What do vets think of Iraq?

Troops respond to country’s rising violence after the U.S. pullout

Former Marine Lance Cpl. Andrew Rothlein of League City, Texas, who fought in a unit in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004, wonders why nearly 4,500 American military members died in the war. Enlarge photo

Dave Einsel/Associated Press

Former Marine Lance Cpl. Andrew Rothlein of League City, Texas, who fought in a unit in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004, wonders why nearly 4,500 American military members died in the war.

SAN DIEGO – Just months after the U.S. military departed, violence in Iraq is increasing. Hundreds of people have died in recent weeks in bombings and drive-by shootings, some claimed by al-Qaida insurgents.

How do the U.S. troops who fought in Iraq for nearly nine years, and in December completed withdrawing from what was supposed to be an emerging democracy, view the turmoil? What do they feel it means to the legacy of their time on the ground? Associated Press reporters who cover military bases and communities in the U.S. asked some of those veterans.

More than 1.5 million Americans served in the Iraq War, and these are just a handful of voices from among those ranks, offering a range of perspectives. Some worry the sacrifices may have been for nothing. Others have put all news of Iraq behind them as they focus on their civilian lives. Some take a long view and say history has yet to decide the war’s outcome. Here are their views.

What did we fight for?

Former Marine Lance Cpl. Andrew Rothlein, from League City, Texas, fought in a unit in Fallujah in 2004, going building to building hunting insurgent snipers in one of the bloodiest battles of the war. He joined the Marines fresh out of high school, emboldened to do something for his country after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. He left the service six years ago and Iraq’s unrest this year leaves him wondering why nearly 4,500 American military members died in the war.

“What did we lose our lives for?” Rothlein asked. “We never really saw justice. Sure, we took out Saddam, but none of the other lives needed to be lost. Iraq’s not free. Afghanistan is not free. They’re still basically at the same stage as they were when we went in.”

“We knew what could happen as soon as the troops pulled out,” said Indianapolis Marine veteran Matthew Ranbarger, 27, who fought alongside Rothlein. “They have been fighting each other for thousands of years, before America was even founded. We did our job. There is only so much we can do. They have to do their part now.”

Rothlein says he has been comforted by Vietnam veterans, who he says know what it was like to fight in a controversial war with no clear victory, then return home to hear their fellow citizens debate whether it was all worth it. Don’t go there, they tell him. Just accept that it is what it is.

Rothlein and several buddies from his unit have suffered bouts of post-traumatic stress disorder. Adjusting to life in the United States would be easier and maybe the nightmares would be less if he could find a sense of purpose in the suffering his unit endured, he said.

“If they (Iraqis) were starting to flourish in a democratic way, it would be like: ‘Mission accomplished. We went over there and it made a difference. We helped the people of Iraq. We made history.’ But we didn’t make history. We’re going to be in the history books for the bloodiest battle in Iraq. But for what? There was no outcome. We may as well have all gotten killed. There’s no finish line.”

No regrets

Former Marine 1st Sgt. Todd Kennedy served two tours in Iraq but said he no longer closely follows the news there, especially since his fellow troops have left for another conflict or come home.

After a 22-year military career, Kennedy said he is focusing on life back home. The 41-year-old is working on dual degrees in history and anthropology at San Diego State University.

“For me personally, I have no regrets about the deployments, I have no regrets about the (Iraq) conflict in general,” he said. “In any war there are lessons learned. Any war has its skeletons. Any war has its debates, repercussions, its conspiracies. Regardless of whether it was right or wrong to go into there, for me personally, it’s not something I did a lot of dwelling on. It’s one of those things. The nation called on me, so it was something I had to do.”

Hopeful change will happen

Army Capt. Lauren A. Cabral helped train Iraqi women in 2007 for a security force in one of Baghdad’s most dangerous districts, which she called a historic milestone for women who volunteered because they thought Iraq was getting better.

Cabral said her fellow soldiers of 3rd Squadron, 7th U.S. Calvary, witnessed the Adahmiyah district go from a “hopeless state where soldiers and hundreds of local nationals were dying every day, to a hopeful and desired environment. Watching this event unfold for those few days was so inspiring.”

Cabral, from Ft. Stewart, Ga., and now deployed in Afghanistan, said she doesn’t know if the renewed violence means Iraq can’t achieve stability.

“Most of the reported attacks seem to state that the target is civilians in predominantly Shiite communities. The public sees the events that are catastrophic, can see a possible historic cycle rising again, but what about the noble and accomplished events that are happening in Iraq? Those are the things the citizens of the U.S. need to know about and to ensure us all that the sacrifices that were made by our country were not done in vain,” she wrote in an email.

“As a part of the mission in Iraq, the goal was to help stabilize the government to operate in a self-sustainable manner. The tools were provided, systems were in place, and it was time for the U.S. to allow the government to take charge. Of course, this road for them has been a rollercoaster, but we have seen this before in Iraq. This is their time to prove that they truly love their country and have the ability to prevent (and) successfully react to historical violent attacks; we must stop enabling in order to see a change.”

Haunting memories

Army Staff Sgt. Jesus Lozacruz, of Tustin, Calif., said he survived 11 explosions and 126 missions during his two tours in Iraq, and he tries not to think about the country’s troubles. It only compounds his despair over what seemed to him an unnecessary war and brings up haunting memories, such as the time he shot and killed an armed woman and child after an ambush.

“It’s like there was no purpose,” he says. “To me and some of my fellow soldiers, it feels like we gave all this for nothing ... We went there and gave all this just to withdraw out of nowhere? We did all this stuff, set up all kinds of things, and now it’s gone, it’s trashed.”

“The only time the Iraqis are going to get peace is if someone is going to go there and bring them support again. They’re not going to be able to go shopping and not worry about getting blown up in their own town. They’re not going to have that tranquility again anytime soon.”

The 32-year-old was in his third year at Cal State-Fullerton in 2000 when he dropped out and joined the Army at his mother’s request, as a way to keep an eye on his newly enlisted younger brother, Moises.

Lozacruz was excited to be part of the U.S. war on terror when he first went to Iraq with the invading forces in 2003. Soon though, he began to question why the Americans were there. There were no weapons of mass destruction and Lozacruz, trained in logistics, spent a lot of time protecting shipments of oil.

He returned from his second tour in July 2007 and has recently been discharged. He works at an auto-parts store, suffers from PTSD, and meets weekly with a psychiatrist. The VA considers him 90 percent disabled.

Never much progress

Brian Castner, a former Air Force captain who led Explosive Ordnance Disposal units that hunted and defused roadside bombs in Iraq during two pre-surge tours, says he doesn’t feel any successes are threatened now because he never felt much headway was made during his deployments in 2005 and 2006.

“We didn’t have a plan to win, and we didn’t know what a win looked like and the surge hadn’t started yet. So much of what we did was fruitless,” said Castner, a 34-year-old married father of four from Grand Island, N.Y., who has just published a book about his Iraq experiences, The Long Walk.

He said he ignored Iraq news after all his friends who served there returned home.

“The guys you serve with are like family,” he said. “Once they’re not there anymore, I guess I stopped paying attention.”

Attention is elsewhere

As an Army Ranger and platoon leader deployed for a year to Iraq in 2007 and 2008, Phillips McWilliams led soldiers searching for roadside explosives, conferred with local Iraqi sheiks to keep the peace and made sure one of the largest oil refineries in central Iraq was secure enough to keep working. Now back in home in Columbia, S.C., and enrolled in law school, the 29-year-old says there was at least one benefit of the war that’s unchanged by Iraq’s troubles.

“One way to look at it is: We got rid of Saddam Hussein and no one can say that’s not a good thing. He was a horrible person, obviously.”

McWilliams said he spent a lot of time absorbed in watching news about Iraq after returning stateside for his last year in the Army.

“It used to boggle my mind that people didn’t pay attention. It was like, how could people not pay attention? It is such an important thing happening in our time,” McWilliams said.

But since he’s become involved with law school, a summer of work at a local law firm, and plans for an upcoming wedding, McWilliams said he’s found less chance to be so absorbed with fighting in Iraq and in Afghanistan, where some of his Army buddies have been deployed.

“I’ve just paid less and less attention. I’ve become exactly like the people I couldn’t understand!” he said with a laugh.

McWilliams said he thinks “not enough time has gone by for historians to decide whether America’s involvement there was worth it or not.”

“I hope things go well. We lost a lost a lot of people there.”

Violence not unexpected

As an Army Reserve civil affairs officer, Rory Carolan worked mainly with Iraqi civilians south of Baghdad in 2007 and 2008. He saw violence decline as coalition forces surged, allowing a population wracked by war to return to everyday life.

“People moving back, Iraqis making plans for the future, to stay, to open a business, to plant crops, to bring the family back, to bring in a generator and air conditioning – doing peaceful things. The change was quite dramatic,” Carolan said.

The surge was generally successful, said the 55-year-old veterinarian. And the increased violence is disappointing, he said in an interview at his farmhouse near Frederick, Md.

“But, you know, is it unexpected? Not by me,” Carolan said. “You’ve kind of got to figure it’s going to be an ugly process. It’s a new government, a new country, proud people looking for their way by themselves, doing it their own way – and it’s not always going to be pretty.”

Carolan said he hopes it’s just a brief uptick and not a slide back toward civil war, but he doesn’t know where Iraq is headed.

“The end of that story is not written,” Carolan said