Transcript - September 14, 2007
BRANCACCIO: Welcome to a special edition of NOW.
Have you noticed how president bush and the white house have reframed the debate about what to do in Iraq? There's less talk about political benchmarks. Instead, president bush is pointing to success with Sunni Sheiks. During his visit last week to Iraq, the president met with Sunni and tribal leaders who are working with the U.S. military in Anbar province, west of Baghdad.
Is the so-called 'Anbar awakening' a significant step forward? Since January, we've been following the soldiers of the third infantry's first brigade as they were deployed to Anbar province, with the task of pacifying Sunni strongholds including Ramadi and Falluja. There was a lot riding on the deployment—their third in four years. We learned a lot looking at the war from the ground up. Travel with us in this one-hour edition—spend time with the troops in Anbar and their families in fort Stewart Georgia—and judge for yourself if the war in Iraq is at a turning point, or at the breaking point.
Brenda Breslauer produced our report.
BRANCACCIO: It's January 2007, at Ft. Stewart, Georgia. The soldiers of the first brigade of the third infantry division, the 3rd I.D., are bound for Iraq, many for the third time.
One of them is Sergeant Mike Obert. He's leaving behind a wife and four kids.
MIKE OBERT: She was born while I was in Iraq.
BRANCACCIO: In the past five years, Obert has been in Iraq more than at home.
JUEL OBERT: When he first went to Iraq, I thought maybe once, ok well maybe twice, but never thought he'd be gone this many times.
MIKE OBERT: You get used to being deployed, yes. I don't think you get used to leaving.
BRANCACCIO: Captain Josh Stephenson had to leave seven days after the birth of his daughter.
MISTY STEPHENSON: I think I worry about how we're going to make sure she knows her father. Is he going to come back and she's going to be scared of him or nervous around him because she doesn't know his voice or know what he looks like?
JOSH STEPHENSON: If I got to tell her one thing, it's that Daddy loves her very much. And I'd be good with that.
BRANCACCIO: The first brigade had just a year at home in Georgia to pull themselves together after their last tour.
Even the brigade's commander, Colonel John Charlton, acknowledged the effort it took to leave again so soon.
CHARLTON: You have done about a years worth of training in six months and you've done it superbly.
BRANCACCIO: The 4,000 men and women of the third I.D.'s first brigade were headed to the Anbar province, one of Iraq's most violent regions. We journey with them on their tour to look at the effects these repeated deployments to Iraq are having on the soldiers, their families and the mission.
HAVEN: And we're gonna bring everybody back home. That's the goal. Everybody leaves. Everybody comes back together.
BRANCACCIO: Five months have gone by... We met up with the First Brigade combat team in Ramadi, the Anbar province's capitol.
Al-Anbar is the largest province in Iraq. A huge desert area stretching from west of Baghdad to the borders of Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. In the heart of Sunni territory, it was a refuge for the radical Islamic fighters known as "Al-Qaeda in Iraq".
CHARLTON: This is pretty much typical of what you see along this route. This is the main route through town. And you can see these buildings are demolished.
BRANCACCIO: When Colonel Charlton and the First Brigade arrived in February, the mission was to clear insurgents out of Ramadi and the surrounding area.
CHARLTON: In the first weeks, there were 3 IEDs along this stretch. This was a bad, bad area. We basically used to sprint from the gov't center to our next position over there. It was kind of a little ambush alley.
BRANCACCIO: Things were so dire in Anbar last year that a secret marine intelligence report uncovered by the Washington Post said there was no way to defeat the insurgency there.
In downtown Ramadi, the government center for the province was under constant attack from insurgents firing automatic weapons, rocket-propelled grenades and mortar shells at the marine platoon securing the compound. The governor, who came to work here under U.S. military escort, survived more than 40 assassination attempts. Only half of the 60 provincial workers showed up for work on an average day.
CHARLTON: This is the Governor's office. It was attacked in December of last year with mortar fire. Pretty accurate shot considering it landed right on the roof of the governor's office.
BRANCACCIO: Ordinary Iraqis were caught in the chaos. This man stands in the rubble of what used to be his home, destroyed by a car bomb.
But last September, a transformation began. In an extraordinary development, about two dozen tribal leaders approached the Americans and offered to join with them to fight the extremists. Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, whose father and three brothers had been killed by Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2004 for collaborating with coalition forces hosted the meeting at his compound.
SATTAR: I decided to do this when I saw that people were suffering injustice from the terrorists.
BRANCACCIO: Tribal Sheiks like Sattar are the traditional leaders in the Anbar province. These tribes had been living alongside Al Qaeda in Iraq until the group went too far with its extreme version of Islam and brutal tactics like suicide bombs targeting all who opposed them.
Allying with tribes once openly hostile to the American presence was a radical move for the U.S. military. An uncertain marriage of convenience considering some of the tribes had sympathized with the insurgency or even fought against American forces. But the Americans took the risk and the result has come to be known as the Anbar awakening.
Once the tribal leaders were on board, Americans were flooded with volunteers for the Iraqi security forces. In Ramadi, where there were fewer than 200 Iraqi policemen last year, there are now nearly 8000.
But just how far can the coalition trust its new Sunni allies?
Some of the guys wearing blue shirts this year, American officers acknowledge, were shooting at the U.S. military last year. Lt. Colonel Noel Nicolle is in charge of Iraqi police training at Camp Ramadi.
NICOLLE: I have no doubt that all the police at some point resisted us. We invaded their country. A lot of 'em were in the army.
BRANCACCIO: Amid these shifting alliances, American soldiers are watching their backs, Nicolle says.
NICOLLE: You know, we go on these missions and—and you see police out there carrying IEDs like it's nobody business. And we kinda joke to ourselves occasionally, well, you know, eight months ago, they were probably building them. So, they know how they're built. So, they're probably not afraid of 'em.
NASR: These groups were the same ones who were attacking the US, killing US soldiers.
BRANCACCIO: Vali Nasr is a former professor at the naval postgraduate school and a member of the council on foreign relations. A Shiite, he was born in Iran and came to the U.S. as a teenager. He has a lot to say about the Anbar awakening in the context of the four year struggle of Americans in Iraq.
BRANCACCIO: In Anbar Province, can Americans trust their new friends, some of these Sunnis who were firing upon US troops just a year ago?
NASR: I don't think so. I think you can trust them in the short-run in this particular fight. But these are not our long-run allies. They—there's still resentment about the war, about the occupation
BRANCACCIO: Yet security in Ramadi is in the midst of a transformation.
CHARLTON: This area...we are standing on, we would have never done this. This would have been an immediate sniper attack just a few months ago. And in fact quite frankly I am still a bit nervous standing here but....
BRANCACCIO: It's still a war zone but attacks from roadside bombs and rocket propelled grenades have dropped from an average of 35 a day to one.
That turnaround has been hard work.
VICTOR HAVEN: The first 60 days were—were very intense. They—they were definitely dealing blows to us that we were not used to taking.
BRANCACCIO: One of those helping to secure the Ramadi region is Staff Sergeant Victor Haven, a soldier for 16 years. On his third tour in Iraq, Haven, a master gunner, has taken on the role of platoon sergeant.
VICTOR HAVEN: Third tour is harder because it's the third tour. It's hard—all around. The last tour, the facilities we were staying at were—higher quality. Our quality of life was a little better than it is out here in the Cops .
BRANCACCIO: A "cop" is military speak for a coalition operating post, a remote base. Haven and his tank platoon are stationed at cop aggressor, an old concrete factory in the desert northeast of Ramadi.
From here, soldiers in tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles patrol the roads and paths of the open desert. Working conditions are challenging for the troops.
VICTOR HAVEN: If it's 120 outside, it's 135 inside the tank.
BRANCACCIO: And living conditions are spartan. The only way to contact home is to travel to the base in Ramadi. That means Haven only gets to talk to his wife Tosha once a week at most. They've been married seven years and he's been away for five of them.
VICTOR HAVEN: The lack of communication is always kind of a—a hardship you have to go through. She understands it, though. She's—she's an Army wife.
TOSHA HAVEN: If I'm stressed that Vic hasn't called me, or emailed me in days. I mean, either way it go, I'm gonna pray. And I'm gonna know, I mean, in the back of my brain, I know that he's okay. But at the same time, I put it to the front. Like, what if he's not? What if he's not?
VICTOR HAVEN: She would worry more if I told her how close I really came today to being shot or having something blow up on me or—or what have you. I wait 'til I come home and I can tell her face-to-face.
BRANCACCIO: We tagged along with Haven on an average day as he visited an Iraqi police checkpoint to drop off some army grub...or MRE's.
VICTOR HAVEN: We are going to drop off some MREs, some water, see how they are doing.
BRANCACCIO: With no interpreter around, communication is a challenge.
IRAQI: Cola, Cola?
VICTOR HAVEN: Cola? We don't have any Colas! We don't have any colas, we have water. That should feed everybody. You guys ok? No insurgent? No Ali Baba, none?
It's kind of a low key day, a slow day.
BRANCACCIO: Back in the tank, Haven and his crew have to stay alert.
VICTOR HAVEN: Traveling on the roads you're constantly looking, constantly scanning. Gunners up in the turrets and constantly looking around.
You might not see the turrets move, but gunners are up there lookin'. You know scanning constantly.
BRANCACCIO: They are heading to a Ramadi base when things start to heat up.
VICTOR HAVEN: We have a fixed wing aircraft surveiling the area,
BRANCACCIO: A surveillance plane has picked up what might be a vbid, meaning a vehicle bomb.
VICTOR HAVEN: Hey bust out that dagger, will you?
OVER THE RADIO: If this is a VBIED, how close you want to get to it?
VICTOR HAVEN: I want to get a couple hundred meters away from this thing. I'm pretty close to the grid. The only vehicle in sight is a blue dump truck.
VICTOR HAVEN: The whole—the whole time it—it's frightening. 'Cause you don't know what to expect. And situations like that is the ones you hear stories about. Other people doin' the same thing and the VBID or the vehicle was rigged to explode.
BRANCACCIO: First there's a check for suicide vests
VICTOR HAVEN: He already lifted his shirt, right?
If they lift up there shirts it is pretty evident that they don't have anything lie that.
BRANCACCIO: Again, with no interpreter, they try hand signals.
VICTOR HAVEN: We need to look in that truck. We need to look in that car, you understand?
IRAQI: No I don't understand.
VICTOR HAVEN: Ok.
BRANCACCIO: Haven takes a risk and approaches the truck himself. His men stay back.
Another Iraqi walks up to Haven. They shake hands.
VICTOR HAVEN: I'm checking the truck to see if there are any suspicious devices in it. Attached to it. Any kind of wires that look out of place. I always try to keep a safe distance, but there is always that limit where you want to go, because you want to be close enough to see what is going but you want to avoid any unnecessary danger.
BRANCACCIO: It turns out to be a false alarm.
VICTOR HAVEN: These guys are just working. That's all they are doing. It comes and goes. Sometimes there is a rash of intelligence reports that we have to investigate. That come in our sector. Sometimes it will be real quiet and won't have to do this for a real long time.
BRANCACCIO: Back at cop aggressor where Haven lives, the platoon is quite isolated, and forced to rely on itself. The three- mile drive from Ramadi can take up to an hour in a humvee convoy. The one hot meal a day is trucked in from a larger base.
VICTOR HAVEN: The food we have is corn, rice, gravy and some steaks. Not bad for Iraq.
BRANCACCIO: Haven's platoon is crammed into two rooms.
VICTOR HAVEN: 13 people stay in the platoon right now. Yes, in this one room.
BRANCACCIO: They pass the time hanging out reading and playing video games like guitar hero.
VICTOR HAVEN: I like to bring a certain levity to the table. And that—that—I don't—I can't have these guys wound up. Not in this environment. You can't wind 'em up and be really strict and stringent 24/seven. They'll snap. Especially the guys that have been here a few times. They don't need that. .When it's down time, it's down time. I'm there with 'em. fun of 'em. Laughin'. Relieving the stress of the day.
BRANCACCIO: As for his own stress, thinking of home helps.
TOSHA HAVEN: He's missing his comfort zone. Over there, he don't have no good bed to sleep in. He don't have no beautiful little woman to lay next to. None of that. So, he's missin' a lot.
VICTOR HAVEN: And whenever I can call home and talk to her I'll go through my needs, my depressions and—missing her greatly. It—it comes in waves. I've—it's—she's always on my mind.
BRANCACCIO: For career soldiers like Haven, this is part of the job description. But there's no denying the costs of repeated deployment weigh heavily on more than just the troops in the field.
VICTOR HAVEN: Third tour—is always a strain on your marriage. Any—any relationship you have back home. So—but we've been through this before. We know we can get through this—this one.
BRANCACCIO: There are strains emotional and physical. Like just getting through the day in the heat. An Iraqi summer can run 120 degrees.
Remember Mike Obert, the guy with the four kids? He's a tank mechanic stationed with roughly 100 other soldiers at a combat outpost in the northwest desert of Anbar. It took our cameraman 4 days, 3 convoys and 2 flights to get here from Ramadi. It's the type of place where soldiers talk about other places they'd rather be.
MIKE OBERT: I'd love for it to snow right now. That's why I wanted to deploy to Afghanistan. At least it snows there. If you are going to deploy, can't it be to some place new like Afghanistan.
OFF CAMERA: My wife is so worried I will be deployed again...like Kosovo.
OTHER SOLDIER: Kosovo would be a vacation compared to this.
MIKE OBERT: Kosovo would be great compared to this joint.
BRANCACCIO: The soldiers from Delta Company are here to establish a military presence and to swing into action if violence flares. In the meantime, there's not much to do in the crushing heat but maintain the tanks.
MIKE OBERT: And then the wind hits you in the head and the face while you work under it.
BRANCACCIO: The dust and wind find their way into everything.
It's not fancy, but there are weights if the guys want to lift; water's trucked in, a makeshift kitchen...but many soldiers go for the frozen food.
MIKE OBERT: Nothin like mama cooking but it'll do for the situation. It'll do.
BRANCACCIO: To communicate home there are three computers but the soldiers tell us one is often broken.
This morning, Mike is talking to his wife Juel via webcam.
Jule is in Colorado with their four children visiting Mike's parents to get some help with the kids.
JUEL OBERT: The distance definitely takes a toll. I'm a single parent, who is worried all the time, and is you know, sick because the person I care about is, you know, doing who knows what.
BRANCACCIO: This is Mike's 3rd deployment in five years and Jules says she's learned to live with it.
JUEL OBERT: My husband's spent more time in Iraq for the past few years than he has here. He actually says he comes home to visit.
MIKE OBERT: It's—it's difficult to be separated from my children. Because that's a—a big part of my life. But—it must be difficult on them. They—they have a lot of—discipline issues when I'm gone.
JUEL OBERT: When I—when stuff does go bad, you know, I tell him. And then that just makes him upset, and you know. So, I—I try not to tell him everything, but it always ends up happening.
JUEL OBERT: I'm making Mike a care package
BRANCACCIO: Juel does what she can to give Mike a taste of home.
Six year old Cameron draws a picture for his dad.
JUEL OBERT: That's awesome...
BRANCACCIO: So what do all these years of separation mean for the Obert's as a family?
MIKE OBERT: It was really hard the first time with the young one Cameron. Because when I got home, he really didn't know who I was.
BRANCACCIO: And what about Mike and Jule and their marriage?
JUEL OBERT: Ours is doing okay. We fight a lot. But we're makin' it. I mean—ten year anniversary is in December. So, that's something. You know, not too many marriages make it to ten years. Even fewer army marriages make it to ten years. So—I think—I think we'll make it.
BRANCACCIO: Josh and Misty Stephenson have been married nearly four years.
JOSH STEPHENSON: Missing holidays and birthdays. Anniversaries. That's kind of part of the job.
MISTY STEPHENSON: It's kind of scary because you don't ever plan to be a single mom, which is almost what it's like for the first year.
JOSH STEPHENSON: Glad somebody likes my mustache.
BRANCACCIO: In the five months he's been away, Josh's has grown a mustache. He's now stationed just outside Fallujah.
JOSH STEPHENSON: Right now we're supporting the local Iraqi Police as they search a couple of target houses that they got some intel on.
BRANCACCIO: Fallujah is the city of the bloody 2004 offensive where U.S. Marines and army soldiers fought block to block to expel insurgents from the Sunni stronghold. Now American soldiers provide back up for the Iraqi police searching for hidden weapons.
JOSH STEPHENSON: We're here in case they need some help, some assistance. And I hope the locals gain some confidence in their own police.
BRANCACCIO: Today they have intel that there are false floors concealing munitions and weapons.
Paydirt. A box of ak-47 rounds.
Next, keeping an eye on a busy, public spot...a local market.
JOSH STEPHENSON: Pretty active market. You can get pretty much anything you need around here.
BRANCACCIO: For this street vendor, since the invasion, has life gotten better or worse?
STREET VENDOR: I can't say worse after Saddam Hussein, but I can't say what we wanted.
BRANCACCIO: Back at Ft. Stewart, it's summertime. Six months since the soldiers took off. Babies have become toddlers: birthdays, anniversaries, holidays come and go.
Baby Reagan, named for the former president, was only 7 days old when Josh got on the plane to Iraq. She's now nearly six months and Misty has been swept up by single mom life.
MISTY STEPHENSON: I don't have time to notice that, you know, days have turned weeks, and weeks have turned into months
BRANCACCIO: But there are rough days.
MISTY STEPHENSON: Mother's Day was probably the hardest day that I've had ever with him being gone. Harder than Christmases. Harder than anniversaries, anything. And I think a lot of that is to say it's the first time. I wanted it to feel like it was a big deal. And she doesn't know that it's Mother's Day.
JOSH STEPHENSON: It's, I guess I have a lot of guilt because I've left my wife to pretty much raise our daughter on her own but this is the career that I've chosen and that we as a as a couple have chosen.
BRANCACCIO: Little Reagan and her father Josh are trying to get to know each other long distance.
JOSH STEPHENSON: I miss seeing my little girl. Right now I'm—I'm kinda watchin' her grow up in pictures.
MISTY STEPHENSON: By the time he comes home, she'll be a toddler and not a baby. And I think that's difficult for me to think about that he will have missed her entire babyhood.
BRANCACCIO: One way they keep their marriage strong, they say...is old fashioned, but effective.
MISTY STEPHENSON: And to either one of us there's nothing better in the day than getting something in your mailbox. Whether you be in Iraq or in Georgia. The best thing is to open the mailbox and see his handwriting.
JOSH STEPHENSON: The letters I get from her mean—mean the world to me. That's a good one.
MISTY STEPHENSON: It makes me feel better, makes me feel like he's here, if I can read his handwriting. Can't imagine a challenge we couldn't get through together. It will be nice getting through them in the same zip code. Every day I love you more. Love, Josh
BRANCACCIO: And then there are the homecomings...
CONEITHA ZAPFE: I've thought this is his third war, every day every thought every second is not knowing what he's doing, is he ok? And I know everyone shares that burden when a soldier goes over there.
BRANCACCIO: Every military family awaits the letters and phone calls but dreads the knock at the door. William Zaphe, father of three deployed with the 3rd I.D.'s second brigade in May to an area outside of Baghdad. A month after he left...his wife Coneitha was in the yard when a car pulled up.
CONEITHA ZAPFE: I could tell it was a chaplain and another gentleman and I just screamed and said tell me is he gone and I just need to know is he gone.
BRANCACCIO: Sergeant First Class William Zapfe died June 19th at the age of 35... a roadside bomb took his life.
BRANCACCIO: It's ten days after Sergeant Zapfe's death. Coneitha and their children, 9 year old Anastasia , 5 year old Cameron and 3 year old Spencer have driven from Ft. Stewart, Georgia to the Cincinnati airport to welcome William Zapfe home for one last time.
Anastasia says it hasn't really sunk in for her brothers.
ANASTASIA ZAPFE: Spencer. He's too little to understand. When we say daddy's gone, he thinks dad's over in Iraq still.
BRANCACCIO: And Cameron, she says, can't process it all.
ANASTASIA ZAPFE: He wrote a letter saying "Dad, come back to life please, Mom really misses you."
BRANCACCIO: Everyone is silent as the plane doors open...
William's close friend and fellow soldier, Staff Sergeant Charles Hall accompanied the casket from Dover Airbase to Ohio.
CHARLES HALL: I know Zapfe would have wanted me to do it. No questions asked.
Just seeing the casket, got that empty feeling inside. Had to keep telling myself that I was a professional and would be handling in such a manner.
CONEITHA ZAPFE: That's your daddy in there.
Your daddy's back in the United States ok? He's come a long way. There's no more wondering where Daddy's at. And he flew with his soldiers and he's flown home with his soldiers.
BRANCACCIO: She finds in herself the dignity to thank others.
CONEITHA ZAPFE: I thank you so much for bringing my husband back to the States. You've done an honorable job, thank you. Thank you sir.
BRANCACCIO: These are the first moments the Zafpe's are finally alone together as a family again.
CONEITHA ZAPFE: This is not how we wanted to it but this is how some end up...
I love you baby...everything I have.. I loved you.
CHARLES HALL: Just, it wasn't his time. He was not supposed to die.
BRANCACCIO: Staff Sergeant Hall served under Zaphe in Iraq back in 2005.
CHARLES HALL: A man who got the mission done. No questions asked. Just an example of an American soldier.
BRANCACCIO: Then, the funeral. And the final good-bye at the cemetery.
ANASTASIA ZAPFE: I know my Dad is in a better place where soldiers rest in peace
BRANCACCIO: William Zaphe, a soldier for sixteen years deployed once, twice, three times to Iraq for his country.
CHARLES HALL: Each time you go to Iraq, you lessen your chance of coming back alive. Can only dodge so many bullets. When they keep pushing you over there, your odds get slimmer and slimmer.
BRANCACCIO: Those odds were on the mind of Sergeant Michael Murphy when we met him back in December. Murphy was leaving his wife and new baby Makayla for a second tour in Iraq.
SERGEANT MURPHY: I'm—I'm mostly worried about for—my family and I having—no one to look after them if—like the ultimate thing happens to me, you know, if I die.
BRANCACCIO: His concerns haven't changed that much in 6 months.
SERGEANT MURPHY: And I sorta think that I'm still worried about come home in one piece. But—I mean I—I know how everything is now and I know how to deal with it. I know how to lead and train soldiers.
BRANCACCIO: What drives these soldiers in large part is a personal dedication to do whatever is humanly possible to ensure their comrades get out alive and intact. Sergeant Murphy and 7 other soldiers have just been sent to observation post hammer. They're camping out in what used to be an Iraqi home.
SERGEANT MURPHY:: This is our living quarters. Kind of crappy. We gotta make do with what we have. We usually set up a little obstacle so whenever someone tries to get in we beat them here.
BRANCACCIO: Their assignment: monitor the road for insurgents planting improvised explosive devices...IEDs.
SERGEANT MURPHY: But insurgents always place IEDs on these roads because the ground is soft and its easier to place an IED.
BRANCACCIO: Murphy and the other soldiers do much of the surveillance from the roof.
SERGEANT MURPHY: It's not fun but we're infantry. They do what they love, they love what they do
BRANCACCIO: Compared to the combat outposts, parts of Camp Blue Diamond, the main base in Ramadi, look like a college dorm. There's a rec room with ping pong, pool and a serious gym. There's also ways to connect to family and friends at home.
Soldiers relax playing on a computer. That game on the computer they're playing?.. Gears of war. But there are also reminders the real war is never far away.
BECK: You know, when you first get here, you hear, like, an explosion. You turn your head, you know. You're all—you're all nervous, like, what's going on? And then now it's kinda, like, it's everyday life. You hear it and you just keep—keep eating your food or whatever you're doing, you just keep doing it.
BRANCACCIO: When we first met Private James Beck back in December at Ft. Stewart, he had a lot going on. He was screwing up his courage to propose to his fiancee just before he deployed.
BECK: I'm really excited, really nervous. You can tell when I started to talk about her, I just kind of didn't know what to say. I was just really nervous. Yeah, I'm more nervous for the proposal for sure than Iraq.
BRANCACCIO: She said yes. Less than two weeks later Beck left for Iraq.
BECK: I'm patriotic. And, it's a volunteer army. And to keep it volunteer army, people like me have to you know, go out and volunteer.
BRANCACCIO: When he joined the military, Beck told us, he wasn't expecting to make a long term commitment. He saw Iraq as an adventure.
BECK: I didn't want to sit at an office pretty much. I wanted to do something exciting. I wanted to do something exciting, I like having the thrill, the rush.
BRANCACCIO: Beck and another soldier run up to the front to receive promotion.
Beck has found his place in the army. And he's going places. This June, he was promoted.
ANNOUNCER: Let it be known that the Battalion Commander has proposed special trust and confidence and fidelity in the abilities of Private First Class James P Beck. He is here by promoted from Private First Class to Specialist.
SILVERMAN: Getting promoted to specialist is really a big deal.
It kind of means that you are part of the big army now, nobody looks at you as the brand new guy anymore, so you got extra weight on your shoulders, especially Beck. How about a big round of applause.
BRANCACCIO: Things back at home aren't going as well; Beck and his fiancé had planned to marry in august when he came home for r & r; in June, six months into his deployment, they're still dating but the wedding is off. Beck's life now centers around his buddies in the military. On June 14th in a Baghdad ceremony, beck re-enlisted for another four years.
But amid all the fanfare, the stark reality is that the enemy is still out there. 777 U.S. soldiers have been killed in action so far this year in Iraq.
Here at Camp Blue Diamond there's a wall dedicated to the soldiers who have fallen in combat in Iraq.
Lt. Colonel Mike Silverman commands the First Brigade's 3-6-9 Armor Battalion. He keeps reminders of the soldiers he's lost on his bulletin board.
SILVERMAN: Unfortunately, there are going to be times when the enemy plays his cards exactly right. And the tragic result is, we lose soldiers..
BRANCACCIO: That happened on the night of May 23rd.in a village outside of Ramadi. Here's the story according to their families: soldiers from 3-6-9 armor were called out in the darkness to investigate reports of a murder of an Iraqi family. Staff Sergeant Steve Butcher and specialist Daniel Cagle were in the lead. As they approached the house, Butcher had a bad feeling and yelled for his men to stand back. Too late. Two bombers blew themselves up also taking the lives of Butcher and Cagle .
SILVERMAN: The enemy designed this attack specifically to address the way that we operate.
SERGEANT MURPHY: I just—it—it basically just tells me that—that this place is really not secure as well as you think it is, as well as you want it to be.
BRANCACCIO: Sergeant Michael Murphy was a friend.
Six days after the incident, the 3-6-9 gathered to honor 27 year old staff sergeant Steve Butcher and 22 year old specialist Daniel Cagle outside of Camp Ramadi.
For the families of the 3rd Infantry Division, there is a living memorial for fallen soldiers at Ft. Stewart. This is warrior's walk. Sacred ground where a tree is planted each time a 3rd I.D. soldier dies. We came here with Colonel Charlton back in December before the brigade deployed.
SILVERMAN: And as you can see, there's still some space left—for additional trees.
BRANCACCIO: Since January, fifty four soldiers from the 3rd ID have died. There is a ceremony each month. On this morning in July, twelve soldiers were honored including Butcher and Cagle and Sergeant William Zaphe.
COL. TODD BROOKS: This is a hallow place, here stand 348 living monuments of heroes.
BRANCACCIO: Steve Butcher's family brought a picture with a yellow ribbon.
He would say his dad was his hero...
STEVE BUTCHER, SR: It was a profession I never would have had him do. But he was born to do it. For him it was not a mistake.
BRANCACCIO: Steve Butcher senior, Steve's father, remembers a loving son, a caring father, and a leader dedicated to his soldiers during his three tours of duty.
STEVE BUTCHER, SR: His duty was to his men. And //he can separate, the war from the platoon. It was not about Iraq. It was about bringing boys home.
BRANCACCIO: That loyalty was something his fellow soldiers repeated over and over to the Butcher family in the days after his death...
STEVE BUTCHER, SR: It's a brotherhood. It's a—it's a love that they have. I had men come here, sit with me, and actually want me to drive them to the homes where Steve grew up. They so revered him. They loved him so much that they're like his brothers, which makes them like my sons. And when the last one of—of them left, it was like the last piece of him left.
BRANCACCIO: For those who experience loss on the battlefield, there is little time to grieve, says Sergeant first Class Trent Gamblin.
GAMBLIN: One of the hardest things I've had to do is make men not back up and roll back out even though they just lost somebody. And, the look in their eyes. And, at those moments, I'm not a—I don't have the luxury of feeling what's normal. And, I've often wondered what those men think of me.
BRANCACCIO: And it's not just the Americans who endure terrible losses. The sacrifices borne by Iraqis has been staggeringly high.
Here Lt. Colonel Nicolle, the American coordinator for the Iraq police in Ramadi, meets with Colonel Ali, head of police on the east side of the city.
NICOLLE: Ask Col. Ali how his family is doing?
TRANSLATOR: We lost our son ....
BRANCACCIO: Ali brings up the son killed in a vehicle bombing attack a few months earlier while on duty at a police checkpoint. Tragedy, he says, makes him stronger in his resolve.
TRANSLATOR: This means I'm going to increase in my courage.
NICOLLE: Tell him we are sorry for the loss of his son. And I'm sure he is with Allah in paradise.
Well, for the—since we've been here we've paid for, with our blood, with the blood of American soldiers and Marines to secure this city. I will tell ya that the Iraqi police have suffered—probably four times the losses that the Americans have.
BRANCACCIO: But look deeper and there are major challenges to this vision of joint collaboration. For one thing, it seems that not all the Iraqi police, Shirta in Arabic, are showing up for duty.
NICOLLE: Tell Col. Alli that Lt. Addalis said that this shift is a little light. They are missing some folks on this shift. Tell him I talked to General Kahlil, if a Shirta doesn't show up for one month, no pay, second month he is fired.
BRANCACCIO: Not only are police missing, but guns are missing as well. Officers have been taking pistols with them when they go from post to post making the weapons hard to track of.
NICOLLE: The officers get to keep their Glocks on their person but when the officers transfer back to another station that pistol must stay with the station.
BRANCACCIO: It's not just here. Missing weapons have become a liability in this war. A recently released government accountability report says that the pentagon has lost track of about 190,000 AK-47 assault rifles and pistols given to Iraqi security forces in 2004 and 2005.
Not everyone thinks the Iraqi police and Iraqi army or IA's are up to the task. Sgt Cedric Ellington
ELLINGTON: I see a lot more IAs in uniform but I haven't really seen
anybody out there doing what we do, doing the job that we do. We pretty
much do everything and that's kind of disappointing because I hear of all
this change, we're helping them, we're training them to take over and I
really don't see it.
BRANCACCIO: But Vali Nasr says there has been some change.
NASR: It is important first steps. And I would emphasize the word first steps. We—we should not think that that means that this Iraqi military and police is ready to stand up without American support on it's own. That's not the case.
BRANCACCIO: It's June and the city of Ramadi is slowly being put back together. But there's a lot more on the American's "to-do" list
CHARLTON: We have a program called store front renovation
BRANCACCIO: American servicemen, trained for battle, are now working as city planners to help restore services and reconstruct the city....and as diplomats in the many meetings with local tribal leaders.
Up until a few months ago, most of the city of Ramadi was without power and water.
CHARLTON: Let me explain, I know it's bad...
BRANCACCIO: During a tour of the city, Colonel Charlton couldn't get far without getting cornered with urgent pleas to get on with the job.
TRANSLATOR: No, its coming, we're working on the power lines and all the power systems.
IRAQI: American forces promise - and don't open.
CHARLTON: Ok, but is this area clean? Is there any enemy in here?
IRAQI: We don't have road.
CHARLTON: I know, but it takes a little time.
CHARLTON: See the problem is as soon as there is security is established, peoples expectations go up very quickly. They immediately want to know when they are getting power...when the water is getting fixed...
BRANCACCIO: Since we visited Iraq in June, Charlton says the electrical grid inside the city has been fixed, and about 4-5ths of the city is now getting power ...for six hours a day.
Last week, in advance of the progress report on Iraq, President Bush made an unexpected trip to Baghdad but to Anbar to highlight its success.
PRESIDENT BUSH: Anbar is a huge province. It was once written of as lost. It's now one of the safest places in Iraq.
BRANCACCIO: But safety is relative. Despite the progress in pacifying the city of Ramadi, more U.S. troops are dying in Anbar than in any area outside Baghdad.
Just days after Bush's visit four Marines were killed while conducting combat operations in Anbar.
Still this week General David Petraeus told congress he thought the Anbar experience could work in other regions
PETRAEUS: Other tribes have been inspired by the actions of those in Anbar and have volunteered to fight extremists as well.
BRANCACCIO: What's the short answer to this question of whether you can take the Anbar model and try it in other parts of Iraq?
NASR: This is ultimately a policy of dividing up Iraq into militia lands. Good militia lands, but militia lands.
I mean end of the day this is not a strategy of strengthening an Iraqi state. It's a strategy of arming and supporting local militias. And having them essentially control security in their turf. This is a policy of compartmentalizing Iraq. It's not a policy of unifying Iraq.
BRANCACCIO: So what we now have here is America pushing for peace by giving arms to both local Sunni tribes and the predominately Shiite central government forces.
That could lead to further civil war, says Nasr, and erase the gains of the Anbar awakening.
NASR: I would say we have to be cautious about being—reading into—too much into success in Al-Anbar. The greatest success is against al-Qaeda. That doesn't mean that the other insurgencies have gone away. Or that when the locals are finished with al-Qaeda, they're not gonna turn back their guns in anger, back at the United States.
BRANCACCIO: Colonel Charlton admits there are no guarantees.
CHARLTON: There is risk. Especially in a counterinsurgency. Elements that were against you yesterday are now friendly toward you today. And maybe in the future, if mistakes are made, they might be against you again.So, this is very complex. Very—very difficult to navigate.
BRANCACCIO: And there is danger as well for Iraqis backing the awakening. In June, a suicide bomber blew himself up in the lobby of the upscale Monsour Hotel in Baghdad, thirteen were killed, including five Sunni tribal leaders who supported the alliance with the Americans.
And remember Sheik Sattar? America's friend in Ramadi, who first convinced the tribes to approach the Americans and initiated what would become the Anbar awakening? While we were there, he confided in Colonel Charlton he was worried he might be targeted during a trip to Baghdad.
SATTAR: We cut our trip short because to tell the truth I feared there was going to be an assassination.
BRANCACCIO: Late this week, a roadside bomb destroyed Sattar's car, killing him.
It is a huge setback for the tribal alliance in Anbar....but amid the political and military uncertainties the soldiers of the third I.D. are proud of what they've accomplished in Anbar. ... but they've also seen the toll the years of war in Iraq have taken on the military the Army's running out of fresh troops .that's why they been deployed again and again and this spring the First Brigade learned their year in Iraq was extended to 15 months. Instead of returning in January next year, they won't get home till April.
JUEL OBERT: I'll be honest. I threw something across the room, and—and said a couple of swear words, and—and—got very angry. Because—I'm tired of him being gone.
JOSH STEPHENSON: I found out about it on—CNN. And knew that that first phone call home was gonna go differently.
MISTY STEPHENSON: My heart just sank. You—you think, oh, he's gonna be home in time for Regan's first birthday. Maybe, maybe, maybe. And now it's definitely not. So I was crushed. [I was definitely crushed.] Larry fix audio on second crushed or we could lose.
BRANCACCIO: Victor Haven waited as long as he could before telling Tosha.
VICTOR HAVEN: And she went through her—her normal rants. (LAUGHS) Her normal outbursts about the whole system.
TOSHA: Well—people—well, whoever's given them these orders, they can't be thinking about the spouses.
VICTOR HAVEN: I still get to be home for my daughter's high school graduation. I'm not gonna be—I'm not gonna miss that at this point. And as long as—as long as I don't miss that I think we'll be okay. (LAUGHS) If I miss that than we might be in trouble. I don't know. We'll see.
BRANCACCIO: Sergeant James Beck dealt with the news with a soldier's resolve.
JAMES BECK: The way I look at it is I'll stay as long as I have to, as long as I don't have to come back again. So, get it all out the first time. Not that I have a choice whether I come back again or not, but—I mean, people have been doing it since, doing tours here. And, you know, it would be disrespectful to those people, to complain about it. 'Cause they did it, and I'm gonna do it. That's my job.
BRANCACCIO: Even with longer times away, some soldiers are signing up for more. They do it out of duty. And family personal finances can also be at play. There's a 20,000 bonus for those who re-enlist, tax free if they're overseas.
SGT CEDRIC ELLINGTON: It was a real tough decision. I'm tired of deploying. I'm tired of deploying. But family comes first and I have to take care of the family.
BRANCACCIO: While the army's had trouble meeting its monthly goals for recruits, re-enlistments of those already in the army are steady. In a re-enlistment ceremony on a June morning in Iraq, sergeant Cedric Ellington, who is 27, signed up for another four years.
SGT CEDRIC ELLINGTON : I want to thank everyone for coming out and supporting me..Comander, Sgt, Col...everybody, good luck to everyone else and I hope you do the same...come on and join me.
SOLDIER: Do you know that you were out of the army yesterday? You were out of the army yesterday? Now you still in Iraq. Yesterday, you ETS'd (end of active duty) but now you just signed back up...
SGT CEDRIC ELLINGTON: Its all good. Its all good.
BRANCACCIO: Ellington was not the only one re-enlisting.
SOLDIER: What you've got for years left (to #3), oh no I've got this I'm gonna reenlist, I have to give the army 8 years, they will get this and that's it. Why? Cause, well a wise man once said...
SOLDIER: It's all about the money.
BRANCACCIO: But for some soldiers there that day, reenlistment was out of the question.
SOLDIER#3: I'm not reenlisting.
SOLDIER#2: No, no.
SGT CEDRIC ELLINGTON : He's going to reenlist.
SOLDIER#2: I'll put it like this, I'll reenlist if someone can find me a reason for this shit. A reason.
BRANCACCIO: America has been trying to agree on a reason ever since it invaded Iraq. Without a clear understanding of why we're there, it's hard to predict when we'll leave. The president's new plan for possibly pulling out 20 to 30,000 troops by next summer hands the war - and any big troop withdrawals - to the next president.
Winding down the war in Iraq is a political minefield.
And for those who are fighting, it's painful to think of leaving without something more to show for it.
NICOLLE: We cannot lose this fight. It would be just throwing their lives away. Because make no mistake about it, all of their lives are on the line. It is a fight to the death for these people. We rotate out, we owe it to them, we created this situation and we owe it to them to fix it.
BRANCACCIO: Josh Stephenson says he owes it to fallen comrades
JOSH STEPHENSON: This is probably going to sound horrible and my wife's gonna hate me for it. My biggest fear is that they're gonna pull us out of here too soon. And the people that have died, our guys, our—our men and women in uniform that—that never went home—will—will be for naught.
MISTY STEPHENSON: He believes in what the idea that this country was built on. He believes in, you know, saluting the flag, and the constitution, and, you know, he bleeds red, white and blue. But sometimes I feel like, because of that, you know, the people that make the big decisions just take and take and take from him.
BRANCACCIO: Sometimes what is taken is life itself. Steve Butcher senior wants those in Washington to know their decisions are written in the blood of American soldiers.
STEVE BUTCHER, SR.: When the Congressmen, they call me. And they ask me what they can do. I just want to ask them which one of their children would they be willing to put on the pyre for Iraqi freedom. Which one of their individual kids?
BRANCACCIO: A question not just for Congress, but for all Americans.
MISTY STEPHENSON: We will be a fleeting moment on a television screen to them. And, you know, maybe they'll feel a bit sorry, or maybe they'll feel a bit proud. Or whatever. But the bottom line is we, unfortunately, don't affect their day to day life. Our country may be technically at war but, to the average citizen, life is no different.
BRANCACCIO: On a sunny afternoon in august...Misty and young Reagan are at the Savannah Airport. After almost nine months, Captain Josh Stephenson is due back for some long-anticipated r & r.
MISTY STEPHENSON: I'm kind of nervous. It's kind of a first date feeling. She was only 6 and ½ days when he left....See, I told you he was going to be last one off the plane.
JOSH STEPHENSON: How are you doing?
MISTY STEPHENSON: Better, now.
BRANCACCIO: He will be home for 8 days. Stephenson flies back to Iraq ...next week.
And that's it for now. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.