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At Camp Victory, Counting Blessings — and Days
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At Camp Victory, Counting Blessings — and Days

The Impact of War

At Camp Victory, Counting Blessings — and Days
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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now let's go across another of Iran's borders to Iraq, which is the new temporary home of the 39th Combat Brigade Team of Arkansas's National Guard. That unit is back in Iraq after a short turn around, the kind we've heard so much about. The troops were last there in 2004 and 2005.

Last time around they saw heavy combat on a street in Baghdad that became known as Purple Heart Boulevard. This time they have lighter duty, yet some are resentful.

NPR's John McChesney reports.

JOHN MCCHESNEY: A squad of the 39th picked up this reporter at the heavily fortified American embassy in Baghdad. They're here to provide personal security details - or PSDs - for the big brass and VIPs.

In a four-Humvee convoy they drove down the road to Baghdad International Airport, which used to be the most dangerous road in Iraq. It's not anymore, but Staff Sergeant Kevin Kimmey took no chances anyway.

Unidentified Man #1: You want go to lock and load?

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah. Lock and load.

Unidentified Man #3: Lock and load (unintelligible)

Unidentified Man #4: (Unintelligible)

MCCHESNEY: We tear down a highway, occasionally weaving back and forth. All traffic stops. Specialist Lemmings gun turret chatters as he swings it back and forth looking for trouble. We're heading toward Camp Victory, a complex of castles and imposing buildings surrounding several lakes, all of it built by Saddam. Colonel Penn is commander of the 39th.

Colonel KENDALL PENN (Commander, 39th Combat Brigade Team): 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, you know, being overly concerned about coming back.

MCCHESNEY: Back to what though? These are trained infantrymen, many of whom want to be in the fight rather than escorting brass or running a hotel. Mind you, the 39th is scattered across Iraq doing lots of different things. But we're talking about the Headquarters Battalion here.

Listen to Specialist Steven Collins. It's his first tour.

Specialist STEVEN COLLINS (39th Combat Brigade Team): 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.

MCCHESNEY: The Green Zone and occasionally Camp Victory have received rocket and mortar fire recently.

Specialist COLLINS: I understand we got a mission here, but look how many people are sitting around with a thumb in their (bleep) waiting on missions. When it gets busy, we do our 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, there's nothing you can do about it.

MCCHESNEY: Staff Sergeant Chris Tucker, on the other hand, feels differently. He's been here before.

Staff Sergeant CHRIS TUCKER (39th Combat Brigade Team): I agree there is down time. There's time where, you know, you think, like, you could be making a difference doing something else. But - not that I wouldn't do it. I would, you know, if we had to, of course, but I'm kind of enjoying this one myself. It's a nice change.

MCCHESNEY: Staff Sergeant Kevin Kimmey, an 11-year veteran, fought on Baghdad's Haifa Street, also known as Purple Heart Boulevard. He was almost killed by a grenade.

Sergeant KIMMEY (39th Combat Brigade Team): There's times I feel guilty that I'm not in the streets, and there's times I'm overjoyed that I'm here. It just depends on what day it is, sir.

MCCHESNEY: And Specialist Benjamin Kirsten raises another issue.

Specialist BENJAMIN KIRSTEN (39th Combat Brigade Team): 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, you know.

MCCHESNEY: So a recent poll showed that 64 percent of the American people say this war was a mistake. Does that affect morale out here? Sergeant Chris Tucker again.

Sergeant TUCKER: It don't affect my attitude, because I know the people back - I think the majority of the people back the military, bottom line. You know, we're - they know - they understand we - 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.

MCCHESNEY: Veteran Sergeant Kevin Kimmey, a short, well-built soldier, doesn't mince words.

Sergeant KIMMEY: 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. And when I say that, I mean it in the most sincere way I can. Some people need killing over here. And that's the way it is. 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.

MCCHESNEY: Kimmey's commander, Captain Ronnie Denton, tried to soften his remarks, and Kimmey was apparently later reprimanded for saying what most officials say in more diplomatic ways.

MCCHESNEY: No matter what their dedication to the job, the personal cost of these repeated deployments has been high. Again, Captain Ronnie Denton.

Captain RONNIE DENTON (39th Combat Brigade Team): I don't have a house anymore. It's just - you're just more or less a Guard bum. You try to find National Guard jobs. 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.

MCCHESNEY: And Sergeant Kevin Kimmey adds this...

Sergeant KIMMEY: We're all divorced, too.

Unidentified Man #5: We're not all divorced.

Sergeant KIMMEY: Pretty much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #6: A lot of the veterans are divorced.

MCCHESNEY: Often because of these repeated deployments. And the veterans here will tell you, it's really no laughing matter.

John McChesney, NPR News, Camp Victory, Iraq.

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