Even in the days before 9/11, David Bellavia imagined what it would be like to be an American soldier.
“Saving Private Ryan” had made an impression on him, and he envisioned, as with the veteran at the film’s end, “being wheeled across some wonderfully manicured cemetery, respected by foreigners” as he surveyed the fruits of liberation his fighting had wrought.
Last week, that vision receded a bit further.
Mr. Bellavia had already seen the streets of Fallujah, Iraq, overrun by the Islamic State in January 2014. A decade earlier, he had earned one of the nation’s highest medals for valor, the Silver Star, while deployed there.
Last week, the fall of Ramadi brought it back to mind. The battles for Fallujah and Ramadi were fierce; more American troops died in that part of the country than in any other. Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, has also fallen.
Over the past 15 months, each conquest of the Islamic State has given the soldiers and Marines who served in Iraq more to grapple with: What is the appropriate measure of success to justify the sacrifices made? Must Iraq be a democracy? Must it be peaceful? Or is it enough that the United States homeland is comparatively safe?
For those who have returned, Iraq often has maintained a grip on the imagination and the heart. One soldier, a small-town boy entranced by the construction of a mosque from which insurgents once shot at him, turned to Google Maps to watch its progress, and to remember the routes he once wound through the streets of Mosul – “reminiscing, if you will.”
Another, the son of a Vietnam veteran, now shares a “certain dark humor” with his father about watching an achievement purchased at such cost unravel. Saigon then, Ramadi now.
Yet for each, there is something that remains beyond memory and the news images flashing across television screens. There is pride, and there is a deep compassion for what the people of Iraq are suffering. Above all, they say, there is a fellowship forged in conditions of sacrifice – the closest thing to “victory” that the veterans of Iraq can claim, and beyond the reach, many add, of any Islamic State bullet or bomb.
Still the news from Iraq this past year often has been tough to process.
From Ramadi to Saigon
Retired Col. V.J. Tedesco was a battalion commander in Ramadi in 2006. In recent months, he has fielded late night phone calls, along with e-mails and Facebook shares, about the “discomfort, anguish, and aggravation” about the spread of the Islamic State.
“Obviously for anybody who’s walked those streets and worked with those people and shed blood to liberate those places from Al Qaeda in Iraq, this is a discomforting, very disturbing time, seeing Ramadi fall to ISIS,” he says, using a common acronym for the Islamic State.
Mr. Tedesco watched his father, a Vietnam vet, go through a similar journey back in the early 1970s as Saigon fell.
For Bellavia, the fall of Ramadi has made him think that perhaps he has more in common with Vietnam veterans than he had imagined. While the false pretenses of the Iraq War made it controversial almost from Day 1, he says, it didn’t feel like Vietnam to him. “We were appreciated; they were disrespected. We were embraced. They weren’t.”
But while Americans at home were supportive, they were detached. Now, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, who himself commanded the Iraqi security force training mission early in the war, has said Ramadi isn’t all that strategically important in the first place. “The city itself, it’s not symbolic in any way,” he said at a Pentagon briefing last month, seemingly preparing the nation for the possibility that the city would soon be in Islamic State hands. “I would much rather that Ramadi not fall, but it won’t be the end of a campaign” if it does.
With the fall of the city, the prospects of Bellavia's “Saving Private Ryan” moment receded further.
“There are no living recipients of the Medal of Honor from Iraq, no celebrated stories from Iraq, really,” he says. “I hate to make this about me, but we thought we were changing the world. We really thought that every one of these terrorists we were going after was going to make the world safer.”
‘I feel bad not for losing what we did there, but more for the people’
Some of those terrorists shot at Master Sgt. Jeremy Ware from the minarets of a Mosul mosque that was being constructed 10 years ago. Even then, though, Sergeant Ware’s overwhelming impression of the mosque was one of awe.
“I just always call it ‘the great mosque.’ It is enormous,” he says.
He recalls one day when he and some fellow soldiers were offered a tour of the grounds.
“I’m from a small town in New York, so things like that – being next to a big structure like that – it was pretty neat. I enjoyed it.”
It was a crash-course cultural exchange in one city block. Ware also was amazed by the construction process, which involved little more than some old hand tools and a portable cement mixer.
Through the months that Mosul was falling to the Islamic State, Ware stayed connected with the city with the help of Google Maps. “I like to look at the progress of the mosque, the routes we used to take, the different structures, what’s changed, what hasn’t changed. I remember stories – reminiscing, if you will.”
It consistently struck him how hard the Iraqis had worked to “get their lives back on track, and to live their lives in a normal way – those are big things” in the midst of war, he says. “The hard work that went into it – not by us, but by them” is what he thinks about when heard of the fall of Mosul.
“To be honest, I feel bad not for losing what we did there, but more for the people.”
Keeping perspective is one way to try and manage the frustration, the soldiers say.
Prior to moving his battalion into Ramadi, Tedesco’s soldiers worked in the Sinjar region of northern Iraq with the Yazidis. A number of his battalion’s interpreters were Yazidi. “We developed an affection and affinity for the Yazidis. It was easy to empathize with them because they’d been persecuted for so long as a religious minority,” he says. “They were invested in trying to create a new Iraq.”
Last year, the Islamic State moved into the Sinjar region, threatening genocide against the Yazidis. Tedesco’s answer was to become involved with the Yazidi community in the US. “I tried to keep things in perspective – I focus on others and not myself,” he adds.
‘How could you not be proud?’
It can be easy for troops to come down hard on themselves, says Jeremiah Workman, a Marine who was awarded the second highest commendation for valor, the Navy Cross, for repeatedly entering a house filled with insurgents to recover the bodies of his comrades in arms.
“You can really beat yourself up – say that Iraq was a failure, that people died in vain. It can be depressing as hell,” he says.
So he tries to look at it another way. “We were assigned to clear the city of Fallujah of insurgents while we were there – and we did a very good job at it,” he says. “We gave the Iraqis what they needed to move forward. What they do with it is on them, and that’s the approach you have to take.”
He takes little consolation in his Navy Cross. “To me, I look at that, and I was awarded it for something terrible.” At the same time, however, “I’m very proud of my service, and I don’t think what’s happening now tarnishes that or cheapens it.”
“We accomplished our mission and we did it in a way no one had seen before,” he adds. “The way we worked together to defeat that enemy – how could you not be proud?”
As a boy, Mr. Workman had watched all the Vietnam movies. His father and grandfather had both served in the Army, and he and his younger brother put on their old uniforms to play outside.
From the day he shipped off to boot camp, Workman says, “I thought to myself, ‘I hope I can be half the sort of man you read about, doing heroic things and saving their buddies’ lives. I just want to be half – or a quarter – the man that those guys were if I’m put in that situation.’ ”
At night in Fallujah, Workman would lay in bed, “thinking of my brother, and playing war in our yard.” As captain of his high school football team, he’d become accustomed to being looked to for direction. In war, “People look at you wondering, ‘Am I going to get to go home? Am I going to get to see my family again?’ ”
Combat, for him, was ultimately about his fellow soldiers, and he takes solace in this. “It’s not really about Mom and Dad and baseball games and apple pie. It’s literally about the men to the left and the right of you. You have to keep that in focus.”
It’s a point that Tedesco, too, is reminded of each year, when he sends a letter to the parents of the 19 soldiers serving with his battalion who were lost.
“It’s an obligation I take seriously – I made it when I buried them, to let their parents know that their child is not forgotten,” he says.
Fallujah, Mosul, and Ramadi – all have fallen, but his letters still go out every year.
“They died bravely, and regardless of what happens in the future these parents can take pride in the fact that their child stepped forward and fought bravely on a dangerous and difficult battlefield,” Tedesco says. “They answered the call.”
To Workman, Iraq gave those words a profound meaning.
“In war, you don’t know what you’re going to get out of a human being. It’s human nature not to go into a house, knowing you’re going to die. But then you see people that just go above and beyond again and again, people you literally have to drag kicking and screaming off the battlefield because they want to stay and fight for their buddies,” Workman says.
His family had been an Army family, but he recalls seeing a Marine recruiter walk into his high school cafeteria during lunch in his small town of Richford, Ohio, a small farm town, population roughly 2,000, in north central Ohio. “Everyone’s heads turned and watched this guy. The way he walks, the way he talks – the way he carried himself was just different.”
Those were the people Workman wanted to serve with – and he did. And that’s what he holds close when he thinks of his time serving in the Iraq War. “I can’t believe that I had the opportunity to serve with other human beings who love their country this much.”
The recent feelings of frustration, though painful at times, have ultimately brought him and his fellow soldiers closer together, says Bellavia.
When it’s a tough night “and you need to talk, you can,” he says. “We have to take it upon ourselves to sit down and talk, and to tell each other, ‘Hey, pick up the phone anytime, and here’s my number.’ It’s still no man left behind.”