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Iraq veterans 'seeing everything they fought for go out the window'

In a file photo from Aug. 10, 2005, Iraqi policemen and Marines with 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment gather around insurgents they detained in Fallujah, Iraq.

On the night of Oct. 8, 2004, U.S. Army Sgt. Ramon Guitard, a Brooklyn native serving his second tour in Iraq, was a 21-year-old generator mechanic working as a guard in a supply convoy.

En route from Baghdad to Tikrit, Guitard’s unarmored vehicle took a direct hit from a remotely detonated roadside bomb thought to be made of four artillery shells linked together. The impact of the blast shredded Guitard’s legs, collapsed his lung, buried a rock in his right eye and ruptured his internal organs so badly that he had to be cut open from chest to navel to allow them room to swell up.

Today, Guitard wears two gyroscopic, carbon-fiber prosthetic legs that allow him to walk, drive a car, climb stairs and even ride his motorcycle. And on this Fourth of July — a decade after the blast — he watches new developments in Iraq with deep sadness.

“It hurts,” said Guitard, who lives with his wife and four children near Columbia, South Carolina. “But my take on it is that I don’t want to lose any more American lives because of this. We’ve sacrificed too much already.”

Almost four years after U.S. combat troops left Iraq, the war has rekindled with a new vigor. Sunni insurgents, angry over the failure of the Shiite-led government to address tensions in their communities, have seized most of northern and western Iraq.

The front line in this new fight is the road between Tikrit and Baghdad, where Guitard was riding when he lost his legs 10 years ago.

Last week, President Barack Obama sent 300 U.S. combat troops back into Iraq to protect American interests and advise the Iraqi army. Some leaders — chief among them U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. — are calling for more involvement to stop the Sunni advance on Baghdad.

“Put American air power into the game,” Graham told CNN last weekend. The Sunni insurgents “are not 10 feet tall. Stop the advance on Baghdad, get people on the ground that the Iraqis trust.”

But many Iraq veterans — particularly those who were wounded in combat — are leery of another military push into the Persian Gulf country. And they are disappointed that their sacrifice seems to have been wasted, said John Trustruth, commander of the South Carolina Chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart.

“They’re pissed off,” said Trustruth, a Vietnam veteran who was wounded in a rocket propelled grenade attack. “They went over there and put their lives on the line. Now they’re seeing everything they fought for go out the window.”

No easy solutions

The situation in Iraq is complicated at best.

Iraq’s parliament is considering starting a new government, questioning whether Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, can stay in power. Some are even asking if the country should be divided into three sectarian zones: Sunni, Shiite and Kurd.

The United States is pressuring Iraqi politicians to form a unity government with all three groups, but many question if that is possible, given the rifts.

The Sunni minority ruled Iraq for centuries until the U.S. invasion ousted Saddam Hussein. Shiites have dominated the government since al-Maliki became prime minister in 2006 with the support of Shiite clerics in neighboring Iran. Recently, a Sunni organization that is an offshoot of al-Qaida declared an Islamic state in the north and west of Iraq and much of Syria. Kurds in the northeast of the country have a formidable army and may declare independence.

Mohammed al Duliamy, a native of Fallujah, served eight years in his homeland as an interpreter and reporter for Knight-Ridder and McClatchy newspapers and other news organizations. He said any further U.S. involvement on the ground is fraught with danger.

“The Iraqi government failed to contain an insurgency and fueled this sectarian fight that might consume the whole country,” said Dulaimy, who has lived in Columbia since leaving Iraq to attend the University of South Carolina more than two years ago.

“I think the problem is so complicated on what the United States should do,” said Dulaimy, who is seeking asylum here. “Leave Iraq to be controlled by terrorists? Or fight alongside a government that is favoring Iran. It is a dilemma. It's too complicated, and boots on the ground would complicate it more.”

The toll on Americans

More than 1.5 million Americans served in Iraq between 2003 and 2011.

Since March 20, 2003, the day U.S. troops poured across the Kuwait-Iraq border to oust Saddam Hussein and search for weapons of mass destruction that did not exist, the United States lost 4,485 troops killed in action and an estimated more than 30,000 wounded in action.

Of those, 64 members of the U.S. military with ties to South Carolina died in Iraq; 48 have died in Afghanistan. More than 60 percent of American casualties nationally in Iraq were caused by roadside bombs.

Maj. Christopher Rauch of Lexington, South Carolina, was one of the first Americans to be wounded by a roadside bomb. It happened near Fallujah in October 2003, shortly after the rise of the Sunni insurgency after Saddam was driven from power.

“When I was hit, they were just starting,” he said.

Rauch was riding in a convoy that was taking VIPs to tour a factory in the town of al Habbaniyah that Iraqi officials were pitching to U.S. investors. As they traveled down the main highway between Fallujah and al Habbaniyah, an explosion went off — again, a roadside bomb made of four 155 millimeter artillery shells linked together in what is referred to as a daisy chain. Only two of the shells went off.

The hit was not direct. But Rauch’s Humvee — the fourth vehicle in the convoy — was blown off the road and into a ditch. Rauch was briefly knocked out, suffered a blown eardrum and was peppered with debris. The driver and the gunner in the vehicle were also wounded.

“I just remember waking up and saying ‘Oh shit’,” he said. “I waited a couple days to get over the concussion and went back to work.”

Rauch, still a member of the South Carolina National Guard, returned for a second tour in Iraq in 2009 as a convoy manager. And he served in Afghanistan in 2013-2013, replacing first gentleman Michael Haley on a South Carolina agricultural development team.

Rauch said that the United States gave up many of its options and influence in Iraq when it withdrew all combat troops in 2011.

“We gave up ground we had already paid for,” he said. “It was a decision made not just by (politicians). It was made by the people of the United States. That was a popular decision when it was done. But it had a cost.”

As for a return to a combat role there: “I don’t see what the gain would be,” he said

'It's their time to step up'

Steven Diaz of Columbia also was struck by a roadside bomb near Fallujah.

A native of San Luis Potosi, Mexico, Diaz joined the Marine Corps after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., out of patriotism and as a step toward citizenship.

“I felt like it was something I needed to do for the country that had done so much for my family,” he said.

Diaz’s parents were permanent residents, but not yet citizens. Diaz joined the Corps in 2003 with nothing but a green card and was deployed to Iraq in December 2004.

On March 26, 2005, the lance corporal was commanding the lead Humvee in a convoy on a resupply mission to a forward operating base called Camp Korean Village, located on the main highway from Amman, Jordan to Baghdad.

Diaz’s vehicle — a Humvee with armor plating the Marines had welded to its sides and its floorboard covered in sandbags — was to sprint ahead to draw enemy fire to alert the main convoy to trouble spots. The Marines called the vehicle “the suicide truck.”

“If you got hit, you were on your own,” he said.

The Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb — again four, linked 155-millimeter artillery shells. Diaz, who was 21 years old at the time, was riddled with shrapnel and one piece went through his left eye and lodged in his skull. Three other Marines in the vehicle also were severely injured.

“But I got it the worst,” he said.

Diaz spent a year and eight months at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., recovering from his wounds. He still suffers from traumatic brain injury and is blind in his left eye.

Diaz said he thinks the United States will have to take some sort of limited military action in Iraq to prevent the rise of more terrorist groups and support a Democratic government there.

“I don’t know if there is a diplomatic way out of this,” he said. “But for us to go back and take Fallujah for the third time, you’re going to have a hard time selling that.”

Guitard, who spent 18 months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and underwent more than 50 major procedures, agreed.

“I would support air strikes,” he said, “but nothing on the ground. We did our jobs. It’s their time to step up.”

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