Nightfall and still over 100 degrees as the gun trucks of a U.S. military convoy known as Dagger Three Seven growl in S-turns past the concrete barriers and blast walls and concertina razor wire that guard the back gate of Camp Anaconda, lurching out onto a pitted two-lane road known for violence and death.
Balad, Republic of Iraq, July 2007.
Headlights bore into the deepening haze of gray, dust and smoke. Inside the lead gun truck, an up-armored Humvee, sweat soaks through layers of body armor, trickling from under helmets, darkening the seats. Nerves taut. Up in the turret, the gunner -- anonymous behind night-vision goggles, scarf and helmet -- swivels behind his .50-cal. It will be a long mission, 16 or 20 hours of unrelenting danger. More than 7,400 miles from home and months left on this deployment.
The soldiers of Dagger Three Seven are riding sentry on a snaking line of freight trucks, the lifeblood of the U.S. military presence. They're outside the wire on convoys like this every day and a half, in between savoring a few precious daylight hours for exhausted sleep or computer time with family.
The Dagger Three Seven crew left this evening after a brief prayer ("Blessed be the Lord, our mighty fortress"). Alert, serious, professional, and fortified with adrenaline and Monster Energy Drink, they are getting the mission done. They have come to a distant place in the hope of making it better -- enhanced security, maybe some democracy. Dagger Three Seven mostly is hoping to avoid the sudden flash of light, the crushing blast wave of dirt and shrapnel, the heaving wreckage, that would announce the detonation of an improvised explosive device.
On this road, one of those things happens that changes nothing about the war but changes a life forever. A gun truck headed home at dusk after a convoy that stretched through a day and night and on into another day. Crew exhausted, nerves shot. Suddenly a young girl is standing in the roadway, facing the oncoming convoy. The gunner, Sgt. Jamie Beavers, cries out in alarm. Inexplicably, the girl stands as if transfixed. Just before impact, her eyes meet his. She is the age of his own daughter back home. Perhaps a brief flash of recognition. Then: bump-bump.
The war in Iraq was launched March 20, 2003, in Baghdad and unexpectedly stretched on for 106 months, just short of nine years. During that time, 1,111,610 Americans served there for a total of 2,337,197 deployments, with some serving two or more times.
Four thousand, four hundred and eighty-eight of them came home in flag-draped coffins, including 110 women, according to Defense Department data. Thirty-two thousand, two hundred and twenty-one were brought home with serious combat wounds ranging from concussions to multiple limb amputations. Two hundred and thirty-five took their own lives while deployed.
In Iraq, 115,376 Iraq civilians were killed between 2003 and 2011 as sectarian fighting intensified, according to the Brookings Institution's Iraq Index, while the number of internally displaced Iraqi civilians rose from 400,000 in 2003 to 2.7 million by 2010.
Many of the Americans who fought in Iraq returned strengthened, with newfound confidence, deep friendships and pride of service. Others have returned with mental scars, diagnosed or not. Surveys by the Army Office of the Surgeon General found in 2006 that 18.6 percent of troops deployed in Iraq suffered "acute stress."
In contrast to past conflicts, where soldiers could retreat to "safe" areas in the rear, the survey found that in 2006, more than two-thirds of the U.S. troops in Iraq had been attacked and had received small-arms fire, 65 percent had seen dead bodies and 72 percent knew someone who had been killed or seriously injured. Eighty-eight percent had experienced incoming artillery or mortar fire, and 45 percent had shot at the enemy. Half had felt an IED explode nearby. Sixty percent reported having a member of their unit become a casualty.
Jamie Beavers, now 33, did two tours in Iraq, suffered several IED blasts, and came home with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as an addiction to the drugs for pain and insomnia he was prescribed in Iraq. He's now off drugs and thinking about going back to college.
Such repeated deployments were taking their toll by 2005.
The Army determined that in order to fully recover from a year-long deployment, a soldier should be at home for at least 30 months and preferably 36 months. But many troops had barely 18 months at home and many far less than that before being re-deployed.
At Fort Drum, N.Y., home of the constantly deploying 10th Mountain Division, mid-career sergeants in their 30s told me they were doing without a permanent home and avoiding long-term relationships; they hot-bunked rented apartments with rental furniture, so that whoever was between deployments would get the apartment and then deploy just as his buddy was returning.
Among troops in Iraq, the divorce rate inched up from 12.4 percent in 2003 to 17.4 percent in 2004, and then to 22 percent in 2009, according to the Army surgeon general's report. There were 669 reported cases of sexual assault among troops in Iraq between 2007 and 2011, according to the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office -- but the number reported is believed to be about 13 percent of the actual total.
Inside the Army as a whole, the war years propelled a jump in violent crime, sexual assaults, drug abuse and increases in desertions and AWOLs. According to a massive 2012 Army study, violent sex crimes in the Army jumped over 90 percent between 2006 and 2011; violent felonies in general leaped 31 percent during the same time period.
By 2010, more than 13,000 soldiers were judged unable to deploy by the Army due to illness, minor injury, or legal problems, Army officials said. Last year, 17,000 active-duty soldiers were under arrest, in military prisons or under investigation, according to the Army report.
Back home, stress on families was real but hard to measure except indirectly -- despite enormous challenges, military families did not "break," as some experts had feared. Instead, they drew on reserves of resiliency and on each other. "It can be a tough life," an Army wife wrote me recently, "but there are many things about it that make it worth it."
A 2011 RAND study of 1,500 11- to 17-year-olds in military families and caregivers reported high levels of stress and behavioral difficulty; 45 percent of the kids said people in their community didn't understand "what a deployment is like." In a 2007 study of 107 military adolescents, Angela Huebner of Virginia Tech University found that responses to having a parent deployed ranged from increased anxiety to pride to rage. "They took my Dad away from me," one teenager said, and several complained of being "stuck" with additional household chores.
The families of the war wounded have faced unique challenges. Staff Sgt. Bryan Gansner of the 101st Airborne was blown up in Iraq in 2006 and his wife, Cheryl, then 24, rushed to meet him at the old Walter Reed Army hospital in Washington, D.C. She was swiftly introduced into the world of bed pans, needles, surgeries, pain and depression. Her nightmares started almost immediately.
After a few weeks in intensive care, reality started to sink in: Bryan's wounding in Iraq had irrevocably altered their future, Cheryl told me. As she described it, the happy life they'd known was over. They would have to sell their house outside Fort Campbell, Ky. They'd lose contact with Bryan's combat buddies and their Army friends back home. As they sat together on a bed in Army housing at Walter Reed, Bryan started sobbing. He told Cheryl he didn't want to be there any more, that he didn't want to be hurt, that he was sorry for putting her through this. As she held him, he admitted he didn't want to live any longer.
"I was the most scared I had been in my life," Cheryl wrote later. "I knew he had beat the odds and survived the blast, but I knew at this point he would struggle for the rest of his life. The outcome probably wouldn't be what we had expected. We knew at that point he would always be in physical and emotional pain."
Brett Litz, a clinical psychologist for the Boston VA Healthcare System and a professor at Boston University, said those who return from war can be haunted for the rest of their lives by their experiences, by "the dark things they think about the world."
"You can't have these long wars -- especially for the subset who have multiple deployments; there's going to be impact," he said. But Litz noted some mental injuries can be healed by a welcoming culture, by loving families, by having a fulfilling job. "These are corrective," he said, "but it takes time."
Cheryl and Bryan Gansner are an attractive and engaging couple, and now seem upbeat despite their struggles with difficult health issues. They're expecting their first baby in September after years of recovery, transition and dreams of starting their own family.
On her blog, Cheryl recently wrote: "I do have to say that I am closer to my husband than I have ever been because of this struggle. I have realized which friends care and which don’t. I feel like a dark black cloud is no longer raining on my head. ... I am planning some really wonderful things for this year."
Also on HuffPost:
May 1, 2011: President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. Seated, from left, are: Brigadier General Marshall B. "Brad" Webb, Assistant Commanding General, Joint Special Operations Command; Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Standing, from left, are: Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; National Security Advisor Tom Donilon; Chief of Staff Bill Daley; Tony Blinken, National Security Advisor to the Vice President; Audrey Tomason Director for Counterterrorism; John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism; and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Please note: a classified document seen in this photograph has been obscured. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
May 8, 2009: President Barack Obama bends over so the son of a White House staff member can pat his head during a family visit to the Oval Office May 8, 2009. The youngster wanted to see if the President's haircut felt like his own. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Dec. 3, 2009: President Barack Obama fist-bumps custodian Lawrence Lipscomb in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building following the opening session of the White House Forum on Jobs and Economic Growth, Dec. 3, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
July 4, 2012: President Barack Obama holds a baby while greeting guests during an Independence Day celebration on the South Lawn of the White House, July 4, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
July 26, 2012: President Barack Obama holds a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House, July 26, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Oval Office Chase
July 9, 2012: President Barack Obama runs around his desk in the Oval Office with Sarah Froman, daughter of Nancy Goodman and Mike Froman, Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economics, July 9, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 13, 2012: President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama wave goodbye to President Shimon Peres of Israel on the North Portico of the White House following the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony and dinner in his honor, June 13, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
April 23, 2012: President Barack Obama tours the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., with Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor, and Sara Bloomfield, museum director, April 23, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 11, 2012: President Barack Obama talks with Betty White in the Oval Office, June 11, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Venus In Transit
April 24, 2012: President Barack Obama stops to view the moon and Venus before boarding Marine One in Boulder, Colo., April 24, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
'Sweet Home Chicago'
Feb. 21, 2012: President Obama joins in singing "Sweet Home Chicago" during the "In Performance at the White House: Red, White and Blues" concert in the East Room of the White House, Feb. 21, 2012. Participants include, from left: Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, Jeff Beck, Derek Trucks, B.B. King, and Gary Clark, Jr. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
March 20, 2011: "The Obama family was scheduled to tour the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio before dinner one night. But when heavy fog rolled in, they canceled the visit. After dinner, the fog had dissipated somewhat so they decided to make the drive up the mountain. It was quite clear when they arrived and then the fog started to roll back in. I managed to capture this silhouette as they viewed the statute one last time just before departure." (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 11, 2011: "The top photograph shows the President having a water gun fight with his daughter Sasha on her birthday weekend at Camp David. Unbeknownst to me, David Lienemann captured a similar photo of the Vice President on the very same day." (Official White House Photos by Pete Souza and David Lienemann)
Dec. 11, 2011: President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and their daughters, Malia, left, and Sasha, right, sit for a family portrait in the Oval Office, Dec. 11, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Oct. 14, 2011: President Barack Obama tours the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C., Oct. 14, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Oct. 11, 2011: "This photograph by Chuck Kennedy has to catch your eye. It shows Guinness Book of World Records holder John Cassidy performing a balloon act for First Lady Michelle Obama in the Diplomatic Reception Room following a Let's Move event." (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
June 21, 2011: First Lady Michelle Obama meets with former President Nelson Mandela of South Africa at Mandela's home in Houghton, South Africa, June 21, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton)
May 29, 2011: President Barack Obama greets Hugh Hills, 85, in front of his home in Joplin, Mo., May 29, 2011. Hills hid in a closet during the tornado, which destroyed the second floor and half the first floor of his house. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 9, 2011: President Barack Obama greets children at a day care facility adjacent to daughter Sasha's school in Bethesda, Md., following her 4th grade closing ceremony, June 9, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Jan. 10, 2011: President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama walk towards the White House after observing a moment of silence for the victims of the Arizona shooting, on the South Lawn, Jan. 10, 2011. White House staff joined the President and First Lady for the moment of silence.(Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
March 7, 2011: President Barack Obama, Prime Minister Julia Gillard of Australia, and members of the Australian and American delegations look up at the presidential seal in the Oval Office ceiling following their bilateral meeting, March 7, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
May 31, 2010: "The skies opened up on Memorial Day outside of Chicago. When the lightning began, the Secret Service told the President that it was too dangerous to proceed. He took the stage by himself and informed the audience that his speech was canceled and that for everyone's safety, they should return to their busses. Later, he boarded a few of the busses to thank them for attending and apologized for not being able to speak." (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
July 20, 2010: President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron walk across the South Lawn of the White House, July 20, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
May 28, 2010: President Barack Obama and Lafourche Parish President Charlotte Randolf, left, inspect a tar ball as they look at the effect the BP oil spill is having on Fourchon Beach in Port Fourchon, La., May 28, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)
March 21, 2010: President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and senior staff, react in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, as the House passes the health care reform bill, March 21, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
March 31, 2010: President Barack Obama practices his pitching form with personal aide Reggie Love and Jake Levine in the Rose Garden of the White House, March 31, 2010. The President threw out the ceremonial first pitch on opening day of the baseball season prior to the game between the Washington Nationals and the Philadelphia Phillies.
Feb. 1, 2009: "During a Super Bowl watching party in the White House theatre, the President and First Lady join their guests in watching one of the TV commercials in 3D." (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
March 15, 2009: "The Obama family was introduced to a prospective family dog at a secret greet on a Sunday. After spending about an hour with him, the family decided he was the one. Here, the dog ran alongside the President in an East Wing hallway. The dog returned to his trainer while the Obama's embarked on their first international trip. I had to keep these photos secret until a few weeks later, when the dog was brought 'home' to the White House and introduced to the world as Bo." (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
Moment Of Reflection
Jan. 20, 2009: "President-elect Barack Obama was about to walk out to take the oath of office. Backstage at the U.S. Capitol, he took one last look at his appearance in the mirror." (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
Dec. 19, 2009: "Snowball in hand, the President chases Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel on the White House colonnade. To escape, Rahm ran through the Rose Garden, which unfortunately for him, was knee-deep in snow." (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
Dec. 10, 2009: President Barack Obama looks at the Nobel Peace Prize medal for the first time at the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo, Norway, Dec. 10, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Jan. 16, 2010: "President Obama had called on the two former Presidents to help with the situation in Haiti. During their public remarks in the Rose Garden, President Clinton had said about President Bush, 'I've already figured out how I can get him to do some things that he didn't sign on for.' Later, back in the Oval, President Bush is jokingly asking President Clinton what were those things he had in mind." (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
Oct. 8, 2009: President Barack Obama watches as members of the National Naval Medical Center's Marine Wounded Warrior basketball team play on the White House basketball court, Oct. 8, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Shoot The J
Oct. 8, 2009: President Barack Obama takes a shot during a game with Cabinet secretaries and members of Congress on the White House basketball court, Oct. 8, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Aug. 16, 2009: President Barack Obama looks at the Grand Canyon in Arizona on Aug. 16, 2009. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
April 21, 2009: President Barack Obama and Sen. Ted Kennedy walk down the South Lawn sidewalk at the White House April 21, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
July 10, 2009: President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama meet with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican on July 10, 2009. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
July 13, 2009: President Barack Obama feigns a punch while talking about health care reform with Nancy-Ann DeParle, Peter Orszag, Phil Schiliro and Larry Summers in the Outer Oval Office, July 13, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 26, 2009: President Barack Obama jokingly reacts to news that staffer Nora Becker will be leaving to pursue a joint MD and PhD in healthcare economics, during the White House staff picnic on the South Lawn, June 26, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 2, 2009: President Barack Obama and former First Lady Nancy Reagan walk side-by-side through Center Hall in the White House, June 2, 2009. To the left of Mrs. Reagan hangs her official White House portrait as First Lady. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 4, 2009: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recounts a story to President Barack Obama, Senior Advisors David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett, outside the Sultan Hassan Mosque in Cairo, Egypt, June 4, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
June 4, 2009: President Barack Obama tours the Egypt's Great Sphinx of Giza (left) and the Pyramid of Khafre, June 4, 2009. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)
Behind The Camera
Feb. 18, 2009: President Barack Obama takes aim with a photographer's camera backstage prior to remarks about providing mortgage payment relief for responsible homeowners at Dobson High School, Mesa, Ariz., Feb. 18, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Jan. 21, 2009: President Barack Obama walks into the Oval Office for his first full day in office, Jan. 21, 2009. His Personal Aide Reggie Love stands nearby. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)