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A U.S. soldier stands near a lion cub in an enclosure during the opening of the Baghdad Zoo on Saturday. The zoo was used as a shelter for the Iraqi Republican Guards during the war. AP
Earlier this week, he and fellow soldiers in the Army's 3rd Infantry Division learned that their tour of duty in Iraq was extended indefinitely. For the division, which engaged in some of the war's heaviest fighting when its tanks rolled into Baghdad in April, the news was almost too bitter to believe.
Originally scheduled to be home by early June, they have been in the Persian Gulf region continuously since November and have had their return deferred three times.
They are tired of patrolling hostile Iraqi towns in the punishing heat. They are tired of fighting an invisible enemy, knowing that a rocket-propelled grenade or mortar attack could come at any moment. Many are sceptical about the peacekeeping work they have been asked to do.
``When I found out, I just went outside and broke down,'' Spc Martin said. (One of them was killed on Friday, when a bomb exploded on the main Fallujah bridge over the Euphrates. Agency reports on Saturday said a soldier guarding a bank in western Baghdad was shot and killed in the morning. The death brought to 149 the number of U.S. personnel killed in combat since the March 20 start of the war).
Spc. Martin has postponed his wedding, which had been scheduled for mid-September. The reception hall had been rented, and the guests had made travel arrangements and hotel bookings, he said.
For the 7,000 other 3rd Division soldiers based in and around this town 56 km west of the capital, the news was almost equally bitter. Many are openly angry at the Army and the Pentagon, whom they accuse of dishonesty about the length of their stay or the nature of their mission.
It is not just the length of the stay that hurts, several soldiers and officers said. Some other divisions have been in West Asia almost as long as this division, which arrived in Kuwait on Nov. 26. In World War II, the division was deployed for 563 days, as the senior officers here often remind their subordinates. Many are now resigned to the likelihood that they will stay here for a year or more. What angers the soldiers here is that they were never prepared for such a long tour of duty, and were repeatedly told they were on their way home. Adding to the frustration, several officers said, is that much of their equipment is in poor condition and they are short on ammunition and food. ``We feel betrayed,'' Sergeant Jeffrey Lujan said as he sat on his bunk in the middle of the afternoon, watching other soldiers play poker or ping pong in the abandoned warehouse that houses the headquarters of the division's 2nd Brigade.
Two U.S. soldiers returning to their base camp after a patrol in Fallujah, 50 km west of Baghdad, recently.
``It was like a big, big slap in the face when we found out we were staying.''
Last week, relatives of soldiers in the division began circulating an e-mail message complaining about conditions in Fallujah, along with a letter from an unidentified soldier. ``Our morale is not high or even low,'' the letter says. ``Our morale is non-existent.''
Virtually all of the soldiers here have stories about the damage their extended stay has inflicted on them.
``We've got guys whose wives are leaving them, and children who are sick,'' said Staff Sgt. Charles Wooten, who had to cancel his own wedding plans because of his extended stay here.
Others have had financial and legal problems, like a soldier sued for child support, who says he has the receipts to show his payments but is unable to show up in court with the proof.
New York Times
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