With the final withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, I feel compelled to offer my thoughts about that nine-year war, based on two reporting trips there in 2005 and 2008. But so much has been written and said that I decided I didn't have anything worthwhile to add.
Then I remembered the four young Marines and a Navy corpsman I met in Baghdad in March 2005 at Camp Victory, the sprawling headquarters of the U.S. military command. It was the day before Easter Sunday and they were in full combat gear, standing next to a Burger King and a PX that offered a 12-place setting of Saddam Hussein's personal silver service for $5,000.
I had spent 10 days in Iraq and asked where they were headed as I took their photograph. "We're going home, sir," said Cpl. Johnny LeBron, 31, who informed me that he and his buddies were flying to Kuwait the next day and then to Camp Pendleton, Calif., to muster out before returning to Chicago, where four of them lived.
He said he and his weapons company platoon had spent seven months in northern Babil province, part of the Sunni Triangle dubbed "the triangle of death," where they drove armored Hummer vehicles while searching for improvised explosive devices. They disarmed 19 of the deadly roadside bombs, and were hit by 21.
At the time, U.S. forces were seeing an exponential increase in the number of IEDs, which accounted for the vast majority of U.S. combat deaths and injuries by war's end, so I asked LeBron what it's like to get hit by an IED.
As I later wrote, he said, "Well, it really rattles your cage. It's an experience you can't describe. For four or five seconds, time seems to stand still." Sgt. Tim Jensen, 26, added, "The explosion hits and then everything turns black. The breath is sucked out of your lungs. You feel like you're dead. You're floating in timeless space. The first think you think about is the Marine next to you."
They were obviously relieved and excited about the prospect of seeing their wives and families. LeBron and Sgt. Jensen had two children; Sgt. Frank Hazelwood, 42, three, and Navy Corpsman Richard Kasper, 27, who told me he "thought this day would never come," had none. Only Lance Cpl. Robert Nisavic, at 21 the youngest of the five, was not married.
But they were also grieving for one of their comrades, Cpl. Nathaniel Hammond, who was killed five months earlier by an improvised explosive device in north Babil Province. "We knew some of us wouldn't make it back," Kasper said, "but losing one of our own -- we're still dealing with that reality."
Since I had corresponded with LeBron and several of his buddies after sending them my article and the photograph I took, I decided to try to find out what they're doing and where they are today. I reached three of them, and I think their comments reflect the reality of the problems faced by all those young men and women who served in Iraq.
LeBron, now 38, is a police officer at Northwestern University in Evanston. I asked if the human and financial costs of the war, including more than 4,800 Americans killed and some 73,000 wounded, were worth it, and if he'd serve again.
"Was it worth it?," he replied. "God, that's a tough question. I lost buddies and you can't put a price on those lives. But yes, I would do it again. It definitely was a life-changing experience for the better overall that will stay with me forever. The friends I made, the hardships we shared, they made me a better person, who I am today." He added, "I'd like to believe we made a difference in our area of operations. I feel we made a positive impact."
But he admitted that the transition to civilian life has been difficult. "You get used to life over there, you're always on pins and needles. The biggest thing is you come home and a car goes by on the street and you try to get away from it. The first few weeks, you're happy to be home, and then you start thinking about the guys you lost."
LeBron said he's had none of the usual symptoms of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) suffered by many Iraq veterans. "I've had a few breakdowns because of survivor's remorse, but I'm functioning. My kids will ask every now and then while watching a movie, 'Was it like this?' But my wife did a really good job with them while I was away."
But that wasn't the case for Robert Nisavic, now 28, who is a surgical X-ray technician at St. Francis Hospital in Evanston.
"Absolutely, absolutely," he said when asked if was difficult to adjust to civilian life. "I had a lot of anger. I was never diagnosed with PTSD but I did have it and probably still do. When I came home, I applied for a job with the Chicago police department but never pursued it because the anxiousness and rage that comes out of nowhere would have ruined my chances. I'm getting better but it still gets bad once or twice a year."
Nisavic said the news that President Obama had ordered all troops out of Iraq by the end of the year "was a bittersweet moment for me. I lost a lot of friends over there and for what? I hate to think they died in vain. I think we did a lot of good, but in the larger picture, we made a mess of it."
His fellow workers at the hospital sometimes ask about his experience in Iraq, "but they tread lightly," he said. "They don't ever ask ridiculous questions like how many people did you kill?"
Nisavic still keeps in touch with LeBron and Jensen and gets together with them for the Marine Corps birthday on Nov. 10. But it's his own birthday on April 23 that he remembers best because it was the day he returned from Iraq.
Finally, I spoke with Frank Hazelwood, who turned 49 in November, and is fighting an enemy more deadly than the al Qaeda insurgents he faced in Iraq.
He lives near Nashville, Tenn., with his wife and son, 8, and daughter, 11 (another daughter, 20, is a registered nurse in Nashville), and he had emailed me in June to say he'd been diagnosed with lung cancer and that his prognosis was "very grim."
But he added, "I'm not ready to give up and will fight as long as my body will allow." He made it to Chicago in September for a fellow Marine's wedding and a reunion with LeBron and Jensen.
Hazelwood had just finished a sixth and final round of chemotherapy when I spoke with him and said his condition was "stabilized but not in remission." He was laid off from a job with CFX last year and is on full disability, but has no second thoughts about his time in Iraq.
"I've never had a problem with that," he said. "I always felt like what I did was worthwhile as long as you look at the big picture." He added, "I think this pullout is going to be a test of whether the Iraqis can actually put together a new government and stick with it. But I look for them to have some pretty bad setbacks. I would not want to be one of the last American troops there."
When I learned of Hazelwood's cancer diagnosis, I shared the news with the Marine's Congressional liaison officer, who arranged for the commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James Amos, to write him a personal letter on Sept. 17.
"My wife Bonnie and I recently heard about your battle with lung cancer, and want to send our heartfelt regards as you continue your treatment," he wrote. "We know you are facing this challenge with the same strength and determination you demonstrated in the Marines. Your positive attitude and faith are an inspiration to those who enjoy the privilege of knowing you.
"Please know that your Marine Corps family stands ready to support you in any way we can. We will keep you and your family in our thoughts and prayers throughout this difficult time. If there is anything we can do, please let me know."
He added a handwritten note at the bottom: "Frank: Fight hard, Marine."
Hazelwood said he was shocked to hear from Gen. Amos, but obviously deeply impressed and grateful.
I said at the beginning of this post that I didn't have anything worthwhile to add to all that has been written and said about the Iraq war. But after reading about these young Marines, I hope you agree that I was wrong.
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