Afghan fight calls to some US troops

As Iraq battle eases, they cite hope for action

US Army Specialist Grover Gebhart, 21, in Iraq last week. He says he feels like he is missing the real war, in Afghanistan. US Army Specialist Grover Gebhart, 21, in Iraq last week. He says he feels like he is missing the real war, in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Sebastian Abbot)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Sebastian Abbot
Associated Press / July 17, 2008

BAGHDAD - Specialist Grover Gebhart has spent nine months at a small post on a Sunni-Shi'ite fault line in western Baghdad. But the 21-year-old soldier on his first tour in Iraq feels he's missing the real war - in Afghanistan, where his brother is fighting the Taliban.

With violence in Iraq at its lowest level in four years and the war in Afghanistan at a peak, the soldiers serving at patrol station Maverick say Gebhart's view is increasingly common, especially among younger soldiers looking to prove themselves in battle.

"I've heard it a lot since I got here," said 2d Lieutenant Karl Kuechenmeister, a 2007 West Point graduate who arrived in Iraq about a week ago.

Soldiers who have experienced combat stress note that it is usually young soldiers on their first tour who most want to get on the battlefield. They say it is hard to communicate the horrors of war to those who haven't actually experienced it.

"These kids are just being young," said Sergeant Christopher Janis, who is only 23 but is on his third tour in Iraq. "They say they want to get into battle until they do, and then they won't want it anymore."

That soldiers are looking elsewhere for a battle is a testament to how much Iraq has changed from a year ago, when violence was at its height. Now it's the lowest in four years, thanks to the US troop surge, the turn by former Sunni insurgents against Al Qaeda in Iraq, and Iraqi government crackdowns on Shi'ite militias.

At least 29 US soldiers died in Iraq last month, and there were 19 deaths in May - the lowest monthly toll for American troops since the war began in March 2003. By comparison, in Afghanistan, 28 Americans died in June and 17 in May, but there are four times as many US troops in Iraq.

American military deaths in Iraq are also down sharply this month, in a trend that could take center stage during Senator Barack Obama's planned visit to Baghdad and the debate over whether America's main battle is shifting back to Afghanistan.

The relative calm is apparent in Baghdad's Ghazaliyah neighborhood, patrolled by troops stationed at Maverick from the 1st Squadron, 75th Cavalry Regiment of the US Army's 101st Airborne Division.

Instead of facing gunfire and roadside bombs, the soldiers' armored Humvees are chased by waving children.

Some of Maverick's troops saw combat a few months ago when they helped the Iraqi Army take over the Ghazaliyah office of anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in a battle complete with gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades.

But their days in Ghazaliyah have mostly been filled with routine patrols.

To while away the time, Gebhart, the young soldier from Omaha, Neb., talks of his brother, who is fighting the Taliban in the mountains outside Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.

"He spends 20 days at a time camped out in the mountains, and the Taliban come engage them in serious firefights," said Gebhart. "At least it sounds exciting."

That excitement comes with a price, the officers here point out.

Militants in Afghanistan killed nine American soldiers Sunday, the worst attack on US forces in the country in three years.

"These kids who joined the Army since the Iraq war started in 2003 are more fearless than when I joined during the Cold War," said 1st Sergeant John Greis, the senior enlisted soldier at Maverick. "They knew they were going to war."

Saying they want to go where the action is - in Afghanistan - is one way for young soldiers to prove toughness, colleagues say.

Some may get their wish to go to Afghanistan. There is broad consensus in Washington that some US forces can now leave Iraq and that more are needed in Afghanistan.

Not all soldiers in Iraq are pining for service in Afghanistan.

Greis, a 21-year veteran, isn't eager to seek out battle. "There is nothing cool about seeing your buddy on the ground during his last dying seconds of life," he said.

He rolled up his sleeve and pointed to a Latin phrase tattooed on his right shoulder: "Dulce Bellum Inexpertis" - "War is sweet for the inexperienced."

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