As the holidays approach, so does another event sure to be celebrated, albeit somberly, by many — the pull-out of the nearly 40,000 U.S. troops that remain in Iraq.
On Oct. 21, President Barack Obama declared that all U.S. servicemen and women will be home from Iraq for the holidays, which promises to bring to an end the largely unpopular eight-year Iraq War.
But local servicemen who served there have mixed feelings about the war’s impending conclusion, and about what the long, drawn-out conflict accomplished.
Tom Griswold of Lansingburgh served in Iraq as an infantryman with the Army National Guard from February to December of 2004. During that time, he saw positive progress being made.
“We were helping local folks rebuild infrastructure and get things done. We were helping build back up their police force and build back up their army, and we saw a lot of that, as far as the positives go,” he said.
But war is ebb and flow, he conceded.
“We’d push 10 steps forward, but the bad guys, the terrorists, whatever you want to call them, would push back even harder and it was just a lot of back and forth.”
Griswold hesitated to say what he thought the war as a whole has accomplished.
“I joined the military after 9/11, because of 9/11, with the express reason that I wanted to go fight the guys that had the audacity to attack the United States of America. That’s what I was there for, so my view on everything when I was there was very narrow-minded, very straightforward,” he said. “I was never privy to any of the higher-ups meetings, sitting down with generals or anything, finding out what kind of progress we truly were making as far as defeating the enemy went.”
Griswold described his time in Iraq as exciting, scary and heartbreaking. “There was days and days and days of just absolute boredom and then there was days and days of terrible stuff going on,” he said.
Despite the bad days, Griswold said he would never trade his experience in Iraq and would do it 1,000 times if his country asked him to.
The impending troop pull-out is something he feels ambivalent about.
“I still have people that I consider my brothers and sisters still serving overseas and it’s scary to know that they’re in harm’s way still. But at the same time, I also have people that I call my brothers and sisters that are dead.
“Friends of mine are dead now as a result of what we were doing overseas, so I’d hate to see just everybody leave and leave the whole place in shambles and then turn around and think that guys from my unit that got killed over there got killed for nothing,” he said.
More than 4,400 military members have lost their lives in the conflict, eight of them from the Capital Region.
The casualties of war weigh heavy on the mind of Tony Buchanan of Melrose, who served in Iraq with the Army National Guard during 2003 and 2004. But he understands that death is a part of war.
“You never want to see a fellow soldier lose his life, just like at home you don’t want to see somebody lose their life, but whenever anybody joins the military, they know that there’s a chance that they may be put in harm’s way. Nobody wants to see their friends die. Nobody wants to see a soldier that you don’t even know die. But you know what you’re signing up for when you do sign your name,” he said.
Buchanan and his unit ran night patrols of a 25-kilometer stretch of road about an hour north of Baghdad. Their job was to search for people trying to plant IEDs — roadside bombs. They also trained members of the Iraqi police force and national guard.
“It was pretty rewarding at the end because as the time went on, the Iraqi police and the Iraqi national guard that we were training was able to do missions on their own, so it made it worthwhile being there,” he said.
Buchanan believes Iraq is now strong enough to support itself as a country, so he is in favor of the U.S. troops being sent home.
“I think if the troops are being pulled out, then we pretty much did our job – pretty much all we could do for Iraq. It’s pretty gratifying to know that the job was done,” he said.
Sean Baxter of Albany, who served as a gunner in Iraq with the Army National Guard from October of 2003 until January of 2005, is also pleased to see the troops coming home. “I’d hate to see the lives that were lost be lost for nothing, but I certainly don’t know politically why we’re still there,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to completely pull out and have it turn into a terrorist country or anything,” he noted.
Baxter enlisted less than a month before the 9/11 attacks, as a way to pay for college. “I wouldn’t say I knew what I was getting into,” he admitted.
His main focus while he was in Iraq was keeping himself and his fellow soldiers alive.
“At the time I was a specialist. I was only in charge of my gun, my gun team. So I did what I could to ensure that my buddies got home and I was lucky that they did. I wasn’t really worried about politics or anything else,” he said.
A veteran of the war in Afghanistan as well, Baxter said U.S. involvement there was easier for him to understand.
“They attacked us. It was kind of a different mind-set, where they trained for 9/11 and a lot of other things. You can hang your hat on that a little bit easier, going over to do something like fight in the war, but Iraq was a more political move, I feel,” he said.
In Iraq, Baxter and his troop patrolled a stretch of road about 15 minutes north of Baghdad, “which in 2004 was a very, very bad place to be,” he said. But during that time, he was told that the stretch of highway he helped patrol was one of the safest.
“Knowing that we did that good of a job during our time was a source of pride,” he said.
The financial cost of the Iraq war has been tallied in the billions, and that ever-increasing sum bothers Baxter.
“I don’t even want to get near politics. It’s the worst thing ever, but I certainly know that as a country we could certainly use some of our money better than what we currently do. We don’t need to raise taxes, we could just spend it in a different way,” he said. “We’re spending I don’t know how much money on other countries. I know roads in Albany that could be fixed.”
Despite the qualms he has with the Iraq War, Baxter is proud to have been a part of it. “I couldn’t be more proud to have served with the U.S. military,” he said, “but the policy makers and things like that, people that sit behind their desks or make the decisions and don’t really know what it’s like, I certainly don’t want to be lumped in with those people.”
Reach Gazette reporter Kelly de la Rocha at 395-3040 or firstname.lastname@example.org.