Tuesday, August 02, 2005

We Are The Hollow Men

This is the way the war ends
This is the way the war ends
This is the way the war ends
Not with a bang, but a whimper

Interviews with two dozen Marines in Ramadi, their commanders, and friends and family back home reveal the cost in human terms. Like Jimmy Welter, some Marines in this unit enlisted after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But that patriotic fervor now seems spent. And what the Marines have endured - Welter's story is typical - speaks to the changes that come with war.

During their first tour, Welter and his unit were greeted as liberators. During the second, they fought a growing rebellion. Now, on the third, many say they are angry to be back, shaken by the loss of more friends and feeling old beyond their years.

"I'm 22 years old. It really feels like I'm 30," Welter says. "I've seen more and done more things at 22 than most people have in 40 years."

Evidence of victory is scant, those interviewed by the newspaper say. Some are stunned that, after all the sacrifices they and others have made, so many Iraqis now seem to hate them.

Their choice to serve has put them on the battlefield three times in three years. Now, many say they just want to go home.

Their commander, Lt. Col. Eric Smith, sees the wear and tear.

"This takes a mental toll on these guys," says Smith, 40, of Plano, Texas, who was wounded in combat during a tour last year in another command position.

"I do know they get tired, and I do know they've changed," Smith says. "I mean, their counterparts (back home) are running around getting pissed off because they were unable to register for Psych 303 and they have to start their senior year. These guys are running around worried about being supplied with .50-caliber ammo and not getting shot tomorrow."

The man working to re-enlist them explains the hardships.

"They've done their war, and they're done," says Staff Sgt. William Beschman, the battalion retention officer. Unlike the Marine Corps as a whole, the battle-scarred 1st Battalion, 5th Marines will not meet its re-enlistment goal this year. The largest bonuses in Marine Corps history - a year's salary, or about $20,000 tax-free if they sign up while in Iraq - got few takers. Of 287 first-term Marines in the battalion, just 50 are staying. The goal is 58.

And veterans of the battalion now have a look about them. In Vietnam, it was called the "thousand-yard stare": a weariness devoid of emotion. Cpl. Mike Kelly, 23, wore it as officers award him a Navy commendation for valor at a battalion headquarters ceremony this month.

He's heading home to Boston with hopes of opening a bar. His four-year enlistment - including three tours of duty in Iraq - is almost over. "I just want to live an easy life," he says after the ceremony. "A normal job, nothing fancy. A working stiff. That's my dream."

So does Cpl. Richie Gunter. "I just want to go back to the way things are," says Gunter, 30, who longs to trade Marine fatigues for a T-shirt and jeans and work on the family'stomato farm in Woodland, Calif.

Their loved ones suffer with them. Danielle "Dani" Thurlow of Coloma, Mich., has watched her fiancé, Marine Cpl. Ryan Kling, 22, grow colder and angrier with each tour. "He's pushing his luck," she says.

"I tell a lot of people: I wouldn't wish this on anyone," says Thurlow, 19. "It's very hard. It really is. You're just looking toward the end. That's all you want, is for it to be over."

And Ken Frederking, 69, says he lives in fear that his oldest grandchild, Jimmy Welter, may never find his way home. "What this kid has gone through at his age, it's incredible," the grandfather says. "It just seems like he can't escape."

Keeping in touch with their families - through letters, e-mails and telephone calls - is essential to preserving morale, says Smith, the battalion commander.

"You've got to make sure to not let the Marines get mean," he says. "You can't let the guys go home without their humanity."

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