A very long engagement

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.

“The word of the day was IEDs,” he said. “They were everywhere. People were more worried about what was going on the side of the roads then what was going on on the roads.”

Three weeks after Bailey arrived, four Blackwater contractors were ambushed and killed as they entered Fallujah, one of a series of signs that U.S. occupation of Iraq was not going to end quickly.

“Not too long after the Blackwater contractors were killed, we moved into the city of Fallujah with several battalions and started basically rooting out the guys that were coming out to fight us, and there was a lot of them, a whole lot of them,” Bailey said. “It seemed like everybody had an RPG or a gun in Fallujah back then. You couldn’t get very far into the city before you started hearing booms and ricochets coming off vehicles and stuff like that. They definitely wanted to fight us head on.”

Bailey made it through that tour unscathed. He went back home, and, after leaving the Marines, became a police officer. But he didn’t like it.

“The worst part was going to work every day and knowing people hated you just because you are a cop, even though you never did anything to them. It was disheartening. ” he said. “But in the military you have huge sense of brotherhood and camaraderie.”

Bailey reenlisted and was deployed with the 3rd Infantry Division to Baghdad in March 2006, for the surge. When he returned, he had the World Trade Center tattooed on his right forearm. He’s never been to New York but says the tattoo reminds him, and others, of “why we’re doing this.” Bailey is now on his fourth deployment to Iraq. 

“Part of me is sick of coming here, being away from a toddler,” he said. “My daughter was just born — I actually missed her birth the last time I was here — and being away from my wife of eight years. But this is what I signed up to do when I was 18 years old and this is what I know. My wife came into it and we know that [deployments] are one of those things that are going to happen and we’re prepared for it.”

Turning out the lights

David Shumate was 20 years old when he invaded Iraq with the 3rd Infantry Division, and he just turned 28. He spent a big chunk of his 20s in Iraq, and helped destroy the country’s army. Now he has seen it built back up again. He says the changes he’s seen since the early years of the Iraq occupation are like “night and day.”

“The Iraqi Army is a lot more established,” he said. “We no longer really can go into the cities without Iraqi escorts. We can’t go into an Iraqi house without an Iraqi escort and without a warrant or permission.”

He says that in 2006, if American troops felt that house was suspicious, they went into the house and “took care of business.” Now, he says, their mission is to support the Iraqis in their own sovereign country. He and his units have received indications that this will probably be their last tour here.

“You get the feeling that it’s the last deployment,” he said. “We were basically told you guys are going to turn the lights off on the way out the door.”

“I’m one of those guys I want to see it all the way through,” he said, when asked if he’s sick of coming to Iraq. “I’d rather stay here another year or two and get it done right then leave too early. I want us to leave and for this to work out, not for us to leave and the country have issues.”