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thedrifter
07-16-06, 10:47 AM
Preparing for Iraq, it's ready, aim ... fire?
Sunday, July 16, 2006
By Ted Roelofs
The Grand Rapids Press

The question comes at the blink of an eye.

In searing desert heat, 150 Grand Rapids-based Marines work their way through an Iraqi village.

On the lookout for roadside bombs, they confront a civilian who might be raising a weapon. Or he might be waving.

Shoot or no shoot?

"It's a huge challenge. The enemy does not wear a uniform. He uses the local populace to hide in plain sight," says Major Daniel Whisnant, 39, commander of Company A, 1st Battalion, 24th Marines.

Five weeks after departing Grand Rapids, the Marine Reserves are immersed in combat training at Camp Pendleton in California to ready them for the real thing in Iraq. That means split-second choices of life and death that continue to test U.S. troops on a perilous and unconventional battlefield.

The idea, said Whisnant, is to "inoculate" the troops against the stress of combat so they will do the right thing at the right time.

The conduct of U.S. troops in Iraq has come under heightened scrutiny in recent weeks following a series of allegations of criminal acts. Military officials say these incidents are isolated and rare. But to some analysts, they are symptomatic of troops at the breaking point.

"If you look at the field manual on combat, murdering civilians and raping women are symptomatic of combat stress," said John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, a Washington-based military think tank.

"That's one of the reasons they call war hell."

Stress of war takes toll

Locked in Camp Pendleton's brig are seven Marines and a Navy medic charged with the kidnapping and premeditated murder of a 52-year-old Iraqi man. Military prosecutors say that without provocation, the troops took the man from his home, bound him, placed him in a hole and shot him. The troops say he was an insurgent digging a hole for a roadside bomb.

The government is investigating allegations that Marines killed two dozen Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha. Five Army troops have been charged in connection with the rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and the murder of her parents and younger sister south of Baghdad.

In Pike's view, incidents such as these become more likely the longer a conflict drags on.

"You had this in every war of appreciable duration," Pike said.

With that said, Pike asserts each war tests soldiers in different ways. Troops in World War II fought savage battles, face-to-face with an enemy that wore a uniform. Soldiers back then served for the duration of a war. Their casualty rates were far higher than in Iraq. They didn't have the luxury of e-mailing loved ones.

But they also had long breaks between many battles. In Iraq, troops in the Sunni triangle north and west of Baghdad are at risk virtually every time they step off base. They may never see an enemy that wears no uniform and kills by remote control. And their stress may be compounded by multiple tours that put them in a war zone for seven months, back home for a year, then back in the war zone.

All this plays havoc with a soldier's psyche and nervous system, according to Charles Figley, a Florida State University psychologist who has surveyed Vietnam War veterans about war crimes. Among other publications, he is author of a book called "Stress Disorders Among Vietnam Veterans."

Figley noted troops in combat undergo physiological changes that help them survive. In Iraq, they may be in this hair-trigger state for weeks or months at a time.

"The technical term is called kindling. You are always on alert. There is more cortisone rushing through your body to help you respond more quickly.

"It is very hard to go to sleep. It is hard to stay asleep."

'An almost impossible position'

It is in this state, in a violent and murky urban landscape, that troops are asked to follow strict rules of engagement while they try to stay alive.

"These kids are the ones out there paying the price, and it's an almost impossible position for them," said Figley, a Vietnam veteran.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is projected to see nearly 20,000 cases of post-combat stress this year among service members who served in Iraq or Afghanistan, more than six times the number officials had expected. The latest report on VA patient visits stated nearly 5,000 service members were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder the first three months of the year.

That may be. Still, unit commander Whisnant expects his troops to keep their heads.

"As Marines, we have to take the moral high ground. There's never an excuse."

Getting ready to depart

To prepare them for Iraq, the Marines are being put through a training grind that reflects just how much the war has shifted since the March 2003 invasion.

"There is more focus on trying to figure out who's the bad guy, who's the good guy," said Lt. Chad Vickers, a Camp Pendleton spokesman. "When we kicked off, we knew who the enemy was."

In addition to live-fire drills, the Grand Rapids-based Marines spent two days at 25 Area Combat Town, Camp Pendleton's specially constructed Iraqi village.

They also trained at a movie studio near San Diego equipped to look like an Iraqi urban landscape, complete with trash-strewn streets and paid actors speaking in Arabic carrying out mock attacks. The studio has moveable walls and commanding officers looking down and videotaping the action below.

For Lance Cpl. Jeremy Collins, 21, of Spring Lake, the long days of the past month are beginning to pay off as they prepare to depart for Iraq in September.

"Everybody is getting their butt whipped. There's a lot of scared Marines, but they are getting out of that. Everybody is more anxious to go over there (Iraq)."

Collins confessed he felt "anxious" about the duty ahead.

"But I feel more confident the more and more we get this training done. This training is actually harder than what we do over there.

"The only bad part is that I have family back home."

Collins was grateful for several days off the unit was granted around the Fourth of July, when he was visited by his wife, Cassandra, 20, and their infant son, Bryce.

"I did not want to leave. My heart goes out to all of them," Cassandra said.

With family gone, Collins said he is much more focused on his training than reports of misconduct by U.S. troops in Iraq.

It's not something he expects to happen in his unit.

"Of course it's wrong. It's not the fricking Marine Corps and what we do," he said.

"You have the rules of engagement. You can't go off and shoot people just because you are angry."

Sgt. Ken Fall, 26, of Grand Rapids, has been in the Marine Reserves seven years. He said he has never seen the men this intent.

"We really don't know what we are going to be facing. Basically we are preparing for everything."

Ellie