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Before the United States went to war with Iraq in late March, Sgt. Lui Fenumia'i spent three months in Kuwait training on his unit's Bradley Fighting Vehicle. The training was routine and dull, and the soldiers were getting on each other's nerves living in such close quarters.
But when Fenumia'i's division crossed the Iraqi border, a few days before the conflict began, it took just one shot from an Iraqi rocket-propelled grenade launcher ricocheting off the Bradley's light armor to vanquish the boredom.
"I was ready to fight. It's a weird feeling, because I felt like I was indestructible. I didn't care if I was going to live or die, because I knew I was doing it for the right cause," Fenumia'i, 26, said Wednesday at his mother-in-law's Juneau home. He returned to the United States on Aug. 11 after about nine months in the Persian Gulf.
His unit found itself under fire after luring Iraqi forces from the Karbala Gap so that the rest of the division could pass through on its way to Baghdad. The Bradley and its nine-member crew made its way to a village in southern Iraq, where it was surrounded.
As a "dismount," Fenumia'i's job was to jump out of the Bradley with three other soldiers and clear obstacles from the vehicle's path. But during firefights, the dismounts essentially were trapped in the back of the vehicle while gunners on top fired returning volleys.
"All we could do was pray that we were not going to die," he said.
Fenumia'i, a former Juneau-Douglas High School football star, joined the Army in June 2003, a month after marrying his longtime girlfriend, Michelle. The couple and their daughter, Devan, are based in Fort Stewart, Ga. They returned there this week.
Michelle, 25, said she tried not to watch the news very much during the war, and she doesn't like to hear her husband's battle stories now that he's home.
"I don't like to think of him in that situation. That's why I'm glad he's got a lot of family and friends who like to hear the stories, so I don't have to," she said.
Fenumia'i's team was tasked with clearing the first palace in Baghdad of obstacles and booby traps. They found none in the rubble - the palace already had been bombed. But they saw enough of the remains to notice marble floors and large volumes of artwork featuring Saddam Hussein burning American flags or ripping them with swords. It's clear to Fenumia'i that the Iraqi people are better off without Hussein, but he's not sure how much better off.
"He was keeping food away from people. If a town was uprising, he'd cut off their electricity. That's messed up," Fenumia'i said. "We had to take out his regime ... but it's basically like guerilla warfare now."
He agreed with critics of the Bush administration who argued the United States should wait for the United Nations to act against Saddam. He said U.N. involvement would have lessened the burden on the U.S. military.
"We couldn't figure out who would relieve us. I think it would have been easier for us to come back home if the U.N. was involved," he said.
Masha Herbst can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.