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Marines Carry Away Memories of Iraqis

April 23, 2003

TIKRIT, Iraq (AP) _ They came to Iraq driven by a desire to fight terrorism, protect their homes and families from weapons of mass destruction, or simply to ``shoot bad guys.″

But as the U.S. Marines begin pulling south, handing control over to the Army, many say their lasting memory will be the jubilant people who came running out to thank them as they rolled through the adobe villages _ many unchanged since biblical times _ and the crumbling streets of Saddam Hussein’s neglected cities.

``It has been a humbling experience,″ said Capt. Lauren Edwards, 27, of Smiths Grove, Ky., a member of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing. ``We’ll go back to our trucks and our Harleys, democracy and capitalism. ... I don’t think you could even describe to anyone how people live here.″

Many were excited about the chance to do what they had always trained for _ to kill the enemy. But thoughts of glory quickly receded once they heard bullets for the first time or felt the ground shake from artillery.

``I just want to make it home to my family,″ said Capt. Kevin Digman, 30, after narrowly evading an artillery round aimed at his helicopter and coming under machine gun fire as he lifted wounded Iraqi prisoners and civilians to safety.

``I honestly don’t care about medals,″ said the helicopter pilot from Muncie, Ind.

Faced with paramilitary fighters dressed as civilians, who stood behind women and children to fire shots at passing U.S. convoys, Marines at times found it hard not to direct their rage at all Iraqis.

When Staff Sgt. Dave Gravley, 34, first crossed into Iraq, all he wanted to do was ``blow stuff up.″

``I thought they were all enemies,″ said the ordnance-disposal worker from Colleyville, Texas.

But when he saw Iraqis run out of their homes to offer Marines flowers and cigarettes, he softened. On the outskirts of Baghdad, large parts of which were destroyed by U.S. bombs, his convoy passed a girl carrying a hand-drawn picture of the American flag.

``That was it for me,″ he said.

``It really hit me when we were driving by, seeing all these people waving. ... This is their Independence Day of sorts,″ said Cpl. Joe Moore, a 28-year-old sniper from Grand Blanc, Mich. ``It’s a good feeling.″

To be sure, not all Iraqis have welcomed U.S. forces. At demonstrations around the country, crowds have denounced both Saddam and the United States, with some Iraqis demanding that U.S. troops go home.

Yet Marines said they were deeply moved by welcoming faces and kind gestures.

``Where I’m from, we had dictators, and I know what they do,″ said Capt. Nebyou Yonas, a 29-year-old helicopter transport pilot who arrived in Dallas as a child from Ethiopia. ``Every time I fly by, I see villagers’ faces and I’m at home. I see my mother’s face, my aunt’s face and others in their faces.″

1st Sgt. Horst Jejjoni, 38, was driven by a desire to see the land his parents left behind when they emigrated from Iraq before he was born.

``I have always been curious about what it would be like here. I heard stories about how beautiful the people are, how friendly, how rich this area is in culture,″ said the Marine from San Diego, sitting on the steps of one of Saddam’s opulent palaces in the dictator’s hometown, Tikrit. ``It’s been everything I expected and more.″

Before coming here, Jejjoni wondered whether Saddam was really as terrible as he was reputed to be. But as he passed Bedouins leading herds of camel across the desert, and drank tea with villagers whose mud houses stood in sharp contrast to the marble-lined rooms, flashy cars and indoor swimming pools of Saddam’s elite, those doubts faded away.

``This liberation is dear to my heart, because now I know that when I go back home, I can send my mom back to the village where she grew up and hasn’t seen in 43 years,″ he said.

Marines are not oblivious to the United States’ strategic interests in the region, or questions by some Iraqis about their motives in the oil-producing country. But many take pride in toppling Saddam’s regime.

``Obviously there are always ulterior motives,″ said Capt. Ted Batzel, 30, from Harford, Pa., who pilots Cobra attack helicopters. ``Bottom line _ whatever reasons people think we did this for _ I think we helped people.″

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