President Obama should be applauded for his handling of the war in Iraq. In the midst of massive political attacks at home, he has kept his word to withdraw American combat troops from the country, reducing the number from more than 160,000 to fewer than 50,000 troops on the ground--the smallest level since the 2003 invasion.
The remaining troops, who are now involved in the training and supporting of Iraqi forces, are expected to leave the country by December 31, 2011.
More than 4,421 U.S. service members have died and 31,629 wounded in the Iraq War; and 1,246 have died and nearly 8,000 wounded in Afghanistan. Among the 248 residents of New York State killed in both wars, 78 were from the five boroughs of New York City. Queens county, with 29 fatalities, had the highest number of deaths in the boroughs. Brooklyn had 24, and Manhattan 16.
My district in Upper Manhattan has lost five of its sons in Iraq, four from Washington Heights: Marine Staff Sergeant Riayan Tejada, Army Specialist Sergio A. Mercedes Saez, Army Corporal Juan Alcantara and Army Sergeant Jose E. Ulloa. From East Harlem: Army Specialist Jose L. Ruiz. I reserve a special tribute for these fallen heroes and all the other Americans who have given their lives in this war. There is no greater sacrifice that anyone can make for his country.
The last U.S. combat unit that left Iraq last week was the 3,500-member 4th Stryker Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division (known as the "Indianheads"). I am particularly proud of this unit, in which I served as a member of the 503rd Field Artillery Battalion in the Korean War in 1950.
Even as President Obama withdraws our soldiers and Marines from Iraq, 30,000 additional troops are being deployed to Afghanistan to join an estimated 68,000 U.S. service members already on the ground. Going on eight years, the Afghan War is now the nation's longest military conflict, where nearly 1,270 troops have died. 2010 has proven so far to be the bloodiest year of that conflict as the main opponent, the Taliban, attempts to demonstrate its strength in the midst of the U.S. buildup.
The White House has projected the beginning of a drawdown of troops from Afghanistan in August 2011. There is no telling how long complete withdrawal will actually take in the absence of a bilateral agreement to end combat operations by a certain date. In my view, the war in Afghanistan must also be brought to an end as soon as possible under a specified withdrawal date.
In Congress, I recently voted against providing additional funding to support both wars, where taxpayers have already spent over $1 trillion. I believe all additional expenditures should be for one purpose: to safely bring every single one of our brave and exhausted troops home.
Many soldiers, rightfully, will return full of honor and pride. Many will also come home with painful vestiges of war: amputations, grave head injuries and emotional scars, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder. Many have served multiple tours, some as many as six, placing unbelievable burdens on themselves and their families they left behind.
Whether you agree with these wars or not, the questions remain: How much pain and suffering is enough, and when will it end?
A photographic roll call of soldiers and Marines from New York State killed in Iraq and Afghanistan can be found on my congressional website at www.rangel.house.gov.
(This article was originally published in the NY Amsterdam News on September 2, 2010.)