Mike Manhatton recently spent time in Iraq, mostly Baghdad and Tikrit, to bring us a firsthand look at life on the front lines of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
So many of our friends, family and neighbors are far, far away, thousands of them serving with the Third Infantry Division in Iraq. It's a tough, sometimes dangerous, mission, but with the potential for the most impact on the world and history.
In Baghdad, we met an Iraqi police officer saying, "Crazy Saddam. Down with America! Down with America! Saddam! No America!" He may be the most vivid sign of change in Iraq in the past few years.
What we always see is the latest car bomb, or complaint that the power's out.
"I see a lot of improvements; I see a lot of good things happening out there," said Command Sgt. Maj. Rick Stidley. "In Iraq, I see the electricity being up in the cities much more. People having the freedom to do what they want to do. And I'm not sure that all the good news stories are getting taken back."
So what do our Third Infantry Division soldiers see? From a few hundred feet in the air, Saint Simons native and Savannah resident Pvt. William Robinson, a crew chief on a Blackhawk helicopter, gets a bird's eye view. "They'll wave at you, a lot of them will wave, they're really friendly," he said. "They'll stop what they're doing, look up, and wave at the helicopter."
The place is definitely changing. Sgt. Steven McLain told us, "Last time I came, it was at the heart of the war, so it was a lot of bullets flying. It was in the face of danger, because we was actually trying to conquer the country. This time, it's pretty much stabilized."
It starts on the streets, and Third Infantry soldiers spend a lot of time on Baghdad's streets. Patrolling. Protecting. Just talking with Iraqi police and community leaders.
Spc. Robert McCree noted "how much they appreciate our job out here in liberating them from what they were used to."
You can see it on the streets of Baghdad. Jammed rush hour traffic. Furniture stores. Chandeliers. Appliances, TVs, too many to fit inside the stores. And they're selling. "Yes, yes, most people in country can buy it," one store owner told us. "Not expensive."
What is expensive is the investment in rebuilding Iraq. Division commander Maj. Gen. William Webster cited "$2 billion worth of projects to bring back the central services of electricity, water and sewer and trash pickup to the people of Baghdad."
"There's been an incredible, across-the-board improvement in infrastructure development here in Baghdad," said Brig. Gen. Mark O'Neil. "Now, you might think that's a little bit odd for an infantry division to be worried about infrastructure, but we spend a good deal of our time every week doing things as mundane as getting sewers reestablished in Baghdad.
"So we are building a city from scratch in many respects, and it takes time," Gen. O'Neil added.
Which brings us back to that lone Iraqi police officer, talking about America. The reason he's important is that he's not cursing America. He's making fun of Saddam. Something that would have gotten him killed not too many years ago.
As we continue this week, we'll hit the streets in Iraq. We'll take you on a patrol in the desert, a chance for soldiers to play Santa, and a very dangerous night in east Baghdad.