By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 25, 2006; A01
SAN SALVADOR — The convoy of Salvadoran troops was rumbling along a highway in southern Iraq when a bomb exploded under the first Humvee, slicing the driver’s neck with shrapnel. As a medic scrambled to reach him, insurgents hiding nearby unleashed a torrent of small-arms fire.
It was the soldiers’ first taste of combat in Iraq. But for those who had fought in El Salvador’s fierce civil war as teenagers two decades earlier, the skirmish near Diwaniyah last September felt uncomfortably familiar.
Once again, they were crouching for cover against the deafening rat-a-tat-tat of AK-47 assault rifles. Once again, they were firing back with weapons and ammunition supplied by the U.S. government.
"Suddenly all these memories of the civil war came back to me," recalled Gustavo, a 35-year-old sergeant who returned to his village in northern El Salvador last month. Like other soldiers interviewed, he asked that his full name not be published because he was not authorized to speak publicly. "It was strange," he said. "I started remembering all these ambushes and battles I hadn’t thought about in so long."
The Salvadoran government’s willingness to keep sending troops to Iraq — after three other Latin American countries pulled out their forces — underscores the unusually strong political and economic bonds, as well as the unique military relationship, forged in the past two decades between this tiny country and the United States. More than 1 million Salvadorans now live in the United States, including 125,000 in the Washington region, census figures show. The Salvadoran Embassy estimates the number in the region at 500,000.
The Salvadoran and U.S. militaries have largely reversed their roles in the two conflicts. In El Salvador, Salvadoran soldiers did nearly all the fighting against leftist guerrillas, while dozens of U.S. military advisers trained, armed and often secretly directed them as part of a broader policy to prevent any more Central American nations from succumbing to the leftist revolution that swept Nicaragua in 1979.
In Iraq, the roughly 380 Salvadoran troops are a tiny presence compared with the 133,000 U.S. troops there. Perhaps their greatest contribution is to help preserve the diminishing "coalition of the willing" that President Bush assembled in 2003. Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic originally sent troops but have since withdrawn.
One reason El Salvador has agreed to stay, according to analysts, is that its three most recent elected presidents have been members of the rightist ARENA party, which has close ties with the Bush administration and shares its commitment to a proposed regional free-trade agreement.
Salvadoran workers in the United States send home $2.8 billion annually, and the current Salvadoran president, Elias Antonio Saca, has been lobbying the U.S. government to liberalize immigration laws so more can enter legally. He has also requested repeated extensions of the temporary legal status that the United States granted to more than 220,000 illegal Salvadoran immigrants in 2001 after earthquakes devastated El Salvador.
Last month, the Bush administration announced the latest extension of the controversial program, two weeks after Saca agreed to send a sixth contingent of troops to Iraq. So far, more than 2,300 Salvadorans have served there, and two have been killed.
"ARENA has evolved considerably, but the continuity is still there," noted Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based research group. Although neither government has acknowledged a link to El Salvador’s Iraq policy, "it certainly doesn’t hurt," he observed.
Some Salvadorans feel it is unfair to send the troops to Iraq. One is Herminia Ramos, whose son Natividad died there in 2004.
"Yes, they have a duty to serve. But it’s a duty to protect their own country, not to take care of a country so far away that has nothing to do with us," Ramos, 47, said bitterly on a recent morning as she shelled peas in the dirt yard of her village home. "It’s like our government is selling these soldiers to the United States."
Ramos said Natividad dropped out of school at age 15 to join the army after his father died. Ramos, an illiterate laundress, needed money to raise her three younger children, and the army paid about $240 a month.
Within two years, Natividad was deployed to Iraq. He was killed in the city of Najaf on April 4, 2004, when supporters of the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr stormed a barracks defended by Salvadoran and Spanish troops. A second Salvadoran soldier died in a vehicle accident.
Ramos said she knew her son was dead the moment she saw a delegation of soldiers coming up the path to her mud-brick hut. "I had this horrible feeling in my stomach," she recalled, tears rolling down her cheeks. "All I felt was pain."
Her grief soon turned to anger. It took months of nagging to get the military to build the small cement house it had promised her, and Natividad’s $7,000 government life insurance payment soon ran out.
Last summer, with help from another son, Ramos wrote to President Saca, begging him not to send any more soldiers to Iraq. But there have been only small, scattered antiwar demonstrations in El Salvador, and several recently returned soldiers said they did not resent being deployed.
"Maybe going doesn’t benefit me personally. But I know it’s good for the country and for all those Salvadorans in the United States," Gustavo said.
Other soldiers said that when they passed through John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York on their way to Iraq, Salvadoran janitors thanked them, saying their military service was creating more respect for Salvadoran immigrants.
Many also said they felt a personal duty to repay U.S. soldiers for serving alongside them during the civil war.
The U.S. involvement in that conflict remains controversial because U.S. officials overlooked or played down atrocities committed by the Salvadoran military against civilians. But many Salvadorans who were drafted as teenagers to fight guerrillas viewed the U.S. money and training as a lifesaver for their country.
In Iraq, the warm relations have continued. Salvadorans said many U.S. soldiers, particularly those who spoke some Spanish, would seek them out in mess halls or stop by their barracks to say hello.
"They’d call us ‘brother’ and ask for our Salvadoran flag patches to put on their uniforms," recalled Cesar, 37, a sergeant who lives near the capital. In response, he said, he stuck an American flag patch on his flak vest, until his Iraqi translator warned him it would increase his chances of being shot at by insurgents.
Salvadoran soldiers have faced plenty of danger in Iraq, including the ambush at Diwaniyah. On patrols, they said, bullets would strike their Humvees; at night, their barracks were frequently attacked with mortars.
One day, Gustavo’s unit was called to guard the scene of a suicide bombing in a market. Picking his way past body parts, he said, he was flooded with gruesome memories of the civil war he had tried to forget: his brother, blinded after stepping on a mine; the corpse of a female social worker, cut open and left naked in the middle of a road.
Now, three weeks after returning home, Gustavo said he still has trouble sleeping. If his wife taps him even gently, he bounds out of bed and takes cover.
"You felt like you were taunting death every time you went out," Gustavo said.
Over time, the soldiers became more reluctant to go on patrols. The decline in morale was partly fueled by rumors of corruption among the battalion’s leadership, whom soldiers suspected of stealing new uniforms and boots. They were also humiliated to learn that troops from other developing nations were being paid up to seven times what they were getting.
Pablo, 37, a corporal now on leave in his cinder-block home in a slum near the capital, said he was hoping for his first raise in 10 years. If it doesn’t come through, he said, he will have no choice but to try to sneak into the United States. He has four young children and mounting school expenses.
Besides, he said with a hopeful smile, "if the border police catch me, then I’ll just explain to them that I’m a Salvadoran who served in Iraq. Then maybe they’ll let me stay."