The sacrifices are great, and sometimes soldiers wonder why they keep making them. On the night that Gauthreaux died, Del Valle and Capt. Christopher Whitten, the gunner that day, talked about their career choice over a game of chess at a small shop on their base as the Iraqi owner served them tea and warm bread. They express a brief moment of doubt about the extent to which what they do is really understood by most Americans. "You get in a humvee every day because that's the job that is feeding your family. I also believe in what we're doing here," says Del Valle. "Our soldiers here are giving 100 percent for every American guy back in the States." Whitten nods, adding, "It makes you wonder, does anybody really appreciate what that guy gave up today?"
It is not an uncommon question in this combat zone. Historians will tell you that wars throughout the ages, whatever their outcome, tend to wreck armies and wear out soldiers. Troops hasten to add that the belief that they are making a difference in their jobs helps mitigate the immense strain of being a soldier today. "I would argue that you haven't seen an army like this since the demise of the Roman legion—such a small number of forces able to influence the world," says Clinton Ancker III, a retired Army colonel and director of the Combined Arms Doctrine Directorate. When the 3rd Brigade Combat Team arrived in Baqubah, there was widespread corruption and heartbreaking violence against civilians. During the tour of Del Valle, Whitten, and Jones's brigade, they drove out terrorists and saw some life return to the markets, children to soccer fields. It is the sort of impact that makes a military career attractive, they say.
But the desire to make a difference can lead to even greater frustration when troops return after previous tours in Iraq to find what they consider to be little change or even backsliding during a counterinsurgency campaign in which the very definition of victory is still a lively topic of debate. That frustration can be compounded, too. Ancker argues that soldiers are under "a lot more stress" now than they were in Vietnam. "The atmosphere is more physically demanding. And in Vietnam, we were guaranteed at least a year between deployments," he says. When soldiers are injured—physically and psychologically—they are at the mercy of a deeply overburdened system that they cannot always count on to take care of them.
Camaraderie. The military has drawn lessons from past wars, notably Vietnam, reorganizing the Army into brigade combat teams in part to encourage unit cohesion and camaraderie. This has promoted the sort of psychological bonding that gives troops a sense of support in the face of the enormous demands, says Jeffrey LaFace, the division chief of the Army's Combined Armed Center.
That camaraderie is clear on forward operating bases throughout Baghdad, where troops organize flag football matches and barbecues and decompress in coffee shops and Internet cafes with fellow soldiers and marines who have become close friends over the years. "Soldiers go in as units, with the same group of guys that they have known since they were privates in Kosovo and Bosnia," says LaFace. These "adopted families," he adds, help to stem "some of the weirdness that we had coming out of Vietnam." That weirdness included soldiers who shot officers when they didn't want to do a mission and riots in U.S. military prisons overcrowded with deserters.
It is another notable legacy of the troubled Vietnam-era Army that many of today's volunteer soldiers have little desire to see the nation return to the draft. "It's the only thing that would make me get out of the Army," says Capt. Scott Hubbard, who recently returned from a tour in Iraq. The last thing you want to do, he adds, is fight next to someone who doesn't want to be next to you.
Despite the strains, the retention rate for troops in Iraq remains high, commanders point out. Their concern, though, is whether it will stay that way. "The entire Army leadership—and rightfully—we get a little nervous," says Peter Chiarelli, the military assistant to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and until 2006 the widely admired No. 2 commander in Iraq. "All of us are extremely concerned that we could cross a line without even knowing it."