Many of those who served in Iraq have moved on and started their lives anew. I am among that cohort. Despite my new beginning, I'm left with memories of that war. Those memories remind me of how lucky I am to live in America.
My land is secure, and no foreign armies will invade any time soon. Foreign militaries will not be imposing curfews, home searches at gunpoint, or martial law.
As an infantryman in Iraq from 2003-2004, I was part of a military force that denied the Iraqi people these same luxuries. It was not as if the troops invaded with the mindset of taking away personal freedoms from Iraqis. However, large-scale military operations in foreign lands are very imperfect.
Once the invasion commenced, all parties involved lacked the option to choose their own perfect situation.
The initial mission primarily involved "search and destroy" tactics. Here and there, "clear and hold" measures were conducted to prevent the enemy from re-emerging. The hardest part was not knowing who the enemy was.
During my time in Iraq, the term "guerrilla warfare" became an understatement. Hit-and-run ambushes were prevalent and the attackers would often disappear into the night. The enemy didn't wear a uniform. They presented no identifiable characteristics that we could use to single them out as insurgents or members of Al-Qaeda. They just looked the like people who lived there.
After enduring countless attacks from an unidentifiable enemy, my perception was that I was mainly fighting the Iraqi people -- not those responsible for 9/11.
It can be quite burdensome for American soldiers or Marines who served in Iraq to realize that they may have only fought those they were told they liberated. This is a tough pill to swallow. Especially for those troops who enlisted for the sole purpose of responding to the 9/11 attacks.
After 10 years, we need to have a sobering moment of clarity and accept the evidence-based fact that the Iraq war was unrelated to the 9/11 attacks. If we are ever going to learn to avoid similar global misadventures, the bags must be removed from our heads once and for all.
We can do so without being unpatriotic. We can do so without being labeled "anti-troop." This is an undeniable reality.
I'm proud of my military service and even prouder of the men I served with. I can have that pride while disagreeing with the mission in Iraq.
Despite my personal views toward the mission, I drove on anyway.
IEDs detonated frequently in my unit's sector. Mortar and RPG attacks were just as bad. This activity sparked a reaction from the brass. This was not something that my military leaders had asked for, but they had a responsibility to find whomever was causing the lethal mayhem.
Something had to be done to stop the madness.
We began to seek out whomever was responsible for the attacks in our area of operation. This meant going house-to-house looking for weapons, anti-American propaganda, or any evidence that would lead us to the insurgency. We often came up empty-handed. This led to the creation of a baseline troops could use to identify a terrorist or an insurgent.
There was a simple rule: Only one AK-47 per household.
Many Iraqis possessed more than one AK-47 prior to the U.S. invasion. If Saddam Hussein imposed a limitation on the number of AK-47s allowed per household in Iraq before the American military had arrived, it was unbeknownst to me.
Iraqi men who had more than one AK-47 in their home automatically became suspects. Erring on the side of caution, these men were categorized as potential terrorists or members of the insurgency.
Using this criterion, there was a spike in the arrest rate of Iraqis who were considered possible opponents of the United States, despite a lack of hard evidence.
For me to understand this unprovoked war, it was necessary for me to put myself in the shoes of the Iraqis. If I were an Iraqi during that period, I probably would have wanted some self-protective weaponry to defend my home and family, given the surrounding chaos.
In America, we pride ourselves on the Second Amendment. I too am a supporter of gun rights. This support leaves me with considerable regret that many Iraqi men were snatched up at night and taken away from their crying wives and children, only because they owned more than one weapon.
This may have been a necessary tactic at a time when options were limited, but it was ineffective in winning the hearts and minds of the people. Instead, it caused a retaliatory backlash from the Iraqi people who perpetuated the fighting.
Some will argue that taking weapons away from the Iraqis was necessary to protect American troops.
However, our policymakers told the troops they were liberating the Iraqis. They said that the Iraqis would welcome American forces with open arms. If that was true, why was there a need to disarm gracious and welcoming Iraqis whom we were supposedly liberating? If the overall majority of Iraqis were truly that receptive to the U.S. military's presence in their country, American troops would not have been in danger from ordinary Iraqi gun owners.
Gun-rights advocates have expressed strong sentiments that our Second Amendment rights need to be protected here in America. Why should we deny a country we were supposedly liberating these very rights?
Invading a sovereign nation and removing the same freedoms that we enjoy in our own country amount to a conquering that is very different from liberation.
Once it became apparent that Saddam did not have weapons of mass destruction, policymakers needed to justify the conflict. The only way to do so was to manufacture links between Iraq, the 9/11 attacks and al-Qaeda. It was a feeble-minded attempt to remove attention from the WMD situation and refocus the mission on al-Qaeda.
With 20/20 hindsight, it is rational to assume that we did fight members of al-Qaeda. However, it is more likely than not that we both fought on a neutral territory. We may have become magnets for each other in a vacuum.
Over the years, there was never a lack of jargon spewed by those who never served, as they spouted typical clichés such as "war is war, and we must fight them over there instead of here." That is especially convenient for nonparticipants.
Those who have endured firsthand the cavalier rhetoric of spectators know that there are tremendous costs to going to war.
Going forward, we can only hope that those who have the authority to send young Americans to war do so as an absolute last resort and with the fullest due diligence. Young Americans should not be left with lifelong physical or emotional scars from an unprovoked war that they were told was necessary to sustain the American way.
I would like to think that by now we have come to grips with the reality that "Operation Iraqi Freedom" should have been avoided. It did not contribute to America's national security and it divided our nation. In addition, we likely will never be able quantify the damaging effects the war had on the nation of Iraq.