This week marks ten years since the launch of the war in Iraq.
I was a young Captain at the time, and part of the force sent there just after the fall of Baghdad, in 2003. Initially, I wasn't opposed to the war. What did I know, other than what was being said on the news? Saddam Hussein had WMD, he was dangerous, we were told. It didn't take me long to realize none of that was true, and that this was a war that should have never been waged. When I came home, I started VoteVets.org to advocate for a responsible use of our military and to take care of our troops in the field and when they came home. I headed back in 2011, as a Major, when Operation Iraqi Freedom became Operation New Dawn, totally changed from the young man I was in 2003.
But, today isn't about me. It's about so many others who fought, who sacrificed, and who gave their lives. We at VoteVets.org solicited their stories for today, and some of the most compelling are below. They have been edited for length, but you can see what they wrote, in full, here.
Keep these in mind not just today, but in the years to come, and always when politicians in Washington start saber rattling. War is not a game, and the statistics are not just numbers. These are real people, with real lives, and real families. The best thing we can do, today, is to remember their stories.
Jason Davis, 31,Tustin, CA:
8 March 2003
What I supposed would be the beginning of the end felt like every other morning. The sun had risen early and the sky was perfect and beautiful and blue. But it wasn't a Saturday I would spend in the driveway or in the yard. I instead stood in the shower to soak beneath the warmth of the falling water. I thought of the day that I raised my right hand. I swore to defend the Constitution of the United States, and now that I had to do that in Iraq, I didn't want to play. If only I could slip down the drain... I wouldn't need to say goodbye.
My wife drove us onto base through gate six and past the run-down housing reserved for Privates and new soldiers. Every door was shut. Every window and curtain was closed. Deer wandered the deserted streets and picked at grass in the front yards and doorsteps of empty homes whose wives and children had left for the company of family in other places.
The road was smooth and quiet, and as I looked out the passenger window, I felt the cool air glide over the fingertips of my outstretched hand. We drove past the 2nd and 3rd Brigade gyms and their empty parking lots. Even the Post Exchange was empty. Fort Campbell, home of the Army's prestigious 101st Airborne, was deserted. The only remaining activity was my unit, the last of the 502nd Infantry Brigade preparing to deploy in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"DAVIS! Hurry the f*** up!" yelled SGT Colby.
I bent down to pet my dog. She was happy and smiling and unaware. I hugged my wife tight, kissed her, and grabbed my bags from the trunk of our car. Halfway down the parking lot, I looked over my shoulder and saw the car start up and drive away. That was goodbye. For six months, for a year, or forever.
Kenneth Meador, 32, Moore, OK:
The second half of 2005 I found myself at FOB Brassfield-Mora just outside of Samara, Iraq, a city that struggled with violence then and still does now. We treated casualties, Americans and Iraqis, on what felt like a 24/7 basis in the battalion aid station and I have come to realize now that the nature of being a front line combat medic is that you treat patients that you are unlikely to ever see again, or know the outcome of their care and that can be a challenge in and of itself.
This second deployment, where I personally closed the zippers of body bags holding American service members bodies, really caused me to question the war, the leadership of our government and their motives for the first pre-emptive strike in American history, and I really had to come to terms with the cost of the Iraq War. Not in dollars, although that cost is excessive as well, but the cost of American lives, volunteer's lives. I struggle with this cost, the cost for the children who lost parents and the parents who lost children and the couples whose beds remain empty to this day. I still struggle with this cost today, especially when I personally came home from the war physically intact and men and women who were braver than I ever will be, did not.
Andres Lazo, 29, Albuquerque, NM:
After arriving in the country of Iraq (moving during night flights), I was soon indoctrinated with the rules that lawyers, politicians, and military generals had termed, "The Rules of Engagement (ROE)." Our training on the ROE consisted of various written rules neatly lined and stamped in black and white letters that interpreted our "acceptable actions," defined our "hostile threats," and hinted at the international consequences for breaking such rules. Our ROE was hammered repeatedly with our military doctrine, our practiced step-by-step policies and procedures, and the threat of international law (or shame for our country) under the Geneva Convention.
In reality, life outside our Forward Operating Bases (FOB's) was uncertain, a random coin-toss of events that made it difficult to interpret our ROE, and even more difficult to do the "right thing." "Outside the wire" was a world filled with tectonic-splitting 110-millimeter sized bombs adapted to make Improvised Explosive Devices (IED's). These IED's became our daily "Russian Roulette" while traveling in Up-Armored Steel Humvee trucks on muddy roads, over numerous potholes, and alongside open sewage canals.
When one of these IED's struck, it sent you on trip that started with loss of consciousness, mind-shattering doubts of choices, and ended with burning chasms of persistent ringing. It left behind a burn-in of deep painful memories, forcing me to question my own cemented moral compass, and for the first time I quickly tried to numb my nerves by seeking relief in smoking cigarettes habitually. Rules were cloudy in the fog of war, and fear was ever-present when you could be carried forward as you played "hero" or you were left paralyzed in place as you came face-to-face with your own demons.
Roman Baca, 38, New York, NY:
I was lucky to go to Iraq with Marines who wanted to do good things. Our staff NCO's worked hard to instill a humanitarian goal in each of our missions. We visited schools and passed out food, water, and school supplies. We had meetings with the villagers to see how we could be more proactive in the community. We tried, even though we knew our efforts were futile.
That's how I felt coming home, like we didn't do much. My roommate in Fallujah told everyone when we got back, we didn't do much. That weighed on me coming home. I felt that our deployment was fruitless and purposeless. I try not to project on the rest of the war, that is above my pay grade. I felt like we had touched all of these lives; the villagers, the contractors, and the interpreters in Iraq; and then just left. As we were leaving one of the interpreters was sad, he said that we were his only friends. I was elated that we were going home, but defeated because I felt that we had accomplished very little.
Now, I've been back to Iraq as a civilian, to teach art. I am currently working to go back and do more programs in more cities, and hopefully this time, I can accomplish more than I did during the war.
Michael Lemke, 54, Colorado Springs, CO:
I volunteered to go in again because of 9-11. My former Geneseo (college) room-mate, Mark Munnelly, was at Ground Zero as a firefighter (Manhattan Engine 8 Ladder 2), and I saw him on Tom Brokaw on NBC. I was very enraged by the act of terrorism on innocents. I was, however, unconvinced of WMD in Iraq and expected to go to Afghanistan to fight Bin Laden's people and get him. I now feel the Iraq War is a colossal waste of life and money, and has greatly weakened our nation, its military, its treasury, and its government.
I live with PTSD and many things physically wrong with me, and regret that I went to Iraq. I live with a lot of pain and anger. I am doing my best to turn it all into something good...
I want Americans to listen to their veterans for once, their hearts, and their consciences, not the media spin-doctors, propaganda, and politicians.
I want every man and woman who served in this war to come home now, and everyone who suffered mental and physical wounds to be treated properly by the government that made the mistake of sending them to this crazy thing.