SAVANNAH, Ga.— The last soldier to go up the stairs of the chartered DC-10 shouted, “One more time, one more time.” He was answering the call of duty — again.
The 1st Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division now has the dubious honor of being the first Army division to deploy to Iraq a third time.
They were the army unit that led the sweep across the desert in 2003 from Kuwait to Baghdad to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein. Within another week, nearly 5,000 will be deployed to Iraq for a third time. The number will climb to 20,000 by this fall.
Worse than the last time
Saddam is now gone, but the mission in Iraq for the U.S. military has only gotten worse. And that’s what these soldiers will face at the other end of their chartered flight.
They are about to embark on a journey from America “the conflicted,” to Iraq “the chaotic battleground.” The situation will be far worse than what they saw in 2003 or in their second deployment in 2005 when the insurgency was gaining ground after the brief success of national Iraqi elections.
Yet, if anything, the soldiers departing today seemed less anxious then the 3rd Infantry soldiers I watched depart in January of 2005 for their second call to arms. They know exactly what to expect this time around. And despite the nervousness that surrounds their dangerous mission, they have a sense of confidence in their training.
Sgt. Cedric Shelbon acknowledged being scared. “Each time I deploy it is something different.” But he talked about how much better the training is. How it has been adopted to the reality on the ground.
Shelbon explained how his armored tank battalion has learned to clear streets and buildings. They have practiced working through the chaos of battle in mock towns with Iraqi role players. And they have clearly learned from the lessons of two prior deployments. He paused for a moment before saying, “We’ll just have to get over there and see what happens this time. We trained for it.”
A newcomer to the 3rd ID deployment was Lt. Kyle Trotter, a Texas Christian University ROTC grad. During the last 18 months he cleared the hurdles of Ranger school and combat training to prepare for this deployment.
The debate at home that says the continuing military mission might be a lost cause is not lost on Trotter, but he said, “It’s really above his pay grade.”
Instead of that debate, he is focused on what the 1st Battalion veterans have said about the two previous tours in Iraq. Trotter explained that he is focused on his colleagues’ stories, “about the pride of what they accomplished. And what we can accomplish this time.”
Trotter believes that they are well prepared, but said he is “nervous and excited.” He added that he asked the men in his platoon to “trust in us and our capabilities,” as he faces his own baptism under fire.
Family sacrifice, again
Sgt. Sandra Bramlitt is another soldier headed back for her third tour of Iraq with the 3rd Infantry. She has two young children, a 12-year-old son and an 8-year-old daughter.
As she leaves them for combat again, she is frank about what it does to them. “I know they are hurting. But they support my job,” she explained. “They know that we are doing this for our country.”
Bramlitt is also well aware of the country’s souring mood over Iraq. But she said, “We volunteered for this and this is what we have to do. It’s hard to leave our families, but this is what we have to do. Get the job done and get back home.”
This soldier and mother of two re-enlisted three times to keep her job and perform this mission.
Confident ‘doing the right thing’
As these soldiers leave their families and the debate over the war back at home, they don’t seem troubled by America’s second thoughts.
“I know what we’re fighting for,” said Sgt. Brad Howard, 20. He was just 17 years old when he first enlisted and is now going back for his second tour.
Howard believes that the others can have different opinions because he knows, “We are doing the right thing.”