Whatever the fate of an Iraq resolution in Congress, the troops involved in the troop increase are either on the way or preparing to deploy. In the latter group is the 3rd Infantry Division, which led the original march to Baghdad that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Now, with the nation's Iraq strategy clearly on the line, the 3rd is training to return to Baghdad months ahead of schedule. NBC’s Mike Taibbi begins a series of reports on some of those soldiers, who either for the first time or as Iraq war veterans are putting their own lives on the line. His first report is from the Fort Irwin National Training Center in Barstow, Calif.
Capt. Alex Perez-Cruz, nicknamed Pancho, doesn't worry about the president's plans to send in more troops.
“All it means is we got to pack our stuff a little quicker,” he says.
His focus — building a close-knit team ready for a different war from the one he left last year. Training, with real Iraqis whose identity must be protected, to let Iraqi forces take the lead, while helping his soldiers navigate the terrible puzzle of what's now a sectarian civil war. The difficult question: Which Iraqis are friends or deadly enemies?
“We're teaching them to be polite, but at the same time, be prepared to kill,” says Perez-Cruz.
Even in a make-believe Iraqi village, near the end of their training, a mock aid mission to deliver water gives way to engagement. A planted bomb, a vicious firefight, more than a dozen casualties — all in just a few chaotic minutes.
You cannot come out of an exercise like this one and not be convinced it can and will happen exactly that quickly. It's the definition of the fog of war.
Heading into that fog, 19-year-old Josh James shares some of what he feels.
“You know, it's the fear of the unknown,” he says, “so I’m pretty scared.”
But the rookies lean on the Iraq war veterans, like 21-year-old Pvt. Juan Delgado, born in Colombia, in love with his adopted country.
“If I've got to go to Iraq three times, four times, I go,” he says.
He knows so many Americans don't share his willingness to sacrifice.
“They just worry about their jobs or their cafe lattes or whatever they've got to do, and it's not relevant to them,” he says.
It could not be more relevant to the soldiers getting ready.
“You don't fight for anything grandiose, you know, philosophical things,” says Perez-Cruz. “You fight for your brothers. And that's what we do.”
Pancho, Josh, Juan and their brothers — we will follow what they do as the war in Iraq begins its fifth year.