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U.S. troops weather a third year in Iraq; American death toll approaching 2,000

| Sunday, Oct. 23, 2005

BAQOUBA, Iraq (AP) - One night on the outskirts of this restive city, a few dozen U.S. soldiers exited a movie theater on a military base, the smell of popcorn wafting from the doors as a few complained about the film.

Only a few miles away soldiers in the chilly night scanned the distance from an outpost deep in the city, peering through the darkness with night vision goggles for signs of insurgents who have steadily attacked their position throughout the year.

As U.S forces approach a dark milestone of 2,000 American dead since the war began in March 2003, many say morale has remained high, bolstered by the need to protect each other, by concentrating on their daily assigned tasks _ and by amenities provided by the military to keep life in a war zone as normal as possible.

Some troops just focus on the day's mission and hope for a safe return home _ soon.

"A lot of people don't want to be here, but they're here because it's their job," said Staff Sgt. Anthony Rayner, of Atlanta, as he slowly ate shrimp in a mess hall on a support base on the edge of Baqouba, a town of central Iraq plagued by insurgent attacks.

The factors that build morale look different whether you're looking from the center of the fight or from the more removed bases _ though in a guerrilla-style conflict like Iraq, "front line" can have little meaning.

Those at the front sometimes look longingly for the amenities of the base; while some separated from the reality of urban warfare wish they were more in the heat of things. About 150,000 American troops are in the country.

Rayner said the conflict that had been abstract for some in his supply unit changed when they suffered casualties while traveling down dangerous roads.

"Then it's personal, and they want to go out there," said Rayner, referring to area towns where insurgents still lurk.

The U.S. military said Saturday that three U.S. Marines and an Army soldier were killed in three different areas of Iraq earlier this week, raising to at least 1,996 the number of members of the U.S. military who have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

In the streets of Baqouba, some troops said the fight isn't what builds their spirits, it's helping in reconstruction efforts.

"When you get attacked everyday then it's tough to maintain morale," said 1st Lt. Doug Serota of Birmingham, Ala., as his unit spoke to residents about plans to rebuild an irrigation system in a calm Shiite village north of Baqouba. "I've always said it's not necessarily fun being here, but there are many, many things that are rewarding."

Even better are the phone lines and Internet connections to home.

"Just getting the soldiers to talk to their wives and families is the best morale booster," added Serota of the 2nd Battalion, 69th Armored Regiment.

"There are some who say .... they're all hard" and want to be in combat, said PFC Sean Rolling of Boston, as he sipped a coffee milkshake in a fortified coffee shop during a break between missions. "But they all just want to go home."

Others say the toll of two and even three tours in Iraq in as many years has dwindled the number of those who will remain in the military and drained confidence that their work was making the United States safer.

Rayner said he has gone through two divorces, both blamed in part on a string of deployments.

"I'm a newlywed and I'm already trying to make my marriage work," said Spc. Charles Boyle of Oak Harbor, Wash., a mechanic who is serving in his second yearlong deployment.

But others said the lifestyle of today's American soldier on constant standby was what they expected.

"This is what I do for a living," said Sgt. Maj. William Doherty of Boston, just minutes after being awarded a Bronze Star for his response to an insurgent attack where shrapnel from a grenade tore through his thigh.

The military's efforts were slowly stabilizing Iraq, he said. "This place is a lot better for these people to live in," he said of Baqouba, where he was injured this spring. Doherty said most soldiers from his unit, in the 1st Battalion, 10th Field Artillery Regiment, had re-enlisted and that morale remained "very high."

Some soldiers and commanders said their faith in their mission was unshakable, confident that ongoing patrols and raids were making Iraq and their own country safer.

"This is not about Sunni Arabs laying (roadside bombs) out there. It's about al-Qaida and radical Islam," said Maj. Gen. Joseph Taluto, commander of the 42nd Infantry Division, in a pep talk to officers smoking cigars and drinking nonalcoholic beer at a base in Baqouba.

However, a lukewarm reaction by many Iraqis to the military _ particularly in Sunni Arab regions like Baqouba _ made some soldiers take a second look at the impact of their presence.

"Thank you for removing Saddam. Now get out of here," said Rolling of the 110th Field Artillery Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, describing the responses of some villagers to American troops.

Skeptics say morale is propped up because of soldiers' limited access to news _ newspapers on many bases throughout the country are sparse, and weary soldiers often head straight to their trailers after missions instead of plodding to check the latest nationwide news at Internet centers.

"We really don't know what is going on in the rest of the country, just here," said Spc. Dainsworth Harris of New York, tapping his table. Harris said he sometimes would learn about major attacks in the country in e-mails from relatives.

A nearby soldier said he only found out that Saddam Hussein went on trial Wednesday, having missed recent headlines because of a string of long missions. Many soldiers only know of attacks and casualties in neighborhoods assigned to their companies, often small parts of sprawling cities.

For those support troops away from the grind of daily urban combat, morale is buttressed by a startling range of amenities, ranging from big screen televisions to the latest videogame systems packed into trailers that serve as homes to tens of thousands of soldiers. In the coffee shop surrounded by concrete blast walls, relaxing soldiers played chess with civilian contractors with mellow Spanish music in the background.

A few dozen on the base on the outskirts of Baqouba caught a recent viewing of "Dark Water" with Jennifer Connelly, but not everybody thought it was the best film.

Most said morale hinged on the duration of deployments _ but even this was subject to change.

Rolling's unit was just notified it will stay extra to help with upcoming national elections in December, and his grumbling extended right to the Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

"Thanks to good ole Rumsfeld, we got extended 10 days," he said. "Ten days is a lifetime out here."

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