This week marks the seventh anniversary of the beginning of the war in Iraq. But my experience of the war started a few months earlier. It was the day after Christmas in 2002 that the Charlie Company commander, Captain Todd Kelly, called my family's home in Orlando to give me the order -- we would deploy to Kuwait by the end of January.
I first met Todd Kelly in September of 2001, just days before the tragedy of September 11th. Shortly after, I took over as the leader of his 3rd platoon. Our company's leadership team spent the following year preparing for our eventual mission -- invading Iraq.
Preparation for combat in early 2003 was hurried. We were ready to fight, but we had no plan for what would come after. Many of us believed that we would get on airplanes at Saddam International Airport and simply fly home after we were done fighting.
Our mission was to take Baghdad as fast as possible by securing key choke points in and around the city. Such was the framing in the minds of many soldiers, including myself, as we prepared for war in 2003. I believe this mindset led our forces to focus on rapid military operations, rather than setting the stage for the next phase -- rebuilding and transition.
The most defining mission assigned to my unit was an assault across the Euphrates River. Captain Kelly ordered that my platoon would be the first to assault across the bridge and secure the far side from Iraqi counter-attack.
As Captain Kelly issued his final orders in Kuwait, all I could think about was crossing the bridge and getting to the airport so we could eventually go home.
By the time we reached the Euphrates crossing point, we had experienced nearly two weeks of combat. At the bridge, Iraqi mortars impacted the near side as our engineer units crossed over in boats to clear the bridge of demolitions. When Captain Kelly gave the order to "assault the bridge," I passed the order down to my four vehicles and we accelerated across into the unknown.
We could not see beyond the crest of the bridge until we finally crossed its apex. Once the battlefield was fully revealed, our training took over and we successfully engaged the Iraqi positions in the area. Within a half hour, the battle moved toward Baghdad and our company's final planned objective -- the airport.
A day later, Captain Kelly led Charlie Company onto the tarmac at Saddam International Airport where many of us had hoped to stay until we got to fly home. Instead, we began presence patrols just outside of the airport grounds.
Everything seemed easy at first. The locals even cheered for my company commander whenever they saw him on the streets -- "Captain Kelly! Captain Kelly!"
It was amusing to watch grown men act like children, cheering a new hero, while children presented flowers to some of my soldiers. This was the public relations victory higher command was looking for and it was easy. All we had to do was listen to the locals. Soon, though, we would need to deliver on the expectations we set through our interactions.
After a week of uncertainty, our company was assigned a sector in eastern Baghdad to begin stability operations. This meant leaving an area where we commanded local trust and respect, and entering one where we had to build credibility from scratch.
The transition to stability operations was much like crossing the bridge -- we didn't know what to expect on the far side. Making matters worse, our company wasn't trained to build infrastructure. We were trained to do the opposite. Executing a successful transition to post-combat operations was a bridge too far.
There were a few weeks that Spring when we still had momentum and the respect of the Iraqi people. Captain Kelly negotiated with leaders to promote stability and we worked to build trust with the population. On one night patrol, we even fought a building fire with extinguishers from our vehicles and water from a nearby building.
Our assigned area was relatively peaceful while we patrolled the streets, but it became clear that we didn't have a plan to stabilize the country we had just 'liberated.' Worse, Iraqis began to understand the incompetence of the coalition leadership. No matter how much they respected Captain Kelly, the Iraqis realized the limits of his influence on larger issues. For instance, no one in our unit would have recommended the disbandment of the Iraqi Army.
I lost faith in the war while assigned on gate guard in May of 2003. The memory remains painful. A young Iraqi boy had badly burned himself after playing with some sort of ammunition. But there was nothing I could do. I was told that there weren't sufficient resources to provide adequate aid, nor could we evacuate the child.
At first, I tried to explain to the mother that we did not have the resources to help and that she should seek treatment at a local hospital. One of my soldiers looked up at me and reaffirmed my gut feeling -- we needed to do something. I called our medic and he provided some temporary relief with bandages, but we knew it wouldn't hold.
By the end of May, we transferred responsibility of our mission over to the 1st Armored Division which would eventually battle a growing insurgency. Still, my unit remained in Baghdad through the summer, taking on random missions to support our replacements.
Charlie Company's first mission in this capacity was to patrol the highway between the airport and the "Green Zone" to prevent the emplacement of a new weapon termed the "improvised explosive device", also known as the IED.
Within a week, Charlie Company took its first major casualty of the war we're still fighting today.
Army Captain Todd Kelly was later awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action. He commanded the soldiers of Charlie "Rock" Company, 2-7 Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division from July 2001 until May 2003 and continues to serve on active duty.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ryan McDermott.