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Published: Saturday, 10/29/2011

Iraq war never will be over for many returning troops

BY MARILOU JOHANEK
BLADE COLUMNIST

Officially, the nearly nine-year-old Iraq war will soon be over for American troops. Unofficially, it may never end for veterans who have to cope with private demons we can't imagine.

Returning soldiers slip back into civilian life or continue serving in uniform. They pick up where they left off and move on.

Chances are you know some of them. They live, work, and play just like everyone else. But what Iraq war veterans saw and endured, from Baghdad to Basra, sets them apart from neighbors, friends, and family.

While the rest of us were otherwise preoccupied, hardly giving a second thought to what the U.S. military was doing in Iraq, soldiers from Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and every other states faced deployment to Hell.

Impossibly young Americans, many barely in their twenties, were abruptly immersed in mind-blowing horror. Those who survived Iraq are not the same.

Welcome to the world of improvised explosive devices, rocket-propelled grenades, snipers, insurgents, car-bombings, suicide attacks, sectarian violence, and abundant death. More than 4,400 soldiers came home in flag-draped coffins.

Tens of thousands of soldiers returned physically wounded. Many carry deep emotional scars.

My friend Todd, who doesn't want his last name used because he's on active duty, saw the worst. A veteran of Desert Storm, he spent 14 months in Iraq and knows plenty about roadside bombs, cars exploding in front of troops, and terrorists who blow themselves up with kids nearby.

The married father of two keeps most of what he has seen to himself. He speaks in generalities that only allude to the gore, but he still reacts instinctively whenever a car backfires.

Yet he's a career Army man who maintains that the Iraq war was worth the cost.

"I'd rather do what we did over there than see the fighting here," he told me. " I hope we never see anything close to that over here."

Todd takes a philosophical view of postinvasion Iraq.

"We did the best we could do for the Iraqis, getting rid of Saddam Hussein, giving democracy a foothold," he says. "Now it's up to them."

A new neighbor of mine, who maneuvers gingerly with a limp, spent 14 months in Iraq. Matt, a father of two who also didn't want to use his last name, talks about the pins and pain in his ankle and what he calls his career-ending injury.

His Ohio National Guard unit is scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan in November 2012. A sister unit will go in March. He expects that being left behind will be hard.

"The military is family," he says. "You go through everything together."

Matt is circumspect about his experience in Iraq. "Saw a lot of stuff, some good, some raw," he hedges. He relates how scary it was when cars driven by Iraqis would come too close to his convoy.

There was always fear of ambush, and "sometimes we just drove over [unidentified vehicles] to stop them," he said.

Matt shakes his head. He's on half a dozen medications and sees a mental-health counselor regularly.

It's the price he pays in common with many of his fellow veterans. He's glad that virtually all U.S. troops finally will be withdrawn from Iraq by year's end.

Matt thinks U.S. involvement should have ended years ago, right after Saddam was deposed. He's not the only Iraq veteran who believes U.S. troops overstayed their occupation.

"Yeah, it dragged on more than anyone figured," Todd agreed. "After a while, we could only do so much -- training police, giving Iraqis a chance."

Listening to resigned soldiers such as Todd and Matt gives nonmilitary types like me newfound appreciation of their unquestioned duty to country.

They were willing to leave their families for a year or more to go to places with names such as Fallujah, Mosul, Ramadi, Karbala, Tikrit, and Kirkuk. They were willing to engage in brutal battle at the behest of their commander in chief for as long as it took.

Some soldiers who are withdrawing from Iraq may head to Afghanistan, where Operation Enduring Freedom still extracts a high military cost. They will persevere in a hostile landscape on behalf of a largely indifferent homeland, because it is their duty.

Those of us who are far removed from the bloodshed owe a debt of gratitude to those who do what most of us won't. Soldiers don't have the luxury of debating war from a safe distance.

For our sake, they fight and cope the best they can with what follows.

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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