Survey at end of story
It has been 10 years since U.S. forces invaded Iraq, launching a war that would lead to thousands of Iraqi and U.S. deaths and cost the country billions of dollars to wage. But for the troops on the ground March 19, 2003, was all about controlling fear, following orders and surviving.
In those early days of the war, the ground troops worried about chemical weapons that Saddam Hussein’s forces might use. They endured weeks without showers or hot meals. They spent hours riding through the desert in cramped military vehicles, sometimes pausing to engage in bloody firefights.
But amid the suffering and fear the troops also felt amazement at their role in history. And they felt a deep responsibility for changing the lives of the average Iraqi citizen.
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The State newspaper asked some veterans who were there in the early days of the war to share their thoughts about that time.
Now: Records unit shift leader, Columbia Police Department
Then: Master sergeant assigned to the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade’s Task Force Tarawa. Age then: 38
His mission: He was one of three senior enlisted operations chiefs who made sure Marines had everything they needed as they fought their way toward Baghdad
Where he was on March 19, 2003: “The night people back home were watching ‘shock and awe’ we were sitting on the border. We sat there and watched loads and loads of missiles flying overhead. When they say go, you go.”
What he was feeling: “You can read about. You can watch as many live documentaries as you want. You can listen to someone say it. But it’s a very gut-wrenching fear of the unknown and going into danger. You’ve just got to grab hold of it and go on. You’ve got to keep your faith.”
A vivid memory: Field’s unit fought with Saddam Hussein’s Fedayeen in An Nasiriyah, the city where Jessica Lynch and other soldiers from the 507th Maintenance Company were taken prisoner. The unit lost 23 people in one day during the fight. He remembers receiving a call that a medial evacuation helicopter was bringing casualties back to the operations headquarters. He and other soldiers ran to meet the helicopters, expecting to carry wounded to a field hospital. Instead, the crew chief jumped off the helicopter and told them they were carrying the war dead.
“It’s like time stopped,” Field said. “You don’t want to hear what you just heard. That was a punch in the gut.”
How the war changed him: “It made me more vigilant. If you’ve got a gut feeling about something, don’t shrug it off. It kept me more level-headed. Your mouth can get you in a whole lot of trouble or it can get you out of a lot of trouble.”
Looking back: Field distances himself from arguments over whether it was the right decision for the U.S. to invade Iraq. As a Marine, he was obligated to follow orders and to trust the country’s leaders. “Going back and saying we shouldn’t have done that is disrespectful to all those people who died. It takes away from that person’s sacrifice and that family’s sacrifice.”
Now: Lieutenant in the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department judicial services unit
Then: Sergeant with the Army’s 3rd Military Police Company, 3rd Infantry Division. Age then: 26
His mission: The Dreher High School graduate was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 15th Infantry as it pushed through the Iraqi desert toward Baghdad. “Our concern wasn’t enemy forces in southern Iraq. Our mission was focused on Saddam Hussein and his regime in Baghdad.”
Where he was on March 19, 2003: While standing outside his Humvee near the Iraq/Kuwait border, Blackmon was interviewed by NBC war correspondent David Bloom. It was one of the first interviews to air from the frontline as the war began. Bloom died in the first month of the war from a pulmonary embolism.
What he was feeling: “You’re trained. It’s what you’re supposed to do. At the same time, you wonder what’s going to happen. What’s it going to be like? You hear stories about SCUD missiles. You don’t know what their capabilities are.”
A vivid memory: On April 8, 2003, a rocket fired by Iraqi forces slammed into the 2nd Brigade’s headquarters south of Baghdad. Two soldiers, including the brigade commander’s driver, and two journalists embedded with the unit died in the attack. Several others were injured. “This thing goes flying over your head and then you feel the impact and the concussion and there’s mass chaos.”
How the war changed him: Blackmon said he is more mellow and he learned how to deal with stress. The skills he picked up in combat made him a better police officer. “I’m more interested in talking to people and helping people out. My career has never been about throwing people in jail.”
Looking back: As for the politics that led to the war, “It doesn’t matter what I think. It won’t change it. For me, I’m good with everything that happened.”
Maj. Don Little
Now: Public affairs officer, 3rd Army, Shaw Air Force Base
Then: First lieutenant with the Army’s 226th Maintenance Company out of Fort Sill, Okla. Age then: 30
His mission: Provide support for a field artillery unit in the 3rd Infantry Division. He ran multiple convoys carrying mail and water to the front lines.
Where he was on March 19, 2003: Little arrived in Kuwait the day the war started. “The day we arrived ‘incountry’ we were crossing the border.”
What he was feeling: “At the time, I was obviously nervous because I didn’t know what to expect. I spent a lot of time trying to keep my issues to the side and keep everybody focused on what we came to do.”
Vivid memory: Early in the war, his platoon was assigned to conduct a highway checkpoint. Every day, an older man and a little girl would come to the checkpoint to watch the soldiers. “She would be like, ‘Mister, mister. One, two, three, four, five,’ to show me she could speak English. I would give her the M&Ms out of my MRE.”
Little had told the man about his fiancée. When the man learned the unit was leaving after a week at the checkpoint, he gave Little a wedding band.
He still wonders what happened to the man and girl. “I probably never will know. I just say a little prayer and hope things worked out well for them.”
How the war changed him: “One thing that stuck in my mind was seeing artillery pieces in the middle of a playground. You would never see that in the United States. It made me thank God I’m an American. Even a worse-case scenario in the United States is much, much better than a lot of places I saw over there.”
Looking back: “I really believe in what we were doing over there. At the end of the day, you think of the things we brought to that country. Think of the schools, for example.”
Now: Exercise branch chief, 3rd Army, Shaw Air Force Base
Then: Major serving as executive officer for the 468th Chemical Battalion, an Army Reserve unit from Little Rock, Ark. Age then: 40
His mission: To monitor and neutralize chemical weapons in support of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force
Where he was March 19, 2003: At an Army base in Kuwait. He would enter Iraq later in the month.
What he was feeling: “This is really happening after all these years of preparing and training. We wanted to make sure we brought everyone home safely.” Hampton also had a lot on his mind: His first son was born four days before he was deployed. “It was tough.”
A vivid memory: He remembers the rough living conditions in those early days of the war. When his unit landed in Kuwait, no one had phones to call family to let them know they had arrived. Once in Iraq, there were no televisions, no air conditioning and no hot meals. On his second tour in Iraq, Hampton heard a young soldier complaining about conditions. “I said, ‘You have air conditioning, TVs and money in the bank. What are you complaining about?’”
How the war changed him: “I remember how important family is. I tell my wife that every time I deploy she deserves a medal. I’ve given her a plaque for every time I’ve deployed because she held things together while I was gone, and when I come home I don’t miss a beat.” He gave his wife her most recent plaque on his 50th birthday, when friends and family had gathered.
Looking back: “We were fighting for what we believe in here in the United States.”
Maj. Charlie Barrett
Now: Executive officer, strategy and effects directorate, 3rd Army, Shaw Air Force Base
Then: First lieutenant serving as a tank platoon leader for the Army’s 3rd Heavy Combat Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, Fort Carson, Colo. Age then: 28
His mission: He commanded 16 soldiers and four tanks.
Where he was March 19, 2003: At a staging location in the Kuwaiti desert
What he was feeling: “Word got around to the guys in the 4th ID of news reports that the 3rd ID was crossing. That’s what you train for and what you want to do. Most of the guys were desperate to get to the fight. They kept saying, ‘Come on, send us up there.’”
A vivid memory: His brigade was sent to the town of Tuz, near the Iraq/Iran border to negotiate the surrender of an Iranian revolutionary force that had fought on behalf of Saddam Hussein. When his tanks rolled into town, school children began running into the streets to watch. “There were just smiles on and on and on and hands waving. You don’t know what kind of reaction the people are going to have to you. When you see that you know it will be OK. There were no shots fired.”
He also shudders at the memories of the brutal summer heat. There were no trees, no showers, and water was being rationed. Nighttime temperatures would be above 100 degrees. Flies swarmed around them. “You could swing your hand through the air and 10 flies would fall in front of you. Miserable probably doesn’t even begin to describe it.”
How the war changed him: Barrett gained a deeper appreciation for the things he has at home. “For us in Iraq, a bad day meant someone got killed. It was a good day when no one got killed. You come back to the U.S. and you see all these people on reality TV shows who break a nail or have these problems that I don’t consider problems. The war helps put that into serious reality for you.”
Looking back: Years of war with an all-volunteer military is creating a warrior class in the United States, Barrett said. “Not that there’s a good thing or a bad thing about it. But there’s a big difference between the people who serve two or three tours overseas and those who let the war go by largely unnoticed.”
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