RAMADI, Iraq -- Four months into their tour of duty at one of the most dangerous American bases in Iraq, young Marines say the slow pace of progress is shaking their faith in their mission.
Playing cards one recent evening while on call to respond to any outburst of violence, Lance Corporal David Goward and the rest of his squad expressed two growing concerns: that the US military will linger here indefinitely and that the troops' very presence is provoking the fighting it is meant to stop. They are ready for any battle, they said, but a pervasive sense that Iraqis do not want their help has destroyed their enthusiasm for the larger goals of launching democracy and rebuilding the country.
If we stay 10 years or if we stay one year, we're going to leave and there's going to be chaos.
Corporal Glen Handy, 26, of Las Vegas
"I don't think any of us even care what happens to this country," Goward said, as half a dozen Marines, all stationed in Ramadi, the capital of restive Anbar Province, nodded in agreement. "I'm here to make sure these guys get home safely. And they're here to make sure I do."
Senior Marine and Army commanders in this Sunni Muslim region west of Baghdad, an area they say must be tamed for the new US-backed Iraqi government to succeed, repeatedly cautioned a reporter that junior-level troops don't see the big picture. Grunts don't hear Anbar's governor asking the United States not to leave, the senior officers said. They don't see Iraqi officials shouldering new responsibilities; they don't see Iraqi police doing a better job on the outskirts of Ramadi than they do in the more anti-American downtown.
But Goward and his squad -- and others who echoed them from Ramadi to Fallujah -- are sending a signal from the enlisted men who bear the brunt of the military's burden. Many are on their second tour of duty in Iraq and may face a third if US forces are needed, as expected, to guarantee security through the election of a permanent Iraqi government late next year.
They can recite by heart their stated mission, to protect the fledgling local government until Iraqi security forces are strong enough to take over. But as continued attacks and new US tactics have cut down on their interactions with Iraqis -- other than in combat -- many say they witness little gratitude and little progress.
From Goward's point of view, the United States has fulfilled its goals in Iraq: toppling Saddam Hussein, capturing him, and handing off formal sovereignty to Iraqis. "What's left?" he said.
His squad belongs to Golf Company, part of the Second Battalion, Fourth Marine Regiment, which occupies three bases in downtown Ramadi and has faced some of largest insurgent attacks in the country.
The battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Kennedy, a Boston University graduate from Bloomfield, Conn., calls Golf his "fightingest" company. Golf has fended off the most company- and platoon-sized attacks, he said, with four Marines killed and 43 injured. On a recent day, Lieutenant Donovan Campbell, a platoon commander, busily typed up citations for his men, one for a young Marine who grabbed a heavy machine gun he was not trained to use and laid down covering fire from a rooftop to help fight off a major attack.
But for the Marines, it is sometimes hard to see the results.
Goward's squad was assigned to act as a quick reaction force. If fighting broke out, it would be the first to respond. The Marines played spades, using a cot as a card table. A hole in the wall showed where a rocket had burst through a few weeks earlier, hitting the floor without exploding.
Asked to talk generally about their experiences in Iraq, they first reacted with sheepish silence; then they poured out questions of their own about their situation.
"I haven't seen any improvement since I've been here," said Corporal Jaime Duenas, 23, of Nogales, Ariz. He contrasted Ramadi with southern Iraq, where he was stationed last year after the invasion and worked with residents happy to see Hussein toppled.
"Last year . . . kids ran up to us and waved," he said. "Here, kids throw rocks."
Lance Corporal Anthony Robert, 21, of Charlottesville, Va., said: "People are tired of us being here. It's the same as if someone came to the US and started taking over. You'd do what you'd have to do."
Lance Corporal Kenneth Burke, 22, of Lufkin, Texas, looked up from his cards. "OIF-1 had a purpose," he said, referring to Operation Iraqi Freedom One, the Marines' deployment during the invasion. "This one, I don't think so."
Burke is one of two Marines called back to Iraq from stateside duties to fill out the ranks of the squad, which has 10 members instead of the typical 13 because several have gone home with injuries. The squad boasts nine Purple Hearts. But fighting does not bother these Marines.
"It makes your day to be in a firefight," Duenas said.
"It gets your blood flowing," Robert added.
But they are disappointed that they spend little time working with Iraqis to rebuild their country. An uptick in violence since April and the US decision to assume a lower profile in the area has led to that. The squad members said they have come to resent Iraqi security forces, who seem unwilling to take risks, as well as Iraqis who do not want them there.
"It doesn't matter how much America looks like it's trying to help," said the squad's leader, Corporal Glen Handy, 26, of Las Vegas. "If we stay 10 years or if we stay one year, we're going to leave and there's going to be chaos."
The Marines are surprised at some of their own ugly emotions. The Army troops whom the Marines replaced told them, "You're going to learn to hate these people," Goward recalled. "I thought, 'With that attitude, no wonder you're having a hard time.' But you know what? They're absolutely right."
Goward, 26, said he would serve in whatever way his country demands. But like the rest of the squad, he does not plan to reenlist. Handy has been overseas 19 months of the past 24 and has spent only five months with his 2-year-old daughter; he worries that he will be called up involuntarily during the four years that is allowed after his active duty ends.
"Are they going to come back and die next time?" he said, pointing to the younger Marines.
Some troops in calmer areas find the job more rewarding. Across the river, in an outlying neighborhood, Army Private Second Class Jose Ortiz, 22, was on patrol when Iraqis approached and asked him to stop a local businessman from overcharging for electricity. Ortiz's unit has worked extensively with the neighborhood to start a fairer system of electricity distribution. He said he would never want the United States to pull out: "We've done too much here."
Downtown, where insurgents are more active, Marines face a grimmer situation. They live on small bases in refitted warehouses. Sandbags encircle the portable toilets in case of mortar attacks. A sign in the command center exhorts: Kill like a champion today!
Leaving the base is dangerous, even on routine missions. Hot food arrives twice a day from division headquarters across the river, towed by an armored Humvee code-named Boxcar. Inside the vehicle, sweat pours down the Marines' faces and collects behind their goggles. The air conditioning produces more noise than relief, but it would not be wise to open the thick protective windows. The last man in the battalion to die was hit by a piece of shrapnel that flew through the small space above the door of his Humvee, an earlier model with no protective glass. The Marines try not to use those anymore.
The dangers and frustrations of the job were apparent as Golf's commanding officer, Captain Christopher Bronzi, met Kennedy on a street corner one morning -- a rendezvous that required an escort from a platoon of rifle-pointing Marines.
They were searching for a new observation post to spot people planting roadside bombs. Local religious leaders have asked the Marines to leave their current post, a blue-domed building called the Agricultural Center. The locals call it a religious site; it has often drawn gunfire from insurgents.
Walking the streets, the Marines received no friendly smiles, just hard stares. They settled on an old hotel, but to make it an observation post, they will have to block a busy alley to foil car bombs, reinforce the roof, and cut down some of the town's few tall trees for a better view -- investments suggesting the Marines will be there long after the battalion leaves in September.
Kennedy said the move would ease the tensions, at least for awhile, but Bronzi wasn't sure.
"You know my position, sir," he told Kennedy. "It's not the building. It's us."
Corporal Nat Canaga, 18, whom Bronzi commends for staying dedicated even after being wounded and witnessing another Marine's jaw get shot off, has adjusted his expectations.
"I can't say we're failing in our mission," he said at the end of the talk around the card table. "Our mission has changed. It's just to kill the bad guys. And we're doing that.''
© Copyright 2004 Boston Globe Company