JIM LEHRER: Now, two perspectives on the Iraq story. The first is that of American soldiers rotating between the U.S. and Iraq. Betty Ann Bowser reports.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Nearly 120,000 American servicemen and women are marching off to Iraq. Meanwhile, 130,000 others are coming home in the largest troop rotation since World War II.
MILITARY SOLDIER: These vehicles will leave approximately 13:00, and we will roll out immediately behind them, okay?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Many of the returnees are members of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, which has been in Iraq since the beginning of the war. Now, most of the paratroopers have returned to home base, at Ft. Bragg, N.C. They also brought back stories of what they went through. Some, who went through battle, were decorated as war heroes.
MILITARY SOLDIER: Sergeant Wolford demonstrated outstanding valor and personal courage while serving as a heavy machine gun section leader.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Staff Sgt. Gerald Wolford was awarded the silver star, the nation's third-highest honor for bravery on the battlefield. Others in his company received the bronze star. They were honored for taking a bridge during the battle for the city of as Samawah at the beginning of the war. Wolford described how during that battle two of his men were injured by rocket-propelled grenades, yet wanted to keep fighting.
STAFF SGT. GERALD WOLFORD: Woodward, he got hit by shrapnel by the first RPG, and he went back to the casualty collection point. He stayed there for about 15 minutes and then he came back to fight. Rippe, he got hit in the arm and the legs, and we took him back to the casualty collection point. He left that, came back to the truck, and he started getting dizzy so we set him down and took him back to the casualty collection point again. He stayed there for about ten minutes, and then I went back to check on him and he was putting his stuff back on, coming back to the fight. So, these guys here, those guys are the heroes. Period. They did ... they did most of the work; I just told them where to shoot.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: When Wolford and the other 4,000 soldiers of the 82nd Airborne's 2nd Brigade got to Baghdad, they were assigned to patrol a sector of the city called Al Rasheed. It was a neighborhood filled with Saddam Hussein's loyalists. There was no law and order, no electricity, no drinking water; 2nd Brigade Commander Colonel Kurt Fuller says it was 1.3 million Iraqi citizens living in chaos.
COL. KURT FULLER: You know, you just had a lack of government. I mean, there was no one in charge. So we became the people in charge, and we had to start making decisions on running ... how to run the local government. We had 360 schools; we had to rebuild 340 of them. We rebuilt 24 medical clinics. We restored power. We worked with the drinking water so we could get the fresh drinking water back into the neighborhoods. Irrigation was a problem in the summer, so we worked to clean the irrigation canals and restore those pumps. The ongoing problem that we're always struggling with was sewage.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: You're basically building a nation, rebuilding a nation, in a sense.
COL. KURT FULLER: Well, yeah. The term "nation building" has been used for these sorts of operations. Our primary focus was to provide a safe and secure environment so others could do that nation building.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Captain Ken Burgess is a member of Fuller's 2nd Brigade.
CAPT. KEN BURGESS: Every day was a different challenge. One night we might be doing a raid against a known insurgent group, we might be kicking down doors and having to do a very forceful entry to a house where we have suspected criminals. The very next morning, the same soldiers might have to go out and visit a school and see what their needs were.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: And there were cultural differences that could produce life or death situations.
COL. KURT FULLER: Dealing with the Iraqi people, you had to understand who it was that you were interacting with, and...
BETTY ANN BOWSER: What do you mean?
COL. KURT FULLER: You had to understand whether these people ... what level of importance they had, and how much influence they had over the rest of the citizens. So, in some cases...
BETTY ANN BOWSER: You mean like the pecking order?
COL. KURT FULLER: Well, I'll give you some examples of that. Tribal sheik, for example. If you talk to anyone who's not a part of his tribe, he's not a very important guy. But if you are to alienate him or upset him, he may have as many as ten or fifteen thousand tribal members that he has influence over, and so you may have created fifteen thousand enemies.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: As the brigade began to get living conditions in their sector under control, an emerging threat got worse. Almost every day soldiers were being blown up by homemade bombs known in military parlance as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. The central command was forced to divert soldiers like these from other tasks to patrol roads and highways because the insurgents would watch troop movements and place the IEDs on roads they knew Americans used. It was such a problem that 13 people, more than half of the 82nd Airborne's 23 hostile deaths, were a result of IEDs. Second Brigade Staff Sgt. Jose Gonzalez, trained in air defense artillery, was assigned to an IED patrol.
STAFF SGT. JOSE GONZALEZ: An IED could be anything -- old paint can, it could be an old artillery shell, it could be an explosive rigged up with a C-4, which is a type of explosive. Most of the IEDs are remote detonated.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Remote control?
STAFF SGT. JOSE GONZALEZ: Remote-control bombs. A guy, or the person or persons can be close by, a certain distance, and they look for the right time; opportunity to detonate a bomb, just push a button.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: So one of these guys is sitting off somewhere in the distance watching, waiting for someone like you to come along?
STAFF SGT. JOSE GONZALEZ: That's correct. That's correct. They can be watching a convoy approaching the highway. They can be mixed in the crowd. They can be in a vehicle. They can be riding in front or behind the convey and they were watching for the right moment to explode the device. It can be with a cell phone, it can do with a beeper, with anything. It can just make a signal and the bomb will go off.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: I can't imagine a more dangerous job in Iraq than the job that you were asked to do. What's going through your head the whole time you were doing this?
STAFF SGT. JOSE GONZALEZ: It was hard. It was hard because you're putting your life on the line day after day. My day was ... my job was get on the street every day and look for a bomb.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Sergeant Gonzalez himself was seriously wounded in the shoulder when an IED exploded near him on night patrol. The next day, he was awarded the purple heart.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Second Brigade Chaplin Eddie Cook ministered to many injured soldiers like Gonzalez. But the experience he will remember most was the death of PFC Gavin Neighbor, the first trooper in the 82nd to be killed in Iraq after being hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.
CAPT. EDDIE COOK: And I was able to pray with him, and he actually died in my arms. It was a very sobering moment as we were gathered around him. We were able to hold him and pray the 23rd Psalm with him through his last moments. That was a very profound time. There were many that were shedding tears at the time.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: How dangerous is it today for the American soldier?
COL. KURT FULLER: Well, it's certainly a dangerous environment. I don't think it's as dangerous as you would think if all you did was watch the national news. Are soldiers shot at? Yep, they sure are. Are they shot at all the time, every day? No. I think a lot of the threats have been reduced significantly. Is it worth it? I don't know. History will judge that. But I think anyone who lost one of their loved ones in this fight can be proud that it was a good cause.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: This Ft. Bragg soldier disagrees. He asked the NewsHour to mask his identity because he fears his military career will be ruined for speaking out. He is not a member of the 82nd Airborne.
ANONYMOUS SOLDIER: We didn't have a mission. Once we got there we accomplished what we did ... what we set out to accomplish, and we were just guarding ourselves. Well, if all we're doing over there is guarding ourselves, why don't we just leave?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: And what do you think, should we have left?
ANONYMOUS SOLDIER: I believe that we should leave. We went there under false pretenses to begin with, which I didn't know at the time.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: What do you mean?
ANONYMOUS SOLDIER: Well, we were told that there were some weapons of mass destruction over there. Well, we didn't find any; still haven't found any. So we went over there to try and get rid of those. But when we got over there, we didn't find any. Okay, well, we got rid of Saddam.
All right, well, I think we did our job, more than our job as soldiers, and now it's time for us to leave. I mean, we're not the world's police force. I'm not a conscientious objector, I'm a patriot, and I will die to defend this country. But I'm not going to go over to another country and die to produce more oil for someone to make profits off of.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Sergeant Gonzalez thinks the war effort was worth it, and even though he may have to leave the Army because of his war wounds, he would go back to Iraq tomorrow.
STAFF SGT. JOSE GONZALEZ: That's my country. If I don't do it, who's going to do it? I would go right now if they asked me to go. I would do it again, because I know I'm doing the right thing. I'm glad I'm alive, I'm glad I still got my arm. And I know a lot of soldiers are doing a lot worse than me, doing worse, losing a leg or an arm, and that gives me courage to not complain too much about my injury because I know a lot of soldiers being more injured than that, they're doing worse than me. And if I complain too much -- I only get injury to my shoulder, I'm not doing that bad, so I'm just thankful that I'm alive.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Do you think of yourself as a hero?
STAFF SGT. JOSE GONZALEZ: Not at all. I think of myself a soldier who did a job.
SPOKESMAN: This is the third...
BETTY ANN BOWSER: As the 120,000 replacement troops head out for Iraq, they take with them some of the knowledge and experience of those soldiers who went first. Their deployment will last one year.
JIM LEHRER: Betty Ann has another report coming soon on National Guard soldiers who are rotating to Iraq.