More than 200,000 U.S. soldiers have participated in the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. After three weeks of fighting, U.S. and British troops now control Iraq and are helping to get the country moving forward by providing security and maintaining order. They are the human faces of the U.S.-led invasion, and their work is part soldier, part public relations. RFE/RL correspondent Zamira Eshanova spoke to two ordinary American soldiers in Baghdad. Far away from home, they share their fears, accomplishments, and nightmares.
Baghdad, 12 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Day by day, the hostile environment that initially greeted U.S. and British soldiers in Iraq appears to be turning friendlier.
Soldiers on top of tanks or armored fighting vehicles -- their machine guns pointed at potential enemies in the street -- are seen less and less, while scenes of camouflaged troops chatting and laughing with Iraqis is becoming part of daily life in Baghdad.
Recently, an American soldier guarding a former ministerial residential compound in the capital could be seen holding up a note written in Arabic that said, "Marry Me." Tony Smith, a 21-year-old soldier from Florida, explained that the sign is a friendly gesture meant to amuse local residents. "We're just out here trying to conversate with the Iraqi people and have fun while we're on guard. They're pretty good to talk to. Most of them are friendly. It's just been nice to stay over here," he said.
Soon, dozens of young Iraqi men are laughing and pointing at the sign. They gather around Smith and two other U.S. soldiers at the entrance to the compound, while drivers of passing cars honk their horns and react in a friendly way.
Smith turned serious, saying the war was not easy, especially for soldiers like himself who were facing combat for their first time. "The war wasn't really that hard until we got to Baghdad. Once we got to Baghdad, we ran across a lot of conflict. It wasn't really with the Iraqi soldiers, it was with people from Syria. But we had to do a little work over there, and after that everything worked out pretty well," Smith said.
Twenty-one-year-old Kyle Hetcel from Texas recalled his feelings during combat and talked about his current state of mind. "I was nervous -- real, real scared. We had tank contact fire and [rocket-propelled grenade] rounds. But I sat taking the rounds, and I felt very nervous. Being actually not a soldier but as a person, I felt like I have accomplished a lot, and I helped my country out a lot," Hetcel said.
Hetcel said the Iraqis will be friendly toward U.S. troops as long as they provide security and help them move forward with their lives. But he said U.S. soldiers are aware of the lingering dangers and have to stay alert 24 hours a day.
"I feel comfortable being here, but every now and then we still have to look over our shoulders, just in case. We can't be too relaxed. We can't let our guard down. We have that tension on us. So we can't relax like the way we want to relax," Hetcel said.
Smith said he most fears a grenade attack or a suicide bombing. "[Suicide bombers] can come up and talk to you like they are normal people [but] be strapped with something to their chest. We've had a couple of guys get killed that way," he said. "That would be my biggest fear right now."
Hetcel said his biggest fear is that he will relive the war over and over in his dreams once he returns home. "I have some nightmares. Just actually going back there and reliving it all over again -- I wake up in a cold sweat every now and then. I realize this is just a dream. This is my first war, and it has an affect on everybody. This is just some of the combat stress that has been going on, and that's why I have these nightmares. And they will probably be stuck with me for the rest of my life," Hetcel said.
Smith and Hetcel said they have been away from home for nine months now -- first in Kuwait and now in Baghdad -- and admit they are homesick. They said they're not sure when U.S. President George W. Bush is going to give them a "return ticket back home."
Smith said he misses his mother in Florida, his sister, who is serving in the U.S. military in Uzbekistan, and his girlfriend. He said he also misses fast food, like McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken, as well as some of the other good food he can get in the southern United States.
Hetcel simply said he can't wait to get home to Texas so he can be with his wife again.
Both Smith and Hetcel said that although the rarely seen Iraqi girls are pretty, they'll stick with their wives and girlfriends. They said the "Marry Me" sign was only intended to make the Iraqis smile and feel comfortable talking to U.S. soldiers. "As you can see, we succeeded," Smith said, surrounded by a crowd of laughing young men.