of emotion: "The bombs were everywhere," said Army Staff Sgt. John Thomas. "You feel like you are in a movie. You drive through the town, you see the women out in the fields, and children and other people are on the roofs watching. They are waiting on the roofs to see you get blown up."

Extremes of angst: "It's a lot harder than what a lot of people think, especially if you have a family," said Navy Corpsman Nathanial Slenker. "You're worried about your family. About the friends that you're there with. You worry about yourself and your ability to keep handling situations. You're constantly worrying."

This report was based on interviews conducted by staff writers Cameron W. Barr, Christian Davenport, Jennifer Frey, Sonya Geis, Bradley Graham, Mary Hadar, Rosalind S. Helderman, Pablo Izmirlian, Tamara Jones, Kari Lydersen, Renae Merle, Evelyn Nieves, Don Oldenburg, Lois Romano, Jackie Spinner, Jacqueline Trescott, Ann Scott Tyson, Jose Antonio Vargas, Jonathan Weisman, Josh White, Clarence Williams and Griff Witte. It was written by staff writer David Von Drehle.