BAGHDAD, Iraq – In blistering summer heat and blinding sandstorms, U.S. troops marked Independence Day on Monday with barbecues, volleyball and — for those who have them — dips in the pool. Bursts of gunfire and wailing sirens served as a reminder of why the troops are here.
President Bush vowed during a Fourth of July speech in West Virginia that U.S. forces will stay in Iraq "until the fight is won." But one soldier, Pfc. Stephen Tschiderer (search), simply prays he'll get home safely after surviving a gunshot just above his heart.
Tschiderer, an Army medic from Mendon, N.Y., said he was on patrol in Baghdad two days ago when at least two gunmen opened fire. Tschiderer was standing next to his Humvee (search) when a bullet struck his flak vest, knocking him to the ground.
"I opened up my vest, made sure I wasn't bleeding, and continued with the mission," later bandaging wounds of one of the insurgents, he said. "It didn't seem weird until afterward that I was treating the guy who tried to kill me...I'm very proud to serve my country, but I can't wait to get back to live in my country."
For most of the 136,000 service members stationed in Iraq, Independence Day passed uneventfully in the 110 degree heat. A blinding sandstorm grounded most U.S. military aircraft, muting the usual sound of hovering helicopters.
At a base in Taji (search), north of Baghdad, the storm forced cancellation of a boxing tournament. Other troops continued their usual work of trying to locate insurgents or stabilize dangerous neighborhoods.
"To us, it is Independence Day, but our soldiers are still on patrols because the mission is still going on," said Army Lt. Taysha Deaton of Lake Charles, La., serving with the 256th Brigade of the Louisiana National Guard.
At Al Asad Air Base in western Iraq, Marine Cpl. Traben Pleasant, 24, of Long Beach, Calif., quaffed a nonalcoholic beer and thought of home.
"This is my third July 4th in Iraq," Pleasant said. "I miss my family and friends. At home, I'd be barbecuing on the beach with my girlfriend."
In Baghdad, troops joined in volleyball, Humvee pulls and three-mile runs. The U.S. command threw a big barbecue bash at Camp Slayer, with troops cooling off in a pool overlooking a lake. Some let loose with karaoke renditions of songs like Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly."
Soldiers on four-day rest passes watched belly dancers and a comedy show after roasting a hog at the former Iraqi Republican Guard officers' club in Baghdad. The facility was refurbished after the 2003 invasion and includes a pool with a two-story diving platform and big-screen TVs with video games.
"People need to understand that gaining independence is a long process," said Army Sgt. Andrew Chiu of Savannah, Ga., assigned to the 603rd Aviation Support Battalion.
Others said the holiday took on added meaning during their tour in Iraq.
"Before, you kind of took it for granted. Now we're seeing what our forefathers went through to gain (independence)," said Army Sgt. Kenneth Alfred of Fort Hood, Texas, of the 256th Brigade.
Others played horseshoes in a grassy area dotted by palm trees and surrounded by Saddam Hussein's palaces, some still damaged from U.S. bombing at the start of the war in 2003.
Smaller bases had less glitzy commemorations. At Camp Falcon in southern Baghdad, dozens of U.S. soldiers gathered to mark the holiday with an afternoon prayer service.
"It was to remind them of freedoms they have in the U.S., and to remember soldiers that have passed on in this mission," said Maj. Alayne Conway of St. Petersburg, Fla., serving with the 3rd Infantry Division.
At Al Asad in western Iraq, celebrations included roast pig and a "Happy July 4th" poster at the desert airfield's post exchange. Troops looked forward to a screening of "The Patriot," a Mel Gibson film that chronicles the life of a man and his family during the American Revolutionary War.
At the base, where summer temperatures can soar to 125 degrees, a Marine garage band called "More About Nothing" provided music, which it dedicated to fellow Marines killed in action.
The anniversary of America's own Declaration of Independence prompted some soldiers to ponder their role in bringing liberty to the Iraqi people. More than 1,700 service members have died since the Iraq war's start — including more than 1,340 died as a result of hostile action.
"When you come over here, you've got a new respect for the holiday," said Army Spc. Carla McQueen of Tomball, Texas. "We Americans fought for our freedom. It takes the Iraqis' power away from them that we are here. They are not standing up and fighting."
Thousands of Iraqis also have died in the conflict, many of them civilians. More than 1,400 people — mostly Iraqis — have died violently since Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari's government was announced April 28.
"The Iraqi people have suffered and are suffering greatly from savage violence, but we know that they will emerge victorious," U.S. deputy envoy David Satterfield told a Fourth of July commemoration at the U.S. Embassy.