The following is part of an occasional series of guest columns highlighting the work and concerns of veterans groups. Chris Hellie is an Iraq and Afghanistan Veteran’s of America spokesman. He served as a platoon leader and company executive officer with the First Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, serving 16 months in Iraq.
Every individual experiences moments in life that will define their future path for years to come, moments in time that will never be forgotten and will remain a part of their conscience for the rest of their lives. I have three such moments; one is the first time I fell in love. I remember the girl, the time and the place like it was yesterday. I was a kid, but I knew it when I saw it.
The second moment, like many other people around the world, is that of Sept. 11, 2001. I was a freshman in college and it was a crisp fall day in Minnesota and I vividly remember how unqualifiedly happy I was when I woke up in the morning.
The last moment occurred a little over two years later on March 23, 2003, and I witnessed my future flash before my eyes.
I was spending the semester studying in St. Petersburg, Russia, and over spring break, my friend Rob and I decided to head to Prague via Helsinki for a little respite from the harsh realities of a Russian winter. Coming home from a night out, we noticed that eyes were transfixed on the only television in the hostel. Students and young people from around the world were watching images of green and red tracers arcing across the screen. Sirens wailed while the soft thud of precision-guided munitions detonated in the distance. Although I had been absent from the United States for a few months, I knew what I was looking at — I was looking at my future.
As an ROTC student, I tried to keep up to speed on the U.S.’s gradual path to war with Iraq while studying in Russia. While the other students wanted to debate the legalities of the war with the other Americans in the room, all I wanted to do was prepare.
The next two years I became almost apathetic to my schoolwork. I knew where I was headed and that’s all I cared about. The weeks and months were filled with times when I found myself obsessed with the possible opportunity of proving myself in a war zone. I yearned for the privilege and honor of leading men in combat. Every time I heard reports that the war effort was going to be reduced, or that America’s role was being re-evaluated, a shock wave of disappointment shot through my veins. I was young, naive and stupid.
Eight years and a personal 16-month tour later, U.S. forces have finally completed their withdrawal from Iraq. The withdrawal of American troops has different meanings to different people. For some it is an afterthought, a headline in the newspaper and a memory of a time that they would like to forget.
For others, the withdrawal of American troops will be the beginning of an uncomfortable journey into a soon-to-be bygone era. Like many veterans, I have no definitive response or emotion to the cessation of combat operations in Iraq. It’s an odd mix of regret, fear, hope and pride.
I regret that I did not do enough, that somehow I wish I had not come out intact while others weren’t as lucky. While there is a mixture of both selfish egotism and selfless altruism in that statement, it follows me around nevertheless, and it is a constant dichotomy in my life. I fear that once the headlines go away, my fellow veterans will silently be pushed into the shadows of a society that wrought them. Furthermore, we all hope that the sacrifices of our fallen brothers and sisters were not made in vain. We hope that the Iraqi people will be able to forge a stable and democratic society from the ruins of war.
Lastly, I take pride in the work that my men and peers accomplished. There are no amounts of words or movies or documentaries that can adequately describe the complex situation in which we found ourselves. While I may never be a father in the traditional sense, I will always look at these men and women through the eyes of a proud and humble parent.
So, as I think about the end of all combat missions in Iraq, my mind eventually races back to Helsinki. To that kid who was so eager to fight, so eager to face the ultimate challenge, so determined to play a game in which there were only winners. The red and green tracers still flicker across my eyes, but the lens in which I view them is forever changed.
After leaving the Army as a captain, Hellie worked for Target Corporation in Minneapolis and as a humanitarian aid worker in Afghanistan. He is currently a graduate student at George Mason University’s School of Public Policy.