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Fort Bragg troops look back on their role of the Iraq war

The first convoy of vehicles from 3rd Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, prepares to move out from Camp Stryker to their new home in Baghdads International Zone.

Army Col. Tommy Steele remembers the first days of the Iraq war, when he and other members of Fort Bragg's 82nd Airborne Division were sent to find weapons of mass destruction.

During the search, Steele said, the soldiers responded to the scene of a mass grave, the handiwork of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. In the grave, Steele said, lay the body of a little girl, murdered in flip-flops and a flowery dress with her hands tied behind her back.

"That one incident there made it worth it," Steele said about America's decision to invade Iraq and the nine years of war to follow.

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Fort Bragg troops were among the first in Iraq and the last to leave. Nearly every unit on the installation deployed in support of the war, beginning in 2003 and ending in 2011.

Of the 1.5 million American troops who fought the war, nearly 4,500 died, including more than 200 soldiers with Fort Bragg ties. Thousands of others were wounded, either physically or mentally.

America spent more than $820 billion on the war and related costs, such as health care, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Much of the expense came during one of the worst economic recessions in the country's history, and a disproportionate number of Iraq veterans continue to struggle to find jobs.

The war also besieged the Department of Veterans Affairs, causing enormous backlogs for benefits and hamstringing the quality of medical care.

On the first anniversary of the end of the Iraq war, the question is: Was it worth the cost?

"The short answer is, it's too early to tell," said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan, who deployed to Iraq four times and now serves as deputy commander at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state.

The long-term answer, Buchanan said, depends on choices the Iraqi people will make in the next five or so years.

Before the invasion, Buchanan said, the Iraqi people were oppressed, with no opportunity to decide their nation's fate.

"They have a lot of opportunities they did not have in 2003," he said. "There's a high cost, a lot of sacrifice in both the U.S. and Iraq."

Retired Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick, who commanded Fort Bragg and the 18th Airborne Corps until early this year, served as deputy commanding general of operations for U.S. Forces-Iraq in the final year of the war. His staff made up the core of Iraq's top U.S. command.

"Fort Bragg's impact in Iraq and Afghanistan is undeniable," said Helmick, who now is vice president for corporate strategy for defense contractor SOS International. "They were there in the beginning, they were there in the middle and they were there in the end."

First Sgt. Jerry Tucker, of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 1st Brigade Combat Team, remembers the beginning of the war, when he and his soldiers came under constant attack while serving as the first American troops to occupy Fallujah.

At the time, Tucker was a squad leader in the 82nd Airborne's 3rd Brigade Combat Team. The team was based at an outpost called Dreamland that once served as a Baath Party resort frequented by Hussein's sons. It had a small roller coaster and a go-cart track.

Tucker said the brigade's soldiers patrolled daily in an attempt to clear Fallujah of insurgents and foreign fighters.

"I don't think there was a single day there was not a firefight," Tucker said. "It was very, very kinetic."

At the time, soldiers patrolled in unarmored Humvees packed with sandbags to help stop bullets, Tucker said. The Humvees' doors were removed to allow for a quick exit. Rocket-propelled grenades and improvised explosive devises were the insurgents' weapons of choice.

"If you saw someone shooting an RPG at the truck, you just jumped out," Tucker said. "As for IEDs? Back then, it was drive fast and you're good."

Tucker said soldiers tried to stay out of the Iraqis' daily lives but were dogged in their pursuit of enemy forces.

Respecting those boundaries led to some gains in Fallujah, but that all fell apart once the soldiers were replaced by Marines. Fallujah, like Ramadi, soon became one of the most dangerous cities in Iraq.

Tucker would go on to deploy to Iraq one more time. Like other soldiers, he described an improving security situation that eventually left the country unrecognizable from what it had been during the years of heavy fighting.

Sgt. Grady Hancock was among the soldiers who saw that progression.

Hancock served in Iraq three times, once in 2004 with the 525th Battlefield Surveillance Brigade in Baghdad and twice with the 1st Brigade Combat Team, serving from 2007 to 2008 near Nasiriyah and from 2009 to 2010 in Anbar province.

On the first deployment, Hancock said, Victory Base Complex in Baghdad was struck two or three times a week with indirect fire.

Outside Nasiriyah in 2007, Hancock said, he was on a much smaller base than Victory, and the attacks were a lot less frequent. On each tour, the dangers decreased, Hancock said.

"There weren't as many IEDs," he said. "Even from the first deployment to the second deployment, there was a lot less attacks."

Brig. Gen. Rock Donahue, who served as the top engineer in Iraq in the war's final year and now serves in Army Reserve Command, said part of the strategy of improving Iraq came in building and sustaining infrastructure.

In Sadr City in the summer of 2008, he said, Army engineers split the city in two.

One half, which had little insurgent activity, was cleaned up and given improved running water and electricity.

The "bad" side of the city was then encouraged to stop supporting the insurgency after seeing the benefits of working with U.S. troops, he said.

All told, U.S. troops completed 70,000 reconstruction and development projects in Iraq, Donahue said. Those came at a cost of $58 billion. They included infrastructure, schools and clinics.

The projects went a long way toward helping create a "stable, sovereign and self-reliant Iraq," Donahue said. But he conceded that the country still has problems.

"We tend to forget just how long the process takes," Donahue said. "Democracy is not a switch. It's a journey."

The darkest days of the war came in the spring of 2006, said Maj. Gen. Buchanan, who served as spokesman for U.S. Forces-Iraq in the final year of the war.

Buchanan, who deployed to Iraq four times starting in 2003, said spring 2006 was marred by a civil war among Iraqis.

Entire neighborhoods were being ethnically cleansed, he said, and violence was rampant.

"When I left Iraq in March 2006, it was hard for me to be optimistic or hopeful about where the country was heading," he said.

But by 2008, after a surge by U.S. and Iraqi forces, it was a "completely different country," Buchanan said.

Helmick, who first deployed to Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division in 2003, said there is no doubt Iraq had changed for the better by the time U.S. soldiers withdrew in 2011.

The country did not have an army after it was disbanded by coalition troops at the start of the war, Helmick said. The first armed forces, a facilities protection force, reported for duty in flip-flops and blue jeans.

"Now, they have a very, very credible military and police force and one of the best special operations forces in the region," he said.

But Helmick said the country still has problems, including continued sectarian violence.

"There were many more things that we could have done. We did the best we could with time available," Helmick said. "It wasn't perfect what we did. . But Fort Bragg can be proud of their time and service in Iraq. It's not perfect, but you can feel pretty good."

According to a report by the Brookings Institution released in July, violence in Iraq is trending downward despite continued attacks.

Many of those attacks are devastating, such as a series of high-profile bombings that killed at least 69 and wounded another 200 in December 2011.

But the number of al-Qaida insurgents in Iraq has dwindled. The last estimate, in November 2011, placed the figure at between 800 and 1,000.

Economic factors have also improved, according to the Brookings Institution, which says the production of electricity and oil are now equal to or above prewar numbers.

For Fort Bragg soldiers who served in Iraq, the decrease in violence is not surprising.

In the waning days of the war, soldiers with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team said, there was no comparison in the level of violence to years past.

They said the goal was for Iraq to be capable of providing security for itself, not preventing all attacks.

Those sentiments were echoed by military officials and President Obama, who came to Fort Bragg on Dec. 14, 2011, to announce that the war was over. In his remarks, Obama said he believed the Iraqis were in a position to govern themselves and handle things through their political process.

Helmick said it was difficult to balance security, training and withdrawal in the final months of the war.

"To bring everyone out, it was a monumental challenge," he said.

In the last year, 82 bases were transferred to either Iraqi security forces or the U.S. Department of State, which has kept a presence in Iraq, including a small contingent of U.S. troops.

On the other side of the Iraq border, in Kuwait, the 1st Theater Sustainment Command was tasked with processing the mountains of equipment and vehicles that had been moved out of the country.

Col. Ken Dyer, who served with the 1st Theater Sustainment Command and the 18th Airborne Corps in the last years of the war, said 21,000 truckloads of equipment were moved in the war's final four months.

"It was a phenomenal effort," he said.

Officials with the 1st Theater Sustainment Command, which has a headquarters on Fort Bragg, said the drawdown was completed early this year, with equipment brought back to the U.S. or diverted to Afghanistan.

Like several other officers in the 18th Airborne Corps, Col. John Cross said the drawdown gave troops a sense of closure.

"It was very rewarding to see up close and kind of wrap up things," he said, adding that while not perfect, the efforts gave Iraq the best chance for security and success.

Steele, now protection chief for Fort Bragg and the 18th Airborne Corps, said Iraq received America's best efforts.

"We gave them everything they need to be a successful country in the Middle East," Steele said. "They have to run their own country now."

Steele, Cross and Dyer all said they saw many sacrifices during the war, including their own.

Dyer said he missed three years of seeing his daughter play varsity softball.

Steele missed his son's senior year of high school and the start of his first year of college.

All three were happy to be home, but not bitter about what they missed.

"This is what we do," Steele said. "These are the choices we make."

Helmick looks at those sacrifices and other, more costly losses when he considers the question of whether the war was worth it.

The more than 200 Fort Bragg soldiers and airmen killed in Iraq included Spc. David Hickman of the 82nd Airborne's 2nd Brigade Combat Team. Hickman was the last soldier killed in the country.

Hickman's name was just one of the untold number that passed Helmick's desk. As a general, he attended nearly a dozen funerals for fallen troops.

He said he was always struck by the stories told of those soldiers and by the comments from their families.

More than once, Helmick said, the families thanked him.

"Without a doubt, it would be the parents or a wife," he said. "They would say, 'Thank you, General, for letting my son die doing what he loved.' "

The soldiers killed in Iraq were always among the best, Helmick said.

"It's the hometown hero or captain of the football or wrestling team," he said. "It was always tremendous young men."

It's those men Helmick thinks of when asking himself about the war.

"Was it worth it?" he asked. "It has to be worth it. For them. It has to."

brooksd@fayobserver.com
 

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