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The Iraq story: how troops see it

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Cpl. Stan Mayer has seen the worst of war. In the leaves of his photo album, there are casual memorials to the cost of the Iraq conflict - candid portraits of friends who never came home and graphic pictures of how insurgent bombs have shredded steel and bone.

Yet the Iraq of Corporal Mayer's memory is not solely a place of death and loss. It is also a place of hope. It is the hope of the town of Hit, which he saw transform from an insurgent stronghold to a place where kids played on Marine trucks. It is the hope of villagers who whispered where roadside bombs were hidden. But most of all, it is the hope he saw in a young Iraqi girl who loved pens and Oreo cookies.

Like many soldiers and marines returning from Iraq, Mayer looks at the bleak portrayal of the war at home with perplexity - if not annoyance. It is a perception gap that has put the military and media at odds, as troops complain that the media care only about death tolls, while the media counter that their job is to look at the broader picture, not through the soda straw of troops' individual experiences.

Yet as perceptions about Iraq have neared a tipping point in Congress, some soldiers and marines worry that their own stories are being lost in the cacophony of terror and fear. They acknowledge that their experience is just that - one person's experience in one corner of a war-torn country. Yet amid the terrible scenes of reckless hate and lives lost, many members of one of the hardest-hit units insist that they saw at least the spark of progress.

"We know we made a positive difference," says Cpl. Jeff Schuller of the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines, who spent all but one week of his eight-month tour with Mayer. "I can't say at what level, but I know that where we were, we made it better than it was when we got there."

It is the simplest measure of success, but for the marine, soldier, or sailor, it may be the only measure of success. In a business where life and death rest on instinctive adherence to thoroughly ingrained lessons, accomplishment is ticked off in a list of orders followed and tasks completed. And by virtually any measure, America's servicemen and women are accomplishing the day-to-day tasks set before them.

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