San Francisco Chronicle – Former Army Sgt. Hien Manh Tran gave his right eye to the Iraq War. Ex-Navy Chief Petty Officer Kelly McFarland gave two years away from her family. Now as they and fellow veterans watch their sacrifice being trampled by al Qaeda-inspired militants, they’re reacting with dismay – and divided over what the U.S. should do about the chaos.
Many say the $1 trillion and 4,487 dead that the U.S. spent in its eight-year effort to bring democracy to Iraq has tapped the till, and the country should spend no more. Others point to the same cost and say the U.S. must recommit, or it will all have been wasted.
Everybody agrees on a few core emotions: Anguish. Alarm. Anger.
That’s what they feel as they read reports of the Iraqi army – which the U.S. military worked so hard to train – collapsing like straw before the insurgent Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, with government soldiers fleeing and posts and cities being overrun.
“It’s really heart-wrenching, a big letdown,” said McFarland, 48, who lives in Livermore and did her service in the early stages of the war, in 2003-04. “We all worked so hard when we went over there, and now this?
“I know the people struggling over there don’t want this awful situation,” she said. “But as horrible as it is, it’s hard to keep giving. My family gave a lot to have me go over there, and I don’t know that I would ask them – or any family – to do it again.
“Is there any hope of accomplishing what we would really want to accomplish over there? I just don’t know.”
Tran, 34, said he knows, and he is not hesitant to say it forcefully.
He was wounded by a bomb during his 2006-09 hitch, and after all the resources and blood contributed by the U.S., it’s time for the Iraqis to determine their own fate, he said.
‘It’s up to them’
“I’m a businessman, and in my mind after you get trained for something, you have to stand on your own,” said Tran, who founded and runs the Anvil Builders civil engineering firm in San Francisco. “I feel like the time and resources we spent, the brothers we lost over there, are being wasted. But it’s up to them now.
“Nobody is going to bring peace and freedom to you if you’re not willing to work for it.
“This is personal for me,” Tran said. “I gave up my right eye for that country. I lost brothers on the battlefield. You can’t put a dollar amount on that. But if they want more troops and money – as an American, I do not agree with that.”
So far, President Obama appears to be as conflicted as the vets. Even as he dispatched several hundred troops to the region this week, he has insisted U.S. forces will be kept out of combat. Obama has instead veered toward diplomatic tactics, reaching out to others in the region – including longtime nemesis Iran – for help.
Former Army Sgt. Javier Tenorio, who fought in 2004-05 in the Sunni Triangle area now largely in the hands of the insurgents, says the diplomatic discussions can go only so far – and then it may be time to fire up the tanks again.
“We should never have left Iraq because it wasn’t a stable country – the job wasn’t finished,” said Tenorio, 30, a controller for Kendall-Jackson Winery in Santa Rosa. “If bringing stability requires boots on the ground, so be it. But we can’t just walk away.
“Vietnam is a very comparable situation,” he said. “We vets, we want to finish the job we do. We don’t want the government and the goals we fought for to be overthrown.”
It’s not too late, he said, to help the Iraqi people achieve democracy and lasting peace.
“When I was stationed in Samarra (now a key battleground), we joked that we would come back and visit in 20 years and talk about the old days,” Tenorio said. “We definitely saw Iraq becoming a democratic country. We had hope.
“But from day one, we knew it was going to take a long-term commitment. When we pulled out in 2011, I kept telling all my friends we were going to have to go back.”
Help vets instead
Going back should be off the table for good, said ex-Army Sgt. Geoff Millard, who was an infantryman in Tikrit in 2004-05.
He and McFarland both work for Swords to Plowshares, a veterans aid agency in San Francisco. Millard believes that if there’s any more effort to be made in the name of the Iraq War, it should go mainly toward helping the tens of thousands of wounded vets who came back from it.
“We were lied into that war, and now people talk about going back in? If that’s not ridiculous, I don’t know what is,” Millard said. “This mess going on over there is a direct result of toppling the government that was there.”
He said Obama is right to reach out to other nations in the region for diplomacy. Had the U.S. not propped up the current government, a more homegrown one might be in place that is more inclusive of both Sunnis and Shiites, he said.
“We need a long-term solution over there, and a military solution is going to be only short-term,” Millard said. “Bombing and troops just won’t help.”
Source: San Francisco Chronicle, June 17, 2014, by Kevin Fagan; photos by Liz Hafalia (SF Chronicle)