As two Black Hawk helicopters landed in the 108 degrees Baghdad afternoon, we formed a line to show respect for two tiny vehicles as they drove by – each carrying two body bags containing U.S. soldiers beginning their journey from a hospital in Iraq to burial back home.
The four were among seven U.S. soldiers killed Monday in the western part of Baghdad when their truck fell off a bridge. Varying accounts say the truck was swerving to avoid a roadside bomb or slipped off the bridge when it tried to turn too quickly. The soldiers had been ordered to set up an instant road block, one of the strategies to capture insurgents.
Surviving members of the unit, many weeping openly, served as pall bearers carrying the litters to the waiting helicopters. The long line, mostly staff from the 28th Combat Support Hospital, as well as visitors like us and representatives from the nearby U.S. Embassy, gave a salute or covered their hearts during the loading and as the choppers took off.
This ceremony called an "Angel Flight" takes place often. Some of the doctors who work at the hospital have even a written a song called "Too Many Angel Flights."
Desire to make the sacrifices worth it
After two days at the 28th Combat Support Hospital in the Green Zone, Kevin Monahan, my producer, and I drove back to the NBC's Baghdad office. At one point we get stuck in a long line of traffic on a bridge over the Tigris River. A truck had broken down at a checkpoint. Maybe I'm a wimp, but I was terrified. Cars stuck on bridges make great targets for snipers or rockets.
You don't have to go far in Baghdad to realize how awful the situation remains. When we got back to the office we watched the testimony of Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker that dragged on well into the Baghdad night.
At one point, Petraeus offered what I thought was the highlight of his testimony. "We all want to go home," he said. "Nobody wants to remain here forever." And then he went on to explain that despite that, he and the other soldiers don't want to leave without "getting the job done."
This is a viewpoint that most people who care about their professions feel – and it is an especially powerful ethic of the military. I hear it time and again when I speak to soldiers of all ranks. No one wants to be regarded as leaving in failure even if some feel that the Bush administration has redefined "the job" countless times.
The troops want to succeed despite, in fact probably because of, all the "Angel Flights" and other horrors they have seen. The sacrifices only reinforce that desire not to feel it was all for nothing.
Congress doesn't need to ask the military, even the top general in Iraq, about their desire. The question is whether the politicians who started this war have any idea of how to end it or what to do next if they don't.