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A very long engagement

The majority of soldiers in Iraq go home after one or two deployments. A handful stay.

Staff Sgt David Shumate, 27, was just a 20-year-old Private First Class when the U.S. military shot its way into the heart of Baghdad during the “Thunder Run,” marking the beginning of the end of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Now on his fourth deployment, Shumate says he wants to see Iraq succeed. (Ben Gilbert/GlobalPost)

ASHURA, NINEWA PROVINCE, Iraq — Like many American soldiers in Iraq, Staff Sgt. James Ausmann, 32, wears a black metal “memorial” bracelet around his wrist. Engraved on the worn band are the names of two of Ausmann's buddies killed during the first year of the Iraq invasion.

Cpt. John F. Kurth, Ausmann's commanding officer, and Spc. Jason C. Ford were both killed when an IED, or improvised explosive device, exploded near their patrol on March 13, 2004. They were two of seven colleagues Ausmann lost on his first tour in Iraq.

“That’s the nature of the beast,” he said. “It sucks. You miss them. But you continue to do well, and make sure they didn’t die in vain.”

Ausmann is now on his fourth combat deployment to Iraq, with the Army’s 1st battalion, 1-64th Armored Regiment of the 3rd Infantry Division. The unit was the first to enter Baghdad in April 2003, during the famous “Thunder Run.” He’s just one of a handful of soldiers currently serving with 1-64 Armor who have been deployed to Iraq since the first year of “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” the U.S. government's name for the invasion of Iraq that began in April 2003.

All of them are non-commissioned officers, and they’ve seen their fair share of fighting and have enjoyed the camaraderie of veterans still serving. And now, as U.S. troop levels are cut in half, from 95,000 to 50,000 by this September, they may well be seeing their last deployment to Iraq.

Welcomed with open arms

Staff Sgt. David Shumate, 27 years old, was just a 20-year-old Private First Class with the 3rd Infantry Division when U.S. troops made the Thunder Run into Baghdad.

His battalion was responsible for securing three strategic intersections so the 1-64 Armor would not be cut off from U.S. supply lines as they made their "Thunder Run" into Baghdad. Two men from his battalion were killed and 18 wounded in the heavy fighting. But once his unit arrived to central Baghdad, the fighting had basically stopped.

He described the experience that followed as  “amazing.”

"When I was on my first patrols into Baghdad, I was actually getting flowers from people," he said. "Bouquets of flowers from women and they were happy and they were cheering that we were there."

After Baghdad fell, Shumate and his unit were based at one of Saddam’s palaces. The soldiers were told in Kuwait that once they reached Baghdad they’d be heading home, but once in the Iraqi capital that direction changed. They were to stay and help secure Baghdad. Although looting was rampant and the country was far from secure, at the time there were few attacks on Americans. But a few weeks later the situation changed dramatically.

Ausmann arrived to Iraq in February 2004 with the 1st battalion, 18th infantry Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division. Stationed at a U.S. forward operating base in Saddam Hussein’s hometown, Tikrit, he watched the war turn from small, isolated attacks to a violent insurgency the Americans were ill prepared to handle. He and his fellow soldiers manufactured “hillbilly” armor to protect themselves against the escalating IED threat.

“Plywood, sheet metal, sandbags, everything you could think of we put on there,” he said. “Some of it worked.”

The IED menace

Staff Sgt. Mike Bailey, 27, saw the same transition when he arrived to Babel Province, south of Baghdad, with the 1st Marine division just after the initial invasion in June, 2003, as a corporal.

“We had big problems with regular Iraqi army taking off uniforms and fighting,” he said. “It was the breaking point between little bit of government remaining, and lot of people breaking off on their own. It was the beginning of the insurgency I guess.”

But it was during Bailey’s second deployment, to Anbar Province in 2004, that the war completely changed.