By Clay Wilson
Despite the fact that Saddam Hussein's regime has been ousted from Iraq, continuing violence still threatens the lives of American soldiers now engaged in peacekeeping missions.
"Don't forget that the major fighting may be over, but the battle isn't won There are still people dying," said Bob Bolia, public affairs director for Forts Macpherson and Gillem.
"Until Iraq and Afghanistan get on their feet and get their own governments, that's probably going to be the case."
According to the U.S. Department of Defense, more than 140,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq. And while some units are returning to the U.S., others are being deployed to take their place.
"We're extremely busy," said Mary Lou Austin of the USO Office at Hartsfield International Airport.
Austin and her staff provide welcomes for returning troops and send-offs for deploying ones. She said they have seen their share of both in recent weeks.
Some units that may have thought they were coming home soon have had their stays in Iraq extended. The Army's 3rd Infantry Division from Savannah's Fort Stewart, for instance, recently received orders extending deployment of more than 16,000 of its troops until at least the end of August.
Part of the division was sent to the Iraqi town of Fallujah, where continuing resistance resulted in the death of one U.S. soldier and injuries to five others Thursday.
So far, according to Defense Department statistics, 178 U.S. troops have died in Operation: Iraqi Freedom.
U.S. commanders and defense officials say that the continuing attacks represent only scattered pockets of opposition, rather than coordinated resistance. But that may be little comfort to the soldiers who are still facing the bullets.
"It's still not the greatest over there. No matter where you go, you still have to look out," said Cpl. Lee Carmichael of the U.S. Marines First Division. Carmichael, the son of Denise and Lemual Carmichael of McDonough, returned from Iraq about three weeks ago. Speaking from his home base at Camp Lejeune, N.C., he reflected on the dangers his fellow Marines still face every day.
"I hope people over here don't think, ?Oh, they're just over there not doing anything' they're still in danger," he said.
While the war in Iraq dominated the headlines before President Bush declared the major fighting at an end last month, interest in the region seems to have waned since then.
Carmichael said he predicted such a reaction once the patriotic fervor that usually accompanies the outbreak of war subsided. He said he made the prediction during a telephone call to his mother, when she was describing the yellow ribbons and U.S. flags festooning her son's former hometown.
"(I said), ?Mom, I like seeing them, but I know that in a couple of months everybody's going to forget about it,'" he said.
"That was our big concern (while deployed) that people don't forget about us while we're over there."
But there are people who haven't forgotten. People like Austin, who works on the USO's "Operation: Goodie Bag," preparing departure comfort kits for troops who are still deploying.
The USO is also still trying to keep the troops supplied with international phone cards, which Austin said is one of the biggest requests they receive.
And Dale Barnett, deputy junior vice commander for the American Legion's Department of Georgia, hasn't forgotten, either.
"It's probably more dangerous driving a Humvee through any city in Iraq today (on peacekeeping missions) than it was an Abrams tank or Bradley Fighting Vehicle during the combat phase," said Barrett, a veteran of the first Gulf War.
"We must continue to remember our troops and their families here in the U.S."
Carmichael expressed the same sentiment, if a bit more poignantly.
"It's not on the news all the time ?," he said, "(but) don't ever forget that there are kids who are waiting for their dads to come home."