Reporter's Notebook: Troops 'Vindicated'

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Published December 15, 2003

| FoxNews.com

When I heard the news that Saddam Hussein had been captured, I had one thought: what did some of the troops who fought in the war to oust Saddam think about the historic event?

Brandon Austin, a Marine reservist who is back on the job as a police officer in Marin County, Calif., was booking a suspect when he heard the first reports of Saddam's capture on television.

He immediately asked the dispatcher to send word over the radio to all the other police officers on duty at that hour, and was getting ready to call other marines and wake them up if necessary with the good news.

"I'm very excited" Austin told me by phone at 5 a.m. PST Sunday as he was driving home from work. "It's the cream on the whole experience ... vindication."

Austin said the lack of Saddam's capture up until now was "a weight on all the marines and sailors and soldiers and airmen, wanting to finish the job." He's also convinced the uncertainty over Saddam's whereabouts was fueling the resistance. "Some people (in Iraq) believed he would be back in power. I don't know what they have to fight for now."

Austin, who served with the 2nd Battalion 23rd Marines (search) in Iraq, was one of the U.S. military personnel who I met while I was embedded during the war. Once I heard about Saddam's fate, I decided to check in with some of those people I met during my time in Iraq.

I called and woke Lt. Dave Staugitis, who was the executive officer of Alpha Company, 3rd Light Armored Reconaissance (search), now training new marines to be infantry rifleman at Camp Pendleton (search), Calif. He was groggy, but perked up quickly when I told him of the capture. "Holy !@#$%!" were his actual first words, then "Outstanding!"

"You realize what we did over there was totally worth it," Staugitis said. "How [the Iraqis] must feel now that Saddam is gone... I'm very happy, and I believe the Iraqis are elated too, hoping things will calm down."

He thinks resistance will be limited now, but there are "still gonna be sporadic attacks, maybe even a spike now in retaliations, but knowing there's no chance of him coming back ... I think it'll get better in the long run."

I also spoke to Lt. Colonel Geoffrey Cooper, the commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion 23rd Marines, who's a deputy sheriff in San Bernadino County, Calif., when he's not on active duty.

Cooper is headed back to Iraq with the Marine First Division early next year.

His first words were "You're kidding me!" and "Unbelievable!"

"This is great news" he said. "I know all the marines in my battalion will be happy, especially Golf company. They spent ten days up there with Task Force Tripoli looking for him. I'm especially glad because I'm going back, probably in February."

"People will finally be willing to give us the trust and their full support because they won't be worried about the threat of Saddam coming back and killing and torturing their families. The tyrant is finally captured and I think you'll see the full support of the Iraqi people. There will still be some holdouts, but not as many. The number and frequency of attacks will go down."

I asked how this would affect his return trip, and Cooper said he felt better about going back, then said "My wife already feels better."

Guess I woke her up too.

I told him to turn on his television, and as he did, pictures of the freshly captured dictator flashed on the screen.

Cooper laughed and said "He looks rough. He looks bad."

I asked the colonel if he was upset he wasn't the one to catch him, since that was one of his goals.

"No... I'm just glad we got him. I'm surprised he survived this long," he said.

The colonel also said he doesn't think Saddam will be much help in the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. "Just because of his hatred for America and western civilization, I don't think he's gonna cooperate."

Finally, I received an email from 1st Sgt. Mike "M.J." Lane, 3rd LAR.

"It seems quite surreal actually... I'm somewhat relieved, but I know the task isn't complete," Lane wrote. The rest of his e-mail follows:

"I remember being asked by one of my marines when the war first started if in my opinion I felt that the war was worth it. Should we be here, they asked.

"My answer was that in seeing the poverty and appalling lives of the Iraqi people — all caused by Saddam, one of the wealthiest men in the world — yes it is definitely worth it.

"Seeing a man of such inconceivable control and evil being examined by an American on worldwide TV is bizarre.

"But the humiliation and disgrace that Saddam has to be feeling right now is complete satisfaction for me. I'm glad that he was taken alive and without a fight, because it shows his people that he was not as invincible as he purported himself to be. I hope he is treated like the criminal that he is. I also hope that justice will be carried out quickly."

Fox News' Rick Leventhal was embedded with U.S. forces for about six weeks, from early March to mid-April. Leventhal started out with the 3rd Light Armored Reconaissance in northern Kuwait and ended with the 2nd Battalion 23rd Marines in Baghdad.

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