TACOMA, Wash. — Darrell Griffin Sr. still calls the death of his son a “fresh wound” seven years after a sniper’s bullet in Iraq cut short the life of the Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier.
The father’s pain turned into anger this past week as he watched news that Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, was falling to a radical Islamist group — the kind of group that Staff Sgt. Darrell “Skip” Griffin fought on back-to-back deployments to Iraq.
Skip Griffin was shot to death in Baghdad, but Mosul and the surrounding towns in the north made up his main battleground on both of his tours.
“My son died, and what he died for is vaporizing. It’s just going away,” said the elder Griffin, whose son served in Ninevah province with two different Stryker brigades from JBLM.
Recent fighting in northern Iraq hits close to the heart for the Griffins and thousands of other military families who passed through JBLM during the war. Troops from JBLM repeatedly fought in and around Mosul, pushing out insurgents while trying to build a lasting security among competing ethnic and religious factions.
The Iraq war took a heavy toll on military families in the South Sound. Two hundred JBLM service members were killed during less than a decade of war. Countless more were injured and wounded.
The country’s fortunes looked somewhat brighter in 2010, when JBLM’s 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division rolled out of Iraq with accolades as the last American combat brigade there.
But the relative stability U.S. forces left at the war’s end in 2011 did not hold. Last week, the radical Islamic State of Iraq and Levant moved into Mosul, taking advantage of long-standing disputes between the city’s Sunni residents and the country’s Shiite-led government to expel the Iraqi army from the city.
Now, ISIL reportedly is moving south.
“It’s going to be worse than it was before because they’re a lot more brutal, if you can be more brutal,” Griffin said, referring to reputation for ruthlessness in the Syrian civil war.
It still hurts
For some veterans, the loss of Mosul hurts even if they saw the sectarian strife as inevitable.
“You could read the writing on the wall,” said Emmet Cullen, 32, a former JBLM Stryker sergeant who now lives in Santa Barbara, Calif. “Nothing ever got settled in Iraq. We pulled out and, of course, there was going to be fighting.”
But, he said, “I do think there’s a big group of veterans like myself who’d like to get a plane ticket to Mosul and fight those sons of bitches to take the city back.”
Many of the war’s veterans have been learning to live with the idea of a broken Iraqi state for several years. They saw regional instability spread as the Syrian civil war dragged on, drawing in fighters from Iraq, Iran and Lebanon.
Meanwhile, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki did not seem to bring Sunni Muslims into good standing with his government.
“We established enough security to create an environment in which political compromise was possible, but the Iraqis squandered that opportunity,” said Blake Hall, a former JBLM Stryker platoon leader who fought in Mosul in 2006.
Tacoma-raised Maj. Damon Armeni is one of the veterans who have managed to detach their experiences in war from today’s fighting. He was critically wounded in Mosul in 2004 while fighting with JBLM’s 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division — the Army’s first Stryker brigade.
In 2008, during another flare-up of violence in Mosul, Armeni told The News Tribune that “we have an investment in that place becoming successful.”
Now a staffer at the Pentagon, Armeni said he’s trying to contain his emotions about Mosul’s fate.
“I think I was really pissed the first day. At some point, it becomes not worth it anymore,” said the graduate of Pacific Lutheran University.
He served on all three Iraq deployments with the 3rd Brigade. Those tours at the beginning, middle and end of the war helped him recognize the Army had done what it could — and all the Iraqi government wanted — by the time U.S. troops left in 2011.
Maliki and President George W. Bush signed the agreement in 2008 that called for the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces three years later. President Barack Obama and Maliki did not extend the agreement to keep American forces there.
“The bottom line is we did what we did. We’re out,” said Armeni, 35. “The Iraqis wanted us out. We’re home, so that’s what we did. I don’t think there were any particular parties that wanted us to stay.”
Not about us
Alex Horton, another former 3rd Brigade enlisted soldier, is urging Iraq veterans to find a peace similar to what Armeni described.
“The Iraqi people have been through a lot in the last decade,” he said. “For some reason we’re still making this about us. We have to remember there’s a lot of people caught up in a terrible situation.”
He was one of two JBLM Stryker veterans who wrote essays about Mosul for London’s The Guardian newspaper on Friday.
Horton’s take: “Iraq veterans should not beat themselves up by attaching their ideas of sacrifice — of worth to a nation — to that broken government we left behind. We did what was asked of us. We held up our end of the bargain. Maliki did not.”
His essay was paired with a darker one by Colby Buzzell, a fellow enlisted 3rd Brigade veteran. Buzzell meditated on what he’d tell his child if ever asked why America lost the war in Iraq.
“Of course Mosul had fallen, and of course Tikrit and maybe even Baghdad. I’m not a general or military strategist, but I’m pretty sure that’s what happens when you exit early, when you leave without finishing a job … .” Buzzell wrote. “Hell comes back.”
The first Strykers
Large numbers of JBLM soldiers first fought in Mosul in 2003, when the Army sent the 3rd Brigade to Iraq. It was a historic mission in part because it was the first time the Army sent troops to combat with then-new Stryker vehicles. That was Armeni’s first assignment in Iraq.
Another JBLM Stryker unit, the 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, followed in 2004. That was Griffin and Cullen’s first deployment. Soldiers on that tour saw intense fighting as a sectarian war developed and Fallujah-based insurgents moved north to Mosul.
The 3rd Brigade went back to Mosul in 2006. Armeni, Griffin, Hall, Horton and Cullen all served on that 15-month tour of hard fighting.
For JBLM soldiers, the war’s most severe fighting took place in 2007, when the 3rd and 4th brigades were in other parts of Iraq.
Hall is a student of the war who can critique flaws in U.S. Iraq strategy dating back to before the invasion. To him, Mosul’s fall is just the latest in a line of mistakes. This time, it’s one he places on Iraqi leaders.
“If I really spent time dwelling on it, I’d be so angry and frustrated I wouldn’t be able to function,” said Hall, the co-founder of a company developing online identification technology in Washington, D.C.
He grew close to his interpreter during his Iraq tour. The Iraqi teenager nicknamed Roy was killed by a bomb in January 2008.
Feeling a debt to the fallen interpreter, Hall helped the Iraqi family settle in the United States. They arrived last year. Having them out of harm’s way is one saving grace for the former officer as he watches the latest conflict unfold.
“I do take comfort in that, thank God,” he said.