Dillow in Iraq: Iraq troop morale high, despite media

Gordon Dillow
The Orange County Register

Camp Fallujah, Iraq – There's a poster that I saw featured on a military website here, one that showed a helmeted American G.I. saying this:

"Hey! Mainstream media….Why not try demoralizing the enemy for a change?"

It's an understandable sentiment. It's certainly true that by relentlessly emphasizing the negative, by painting a gloomier picture than what really exists, and by showcasing the small percentage of troops who have had adjustment problems and the even tinier percentage of U.S. troops who have committed crimes, the news media have helped to demoralize many folks back home about this war.

But while news media coverage of the war has sparked some resentment among the troops – "They don't want to hear the good news," Marine Lance Cpl. Philip McCulloch, 20, of Galveston, Texas, told me – it hasn't demoralized the Marines and sailors and soldiers I have met here. Almost without exception, their attitude is that they are proud of what they're doing, and proud of what they've accomplished.

"Being here, being a Marine, has been a dream of mine since I was a little kid," Lance Cpl. Eric Chavez, 19, of Huntington Beach, told me at a remote outpost near Haditha. "I don't regret it for a minute."

"I actually like it here," Lance Cpl. Robert Raymond, 20, from Durhamville, N.Y., said as he manned a guard tower at a Marine outpost near Karmah. "It's interesting."

"We've had some hard times," said Lance Cpl. Blake Kemp, 21, of Torrance, as he waited to go out on a mission in Karmah. "But we always make the best of it."

I've heard the same sort of comments again and again.

And it's not just the young ones, the impressionable "kids," who feel that way. Recently I was waiting to catch a ride on a night convoy through Fallujah escorted by members of the 76th Infantry Brigade of the Indiana National Guard – who I have to say were some of the most irrepressibly cheerful soldiers I've ever met. And I spent some time talking with PFC David Davis, a 30-year-old former musician who had joined the Guard at a relatively late age because he wanted to "do something important."

"I volunteered for this (deployment to Iraq)," Davis said. "You get to a point where you feel like you want to contribute something, and I think we've helped make things better here."

Well, you might think that it's just a case of lower-ranking troops giving a reporter the party line. But on numerous occasions I've stood unnoticed in the background, in the dark, listening to Marines and soldiers talking among themselves by the red glow of cigarettes in the "smoking pit," or as they stood in small groups waiting to push off for a mission "outside the wire."

And yeah, they'll gripe about the heat, or about the dust, or about the showers – such as they are – once again running out of water, or whatever.

But I've never heard them whine. I've never heard them sounding sorry for themselves about being in the military or being in Iraq.

I suppose I could find some chronic complainers if I looked hard enough. But they would be the rare exceptions, not the rule.

What people back home have to remember is that every one of these men and women is a volunteer. The younger ones, the privates and the lance corporals who were in junior high school when the war began, all volunteered for military service knowing full well that they most likely would be coming here. And they volunteered anyway.

As I've noted in recent columns, American casualties have dropped precipitously in Iraq; last month 25 U.S. military personnel died in this country, two-thirds of them from "non-hostile" causes such as vehicle and aircraft accidents. That's 25 too many, but far fewer than in years past – and it means that most of the troops here are being spared the emotional trauma of losing their buddies, their brothers.

Still, Iraq remains a dangerous place, and the Marines and sailors and soldiers and airmen here are still performing a hot, dirty and often exhausting mission. And I'm still as impressed – and moved – by their courage and dedication and good spirits as I was when I was first here five years ago, and every time since.

So yes, for whatever reasons, a lot of people back home may be demoralized about this war.

But the vast majority of the troops who are fighting it aren't.

CONTACT THE WRITER: GordonDillow@gmail.com. You can find more of Dillow's columns and photos from Iraq at www.ocregister.com