My Thoughts On The Iraq War - Not All Was Lost
Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Chaps penned a poignant blog going into his feelings on his time deployed there. My feelings mirror his in some ways and in other ways, I find myself with a different perspective. That's to be expected.
We served in different branches. We had different jobs. Our missions were in different parts of the country. He was a non-commissioned office. I was an officer. Without going into detail about those differences, just know that even though we both served in Iraq, our experiences varied.
My path to Iraq was one that was inevitable but not one that felt imminent. My class at West Point was the first to enter school after 9/11. As a senior in high school, I watched on the nightly news as we sent American forces into Afghanistan to hunt down the people responsible for that horrible day. The same people hell bent on terrorizing the rest of the world in support of their warped ideology. However, I won't lie to you - the idea that I would go to war was not top of mind for me. Sure, I thought about it at times and certainly once I was at West Point I had reminders almost daily but still I had other priorities. I wanted to go to West Point for a good education and to play football. As such, football and school work monopolized my time. In the summers when we conducted our military training it became more real. This was especially true of my summers prior to my junior and senior year.
It was during those summers during my military-focused training that I was exposed to Soldiers who now had combat experience. Soldiers who were part of the initial invasion in Iraq or had deployed to Afghanistan. It was important for us to have that exposure because as we crept closer to graduation and the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq showed no signs of slowing down, it became a prevalent reality that my classmates and I would find ourselves on those battlefields.
In January of 2008 I was assigned a platoon and in June 2008 I found myself on a bus to the airstrip where a plane was waiting to take me to Iraq. I distinctly remember being on that bus and seeing the families waving to the Soldiers bound for war - their husbands, dads, brothers. I was 23 years old and for 33 of those men, it was my responsibility to bring them home safely. Therein lay my greatest fear going to war.
From there I went to Iraq for 12 months. My deployment was filled with missions that I executed to the best of my ability and attempted to lead my men honorably. If you want those stories, we've told a bunch over the last nearly 7 years on ZBT.
Two years ago on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we spoke at length about that event and the wars that followed. I gave an interview going into detail about how I felt as though the Army/Navy game at Metlife Stadium that December could serve as a bookend for me (and possibly many others). 9/11 and Army Football were the driving forces that sent me to Iraq, so as the game was played in NYC (yes, I know Metlife is in Jersey but bear with me) I thought I could put all those feelings to rest once and for all. Not because I would never discuss it again but I felt I owed it to myself to move on to the next chapter in my life.
What I realized on today's episode was that I think no matter how hard I try or how much I want it to be true, part of me will never get past my time in Iraq. Prior to recording, I didn't anticipate becoming emotional while discussing my deployment. But as I quickly found out, those emotions are as present as ever.
Maybe that is due in part because I want to always believe the best in everyone and everything and I know that not everyone believes in what we did in Iraq. I was part of that and I'll always carry that with me. But were there positives? For me, yes there were.
I am idealistic but I'm also not dumb - I know bad things happened while we were in Iraq. But those bad things don't cancel out the good. We were given a mission and our Soldiers/Marines/Airmen/Sailors executed on that mission to the best of our ability. We removed a terrible man from power. We eradicated the country of countless terrorists and fear. We provided a sense of security in many areas of the country.
I am proud that when history looks back on our generation, I was one of many who answered the call. That is why I say to my fellow service members, do not apologize for what you did. Do not say, "I'm sorry." You did what was asked of you.
We have the luxury of hindsight today. We can look back on the last 20 years and critique decisions made. We should do that. We should study what happened and learn from those experiences. But I am not in the business of blaming others - you can take an extremely cynical approach and list out nefarious motivations for going into Iraq. Maybe some of that behavior did happen but I'll tell you where it did not happen. It did not happen at my level. It did not happen at the level of the vast majority of those who served in Iraq. For most, I am reminded of the words of Alfred Lord Tennyson,
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why
Theirs but to do and die.
That is a simplistic view of the military but at its core it is what we sign up for. I did not decide for my platoon to deploy to Iraq. I couldn't control our deployment schedule. What I could control was how we prepared, how we executed our missions, how I served my Soldiers, and how we carried ourselves as a unit. War is murky. Even in conflicts where the enemy was clear, decisions were marred by uncertainty in many instances. You can lose yourself trying to make sense of it all and I will speak for myself when I say I don't wish to carry that burden my entire life. Is that a cop out? Who's to say. I just want to continue my life and carry with me the pride I feel having served my Country.
Something else I will take with me is the perspective I gained from my year in Iraq. I can say honestly it shapes nearly every decision I make in my life now and affords me a level of happiness that I might otherwise struggle to obtain. That perspective makes me a better person.
Will history look kindly on our time in Iraq? Some will. Some won't. Some will be torn. I found out that regardless of how folks view my service there, I will never shake all of the emotions I carry with me. One thing is a certainty though - I am grateful. I am grateful that in 2003 when their Country called on them, rough men and women stood ready to charge forward. That can never be forgotten or taken away from any of us.