Iraq vets reflect on a war Americans have largely put behind them
Marking the 20th anniversary of the Iraq War means different things to the vets who served there.
"All of our experiences were different," says Allison Jaslow, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). "It was such a long war. Every year of the war or every phase of the war was very different."
Marine aviator Scott Cooper had a role in the war's first minutes — the initial airstrikes that attempted to end the war before it began, by killing Saddam Hussein at his Dora Farms residence. Those strikes failed, but U.S. troops took Baghdad within a month, and Cooper thought the war was over.
"Those initial weeks and months there, it was such elation that things went so fast. And I remember talking to a lot of my friends in April and May of 2003 thinking, 'Oh my gosh, this is exciting,'" he says. Cooper ended up serving five tours in Iraq, the last in 2008.
"Going back for several subsequent tours, you're a little heartbroken because I think we all felt like, maybe there was a way to make things better, and then recognizing that we hadn't necessarily made things better, not for lack of effort, but it didn't turn out as we'd hoped," he says.
Jaslow served two tours, during the most violent years of the war, as Americans reckoned with the fact that no significant weapons of mass destruction — the given reason for the war — would be found, and the mission shifted to nation building as an uninvited occupying army.
"We learned that it wasn't necessarily a just war. But then, we broke it so then we had to fix it," Jaslow says.
"Navigating wartime service in the Iraq War, especially if you served more than one tour, it's more about just doing what you are called to do and making sure that you've got the men and women to your left and right all home from that war. Focusing more on that than the policy or the why of why we're there. Because that can be a dark place," she says.
"I think it was a big mistake and I do not dwell on it. One tries to not dwell on things," says Alejandro Rodriguez, who served as an Army medic during the second battle of Fallujah in 2004.
"I came back as a more serious, more cold person, and I lost people in the past that were very dear to me because of who I became," says Rodriguez.
"We live with the ghosts of the Iraq War"
American civilians don't want to dwell on the Iraq War either. A survey this month found that only 3 in 10 Americans have talked with an Iraq veteran about the war. Marine Scott Cooper is co-founder of the Veterans and Citizens Initiative, which did the survey.
"A lot of my fellow Americans don't even rank it as important. They say, 'Thank you for your service,'" that's sincere and well-meant. But that's as far as it goes," says Cooper. "I'm happy to have a conversation with you. I think we'll both come away better."
Cooper says he's encouraged, though, that almost 8 in 10 surveyed said Americans need to learn more about the Iraq War. But those lessons can be hard, says former British diplomat Emma Skye, who teaches at Yale University.
"My students today weren't born when we invaded Iraq, and for them, it's ancient history," she says.
Skye herself had opposed the invasion and Britain's role in it, but she then volunteered to help rebuild the Iraqi state. She served there from 2003-2010 and eventually became a key adviser to the American commanding general in Iraq, Ray Odierno. She's among a number of Iraq scholars who think the war weakened America abroad and at home.
"I think we live with the ghosts of the Iraq War," Skye says. "The Middle East, the changes in the balance of power, are in Iran's favor. And the spread of terrorism, and the impact that the Iraq wars had on America and British societies. The U.S. did a lot to undermine the image of democracy, and its own democracy has also really taken a bashing."
Rodriguez, who was a combat medic in Iraq, says he felt that when he came home to an increasingly polarized country he didn't always feel safe.
"Certain states that I would travel through and I would have to wear a U.S. Army shirt or wear a 'veteran' hat just to get some kind of respect," he says. "Because I'm a brown guy, I have to wear something that says that I'm an American patriot, and that's not cool. That's not a good feeling."
Rodriguez is now settled in his native Puerto Rico, where he's in the business of renovating and managing apartments. Twenty years after the war, he's tried to move on, as are many of his fellow Iraq veterans.
"They've gotten the chance to take advantage of the GI bill, they have settled into their post-military careers," says Jaslow of IAVA.
"Our wartime experience is something that we carry with us, and will always carry with us," she says. "But for many vets they've spent more time out of the military than in it, in adulthood, building another life. I think that's just a natural cycle that probably happens to all wartime veterans."
Jaslow says she's looking forward, not back, and she's optimistic about what veterans of the Iraq War will do as they start to become leaders here at home — bearing the lessons of a war they fought faithfully, but mostly now agreewas not worth fighting.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.