'I Want to Go Home ... Especially on Memorial Day'

At Combat Outpost 881 in southwest Baghdad, every day is a sort of Memorial Day.

"One of my best friends got killed here in 2005," Sgt. Robert Scott told ABC News from his small bedroom. "Several friends got killed, actually. I think about them every day."

"One of my really close friends, Spc. Tucker, he was a good friend of mine," Pvt. Matthew Brown told ABC News, sitting in the outpost's mess hall. "I got the news about him, and that was really hard. But you know, I'm just trying to live my life the way he would and not think about how he went out. I think about how he lived."


On this day, just like any other day, these twenty-somethings who fight for the U.S. Army in Baghdad remembered their friends, their colleagues, the men who they fight, eat and sleep next to.

But it is not a holiday for the more than 150,000 troops stationed in Iraq. Today was just another work day -- a day during which the Raider Brigade of the 1st Battalion of the 22nd Infantry Regiment, which is based at 881, did what it does every day: went on a foot patrol.

"We want to earn their trust. So they know we're here to help them," Staff Sgt. Michael Singleton told ABC News while walking through the al Furat neighborhood of western Baghdad. It is a Sunni neighborhood, home to non-commissioned officers under Saddam Hussein. "We're not here to, you know, shoot everybody."


What he and the rest of the company were there to do was talk to Iraqis and hear their complaints. There is only one hour of electricity, the Iraqis told the Americans. "We don't have jobs," they said. "We need the sewage to be removed."

"Two years ago," Singleton said, referring to his first tour in Iraq, "it was pretty much just fighting, IEDs (improvised explosive devices). And now, they have crews that are cleaning up the streets. It's all about jobs. If we can get them jobs, keep them occupied, they'll have trust and faith in their government to do the right thing."

No one knows for sure how much of Baghdad is unemployed. Estimates range from 15 percent to well over 50 percent. In the al Furat neighborhood, which is located in the southwest just southeast of the airport, it is jobs and electricity that residents are worried about most.

The U.S.-backed Iraqi citizens group, known as the Sons of Iraq, as well as U.S. patrols, have helped make the neighborhood relatively safe for its Sunni residents. The Shiite residents who used to live there have all moved.

"They helped us from the security point of view. And the security is good," Qais Ali, a 35-year-old shopkeeper in al Farat, told ABC News. But now, he said, "We are jobless. The U.S. promised they would find us jobs. And they didn't follow up."

"I need a job," 23-year-old Mustafa Muhammad told ABC News, presenting the identity cards he was using to apply for jobs that morning. "Because of sectarian violence, we can't leave the area."

He says he is grateful to the United States, but now wants more. "The most important thing is security," he said. "There is security. Now, we don't have electricity."

There were no arrests on this Memorial Day, no banging down of doors or firing of weapons. Dozens of adults and hundreds of children piled out of their homes to talk with the soldiers, ask them for a job or money or grab candy. These soldiers on this day are more civil affairs workers than fighters.

"When it's time to be aggressive, we're aggressive. That's for sure. When it's time to be nice, then we're nice, to help the Iraqis and their families. That's what it comes down to," Singleton said.

He stood next to a family whose son had been taken to the hospital by U.S. troops to treat a skin condition. Soldiers had given the family three months worth of medicine, though the father complained that his son was eventually treated in an ineffective hospital.

In interviews with a dozen Iraqi residents, nearly all expressed the same sentiment about the soldiers: stay, but only until Iraqi police can take over.

"For the time being, I want them to stay," said 45-year-old Jassim Muhammad, a police officer. "Until we have enough security. Until the police station in this area can provide the security. Then we say to them," he said, pausing before finishing in English, "Go home. Bye-bye."

Until that time comes, the Americans are working to make inroads within the communities that surround the outpost. Following a walk through al Furat, the Raider Brigade passed a nearby market, asking shop owners how business was going.

Members of the Mahdi militia, led by the firebrand critic of the U.S., Moqtada al Sadr, have been imposing taxes on the local business, soldiers said.

"We give them a phone number to call and report anything," 1st Lt. Matthew Cyr told ABC News outside one of the shops. He had just handed out business cards with a number and an e-mail address for the combat outpost. He admitted many of the shopkeepers were scared to report on the Mahdi militia, but said, "over time, many have learned to trust us."

In the afternoon, back on the outpost, officers hosted the newly elected local provisional head. She brought them locally cooked food.

Singleton and the rest of the company were left to eat what they eat every day -- frozen pizzas defrosted on George Foreman grills, tuna packets sent by parents back home, and corn dogs heated up in the microwave.

"I got some tuna fish," Sgt. Kyle Lobdell said, while making a sandwich. "They don't have a lot of food here. All they have is pizza and corn dogs."

Soon, the combat outpost will have a full kitchen. But for now, these soldiers only have one hot meal every day, and that has to be brought in from a larger base nearby.

The closest they'll get to a home cooked meal or any of their family members is an e-mail sent by their wives, or photos kept by their bedsides.

"Me, personally, I want to go home, just like every other soldier here. Especially on Memorial Day," Singleton said. "But we're here to do our job. That's all we can do. Do it to the best of our ability. Help the Iraqis and help them succeed, help them take over their country."