At Camp Victory, Counting Blessings — and Days

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U.S. soldiers attend a 2007 ceremony at Camp Victory. i

U.S. soldiers attend a 2007 ceremony at Camp Victory, the post in Baghdad sometimes referred to as "Club Med." Ali al-Saadi/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Ali al-Saadi/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. soldiers attend a 2007 ceremony at Camp Victory.

U.S. soldiers attend a 2007 ceremony at Camp Victory, the post in Baghdad sometimes referred to as "Club Med."

Ali al-Saadi/AFP/Getty Images

On their last tour in Iraq, the soldiers of the Arkansas National Guard's 39th Combat Brigade Team saw heavy combat on a street in Baghdad known as "Purple Heart Boulevard." Now, in a short turnaround from that 2004-05 deployment, the Guardsmen are back.

"You probably won't find anybody out there that was, you know, thrilled about the prospect of coming back. But there was very little in the way of soldiers ... being overly concerned about coming back," says Col. Kendall Penn, commander of the 39th.

The team is scattered across the country, performing a variety of jobs. But the Headquarters Battalion, stationed at Camp Victory — a complex of castles and imposing buildings surrounding several lakes that some call "Club Med" — has lighter duty this time, including providing personal security details for the big brass and VIPs in Baghdad.

The change has sparked both relief and resentment among the ranks. Some of the trained infantrymen say they would rather be in the fight than escorting brass.

"We've got a lot of down time, and the thing that pisses me off is sitting here at our trailer — and we're more vulnerable down there than we are out on the streets — when we should be out there looking for who's shooting rockets," says Spc. Steven Collins, who is on his first tour.

Recently, rocket and mortar fire has been aimed at Baghdad's Green Zone and occasionally Camp Victory.

"I understand we got a mission here," Collins adds, "but look how many people are sitting around with a thumb in their ass, waiting on missions. ... When it's not busy, I think we should be out there, helping our brothers out there, looking for these guys shooting these rockets. That's what makes me mad. You sit around here and you wait on them to come in, and there's nothing you can do about it."

Conflicting Emotions

Staff Sgt. Chris Tucker, who has been to Iraq before, feels differently.

"I agree there is down time," he says. "There's time where ... you think, like, you could be making a difference doing something else ... but I'm kind of enjoying this one myself."

Staff Sgt. Kevin Kimmey, an 11-year veteran, was among those who saw combat on Baghdad's Haifa Street, the one dubbed "Purple Heart Boulevard." He was almost killed by a grenade.

"There's times I feel guilty that I'm not in the streets, and there's times I'm overjoyed that I'm here," Kimmey says. "It just depends on what day it is."

Spc. Benjamin Kirsten raises another issue: family.

"You know, the father and the husband in me says, 'Thank God I'm here; thank God I'm out of harm's way, for the most part.' Then the infantryman in me says, you know, 'Let me out of this cage.' It's like an itch you can't scratch."

'A Guard Bum'

A recent poll found that 64 percent of the American people say the war in Iraq was a mistake, but Tucker says that doesn't change his attitude.

"I think the majority of the people back the military, bottom line," he says. "They understand — regardless of how popular the war is — that we're doing a job. You know, we enlisted, we signed the line saying we're going to do a job and we do it."

A short, well-built soldier, Kimmey doesn't mince words. "I can't say the war is right or wrong, but I can say I've never seen some people needed killing more than some of the people over here," he says. "And when I say that, I mean it in the most sincere way I can. ... I've seen true evil over here. And, yeah, maybe we made a mistake coming over here, but we're here and we need to finish."

Kimmey's commander, Capt. Ronnie Denton, tried to soften those remarks, and Kimmey apparently was reprimanded later.

Denton says the personal cost of the repeated deployments has been high.

"I don't have a house anymore. ... You're just more or less a Guard bum," he says. "You try to find National Guard jobs. Because every time I get a job, trying to coach basketball or something else, the National Guard just pulls you in to go somewhere or do this for so long."

"We're all divorced, too," Kimmey says. When someone counters that not everyone is divorced, Kimmey adds, "Pretty much," sparking laughter.

But as the veterans will tell you, it's really no laughing matter.

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