PHILADELPHIA — Michael Vey says he's "seen it all before."
The Vietnam War veteran watched the TV news footage of Saigon's fall in 1975 — a few years after he returned home from combat duty.
"I remember thinking, 'What a waste,' " he said. "Ten years, 58,000 American lives, and we let it fall."
Now, Vey, 62, of North Cape May, is watching Islamist militants trying to take over Iraq city by city, a decade after he and members of his New Jersey Army National Guard unit helped topple Saddam Hussein.
"It's happening all over again," said Vey, a retired first sergeant who served in the 253d Transportation Company.
Vey's assessment of the crisis in Iraq was shared by many veterans who lost comrades and came back with mental and physical wounds with which they are still coping.
The last American combat brigade left Iraq in August 2010, and the last U.S. troops departed in late 2011 after eight years of war.
Since then, Iraq has faced surging violence by an al-Qaeda-inspired group that routed the army from two key cities in the country's Sunni heartland this week and appeared poised to march on Baghdad, where the central government is dominated by the majority Shiites.
"This is devastating to those who fought, and to the families of those who fought and lost loved ones," said Jerry Newberry, assistant adjutant general for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, at the group's national headquarters in Kansas City, Mo. "After billions of dollars and thousands of lives, it's disappointing to see the final results to be this instead of a democratic, free Iraq."
As with Vey, witnessing the apparent collapse of the Iraqi government's army "is déj... vu all over again," said Newberry, a Vietnam veteran who has visited Iraq and Afghanistan. "I saw the finality [of South Vietnam's fall]. This is like replaying a movie."
The United States returned control of Iraq to its people, "but they were not ready to take it back," said former Army Sgt. Carl Oliver, 59, a Trenton resident who is still recovering from a 2004 insurgent ambush in Baghdad that killed two close New Jersey comrades and seriously wounded him. "We should have left a residual force there.
"I was all for getting out, but when you look at the big picture, we should have left somebody there, like we did in Germany" after World War II, said Oliver, who was a member of the New Jersey National Guard's 112th Field Artillery. "We did so much over there, and now we're back in the same boat."
Americans may have to return to Iraq to prevent the country from being taken over by militants, who have already seized Mosul and Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown, Oliver said.
President Obama said Thursday that he had not ruled out air strikes to beat back the extremists.
"I believe we will have to return, hopefully sooner than later, before they destroy everything we built up," Oliver said.
Authorities in Baghdad said Thursday that they had retaken Tikrit, but reports of Iraqi police and military service members discarding uniforms and fleeing Mosul did not surprise Iraq veterans such as Staff Sgt. Luddie Austin, 44, of Willingboro. He served in Iraq in 2004 and 2005 with Oliver in the 112th Field Artillery and 89th Military Police Brigade, and, like Oliver, survived a deadly convoy attack.
"I was in a firefight when [insurgents] tried to take over an Iraqi police station," said Austin, a retired Trenton police officer. "The police were supposed to fight with us, but abandoned their posts.
"We were fighting to help them and they were running away," he said. "They don't have the same dedication and love of country as Americans. But we can't occupy Iraq forever."
Despite the challenges, "if the president decided to go back, I would support him 100 percent," Austin said. "It's a sad situation, though."
Part of the problem is a lack of commitment by politicians to defeat the enemy, said Army National Guard Capt. D.W. Janszky, 43, a Woodlynne resident who owns Haddonfield Floral Co.
"If you're not there to destroy the enemy and get the war over with as quickly as possible, you shouldn't be there," said Janszky, who transported detainees to prisons near Baghdad in 2008 and 2009, sometimes ducking bullets and mortar rounds along the way. "When we try to use the military as diplomats, you end up going back again."
The gains by militants in Iraq are "disappointing but not surprising," he added. "Until the enemy says the war is over, it's not over."
The grim news has been the topic of conversation between former Army First Lt. Vince Caliguire and former comrades. Caliguire, 41, of Brigantine, N.J., led a 30-member Pennsylvania National Guard unit that killed 90 insurgents in a battle at Ramadi in 2006.
"A lot of guys are so distraught over this," he said. "We spent so much time there, trying to fix it.
"It breaks your heart to see what's going on."
Caliguire said that since serving in Iraq, he had remained in communication with Iraqis he trained and with an interpreter, but in recent days, "I wonder if they're still alive."
"You think of the guys who have fallen and the guys with PTSD," he said. "You can get by if you know that what you fought for was meaningful.
"We should show force with air strikes or whatever. The bottom line is that we have friends who died there. If we let [militants] take over, it's all for naught. Let's rededicate ourselves."
Americans get "tired of war" but "don't get the big picture," said Vey, a veteran of the Wildwood Crest Police Department who served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. "You can't stick your head in the sand."