As Iraq crisis deepens, veterans wonder: Was it worth it?

Veterans of the Iraq war are troubled by the advance of the Islamic State. Some feel their sacrifices were all for naught, others say it's time for Iraq to stand on its own.

Islamic militants parade in Beiji, Iraq, some 155 miles north of the capital, Baghdad, Tuesday. Last month's rapid advance of the Islamic State group, which captured Iraq's second largest city of Mosul, has plunged the country into its worst crisis since the withdrawal of US troops in 2011.

Navy man Jeff Craig, who deployed to Iraq during both Desert Storm and the more recent Iraq war, says all the lives lost and American billions spent are now wasted with the takeover of half the country by Islamic extremists.

Andrea Sandoval, who spent 2003-04 in Iraq and returned in 2011 briefly as an intern, says that watching the Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS) take over large portions of the country “with little or no resistance, is very disturbing.” But, she says, “it’s not our fault. This lies at the failure of the Iraqis.”

Meanwhile, for Navy engineer Ken Smith, who was stationed north of Baghdad for six months, the worst part has been watching Islamic extremists driving American-made Humvees and carrying US-made weapons as they enter towns that he helped rehabilitate. “It’s sickening, [the Islamic State] has come swooping in and taken Fallujah, and Ba’iji, where the largest oil refinery in the country is.”

The scenes unfolding in Iraq as the Islamic State expands its territory have been alarming to many Americans, but for veterans who fought to stabilize the country after the fall of Saddam Hussein, they have also been heartbreaking and emotional. Some blame President Obama. Others are less critical of the administration and say what the US did can never be minimized. Almost all agree that the situation is complex, defying any simple solution – and hard to accept after all the sacrifices they and others made in Iraq.

“The news of [the Islamic State] overtaking the country is retriggering emotions many had left behind years ago,” says Johanna Buhwalda, who counsels Iraq veterans who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses. “It’s causing them to revisit their original anger, sadness, and grief, and they are asking the questions, ‘Why did I do this?’ ”

For some, that question still has an answer, no matter what is going on Iraq now.

“I can tell you that we most definitely did good there,” says Ms. Sandoval, who lives in Las Cruces, N.M. “We built schools, helped reestablish their infrastructure, built water treatment facilities, provided jobs to the local nationals that otherwise would not be available.”

She remembers riding into the country in a convoy and encountering neon-colored water. “Ninety-nine percent of it was not potable, yet people were still drinking it,” she says. “My service was not for nothing. I know a lot of people are very disheartened and feel like their service and the lives lost were for nothing in light of what’s happening now.”

But “now is the time that Iraqis stand on their own two feet, become inclusive, expand their human rights efforts, and hopefully become a true democracy that serves all of their people,” she adds.

So far, the Obama administration's response to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq has been limited. On June 19, President Obama said he will send up to 300 military advisers to help train and equip Iraqi forces. The limited involvement is in line with Americans' desire to keep troops out of Iraq, according to polls. A June Quinnipiac poll found that 63 percent of respondents opposed sending ground troops back into Iraq.

But some veterans take issue with the Obama administration's decision to remove all American troops from Iraq in 2011. They say the pullout enabled the Islamic State to take broad swaths of the country.

Mr. Smith, the former Navy engineer who lives in Oceanside, Calif., notes that after major wars of the past – such as World War II and the Korean War – the US left troops behind.

“We got out of Iraq because the Iraqis thought they could handle it,” Smith says.

He also sees the rise of the Islamic State as a US intelligence failure. “We didn’t want to get involved in the Syrian conflict, but we were watching carefully, so you can’t tell me we didn’t see troops and missiles amassing on the Syria-Iraq border,” he says.

Adds former Navy man Mr. Craig: “What we did is for naught and wasted. What happens when you stir up a hornet's nest and walk away? It only makes the hornet's nest worse.”

Even under the best of circumstances, coping with the aftermath of war is hard enough. A Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation survey of Iraq and Afghanistan active duty soldiers and veterans found 69 percent said the average American doesn’t understand their experience. Not only is there the stress of 24/7 combat with insurgents, they say, there is the cost of leaving home, family, and other employment behind and having to reestablish ties upon return.

Craig, who lives in Willimantic, Conn., notes that he “did eight deployments in 20 years, and every time I came back, it was a real struggle to adjust. Even though you have e-mail and Skype, our lives stop – there is only the mission, eat, sleep, breathe on ship, in the air, and on ground.”

According to a July 22 survey by members of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, 47 percent of respondents know at least one Iraq or Afghanistan veteran who has attempted suicide.

Villanova nursing professor Linda Copel, who counsels Iraq veterans in her private psychotherapy practice, says “family members are coming to me with serious concerns about what this means for their brother or son who served.”

After coming home, Sandoval made the transition back to civilian life, but a few months after being discharged from active service she started to notice difficulties with her family life, social life, and work life. She tried to push through the difficulties and was hesitant about seeking help because of her position and security clearance.In the end, she sought private counseling, and once her comfort level with counseling grew, she turned to the Vet Center to help her manage a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Now, when Sandoval watches the news on TV, she says one question recurs: "How could they have done this? I ask myself this over and over, knowing that the US has spent not only billions of dollars in equipment and training, but with our service members’ lives.”

For Sandoval, "they" is the Iraqi government. The blame “rests solely on the shoulders of the government of Iraq and their short-sightedness and inability to be inclusive,” she says.  

“The United States did not lose this battle. The lives we as a nation lost or have forever changed were not for nothing; they will be if we forget the cost of freedom and lose sight that Iraq is supposed to be a sovereign nation. With that said, they should be able to stand up on their own two feet.”

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