MOSUL, Iraq — With just one in five Americans polled saying that the loss of American lives in Iraq was worth the result, one group that has remained behind the effort is the troops who weathered multiple deployments, lost friends and left their youth on the battlefield.
Many grew up in the war, starting in their teens or early 20s during the invasion, and spending much of the next seven and a half years shuttling between the hellish fighting of Iraq and the comfort of home.
Not surprisingly, they take the future of Iraq personally.
With the war expected to end next year, relief at the prospect of coming home is tempered by concern over whether the fragile democracy planted in Iraq will succeed, whether all of the sacrifices will translate to a better country.
“Time will tell, and I’m a little nervous,” said Capt. Heather Guck, an Iowa National Guard soldier serving her second tour in Iraq. “I don’t want our fallen comrades’ lives to be lost in vain.”
Violence in Iraq is down dramatically since the dark days of the Sunni-Shiite civil war, but a weakened insurgency still stages regular attacks, calling into question the readiness of Iraq’s security forces.
Iraq has a fledgling democracy, but nearly six months after national elections, the country’s squabbling politicians still have not formed a government.
Even Gen. Ray Odierno, the top commander in Iraq, has said the country’s ultimate success won’t be known for years.
Over five tours, Army Staff Sgt. Darrell Green, of Wilton, N.Y., saw some of the worst fighting in Iraq. He’s had nine friends killed. Since the 2003 invasion, he’s spent as much time in Iraq as at home.
“To lose nine friends like that, to see things go well would help a lot,” said Green, 26, sitting under camouflage netting on a sultry night in the desert outside of Mosul.
Many troops, such as Army Staff Sgt. Nicholas Burkeen, 27, of St. Louis, will keep a keen watch on what happens in the still-fractious country. Burkeen is on his third, and almost certainly last, deployment to Iraq.
“I’m always going to be looking at this place,” he said. “I’ve got 48 months’ deployment time here — it’s like a second home. That will be my best day, whenever I see … this country unify under one flag.”
The only military that troops of the Iraq generation know is one at war. Multiple deployments are the norm rather than a remote possibility, as it was after Vietnam. It has crept into the rhythms of their lives. Time with spouses and children has become a luxury in between tours.
“I don’t know what the Army was like before [these] deployments,” said Army Sgt. Garrett Butts, 27, who joined four years ago and is on his second deployment to Iraq. “I don’t want to stop deploying now.”
Embraced by an American public that has simultaneously rejected their war — 55 percent of Americans say the United States is no safer from terrorism, and just 20 percent say the war was “worth it,” according to an August CNN/Opinion Research poll — Iraq veterans have mixed feelings about the reception they’ll get at home. There will be cheering welcoming committees at airports throughout the country, but there will be no victory parades and the debate over the wisdom and the outcome of the war will continue.
Many of Army Capt. Keith Benoit’s family members in Massachusetts who are vehemently against the war regularly send care packages to him and his soldiers.
“I struggle with that personally, with family members,” he said. “I’m not blind to the politics.”
But, he added, “I also, in some ways, appreciate that dichotomy, that yes, though those people don’t support the war themselves, they find it in themselves to support the troops.”
As the troops leave, their legacy will be in the hands of Iraqis. U.S. troop levels have dipped below 50,000 and the remaining forces are to focus on training, not fighting. Iraqis have taken over most of the day-to-day security and unless the U.S. and Iraq rewrite their security agreement, all American troops must be out of the country by 2011.
“It’s surreal to talk about it because it’s over,” Burkeen said. “I guess it’s over.”