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Pat Donahue: They did their job — and they did it well
Patrick Donahue
Patrick Donahue, Editor & General Manager

Twenty years ago, there were a lot of sleepless nights in our community.

It didn’t matter who you were. It was likely, very likely, you knew someone who had a loved one 8,000 miles away, taking part in Operation Iraqi Freedom, the invasion and subsequent liberation of Iraq.

Our community came together as one to support its troops and those families left behind, perhaps in a force and a manner not seen beforehand. The press corps that descended upon our little corner of the world came away dumbstruck as to how that support sprang up so quickly and so readily and with such generosity and sincerity.

The invasion itself is now 20 years in our collective rear view mirror. Twenty years prior to 2003, U.S. forces descended on the island of Grenada, where hundreds of U.S. citizens attending medical school were in danger at the hands of a regime sympathetic to Cuba, the world wondered if we really developed the Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars” missile defense, as it came to be known.

The reasons for going into Iraq were that Saddam Hussein was not complying with a series of UN resolutions that granted access for weapons inspectors into Saddam’s facilities. Was Saddam Hussein trying to get nuclear material to build a bomb? Back in 1982, the Israelis, acting on intelligence that a reactor site at Osirak was being built for just that purpose, acted and destroyed in a daring air strike.

Saddam had used chemical weapons on his own people, gassing the Kurds at Halabja in 1988. There are reports of the Iraqis using chemical weapons repeatedly during its war with Iran in the late 1980s and early 1990s. That was also the first of two aggressive wars waged against neighboring countries.

For his second one, his invasion of Kuwait, our community again had a role to play in decimating one of the world’s largest armies. The 24th Infantry Division, the first heavy unit to be sent to southwest Asia in August 1990, performed admirably and capably in sealing off the Iraqi forces as the “Left Hook” tore into the bulk of Saddam’s forces in the desert.

Saddam’s sons Uday and Qusay were killed in a firefight with U.S. forces four months after the invasion. Saddam was later pulled from his “spider hole” hiding spot outside of his hometown of Tikrit, nine months after 3rd ID tanks and Bradleys crossed the berm. He was tried for war crimes and other crimes of humanity, found guilty and eventually was sent to the gallows, meeting his fate in the hangman’s noose. So hell’s population has increased by at least three people in the last 20 years.

The search for WMDs, weapons of mass destruction, turned up no such arms under Saddam’s control. Another reason given for invading — possible ties with Al-Qaeda — were always specious at best.

I choose not to use this space to debate whether our nation should have pledged its people and its purse to ousting a cruel and vicious tyrant from power from a country 8,000 miles away. I won’t shed a tear that Saddam and his two repugnant sons and their colleagues face an eternity of hell.

Instead, I choose to reflect on what was the best-led, best-equipped and best-trained fighting force in history accomplishing that which on the surface looked impossible. I said it in many interviews back then — the families here know there are none better than their own soldiers, and while they may have trepidation and anxiety for their individual soldiers, they have complete confidence these soldiers can do whatever is asked of them, and the soldiers know there is that confidence in them. It did not lighten the emotional burden — but it was one less worry and concern.

They did what they were asked to do. They went to Baghdad. They obliterated a much larger opposing military. They chased a despot from power. The resulting geopolitical fallout was above their pay grade. Is the Middle East more or less stable than before? Did Iraq become a new hotbed for the foment of radical Islamists?

Those are questions that can be answered and debated elsewhere. For now, those men and women of the 3rd ID made damn sure Iraq wasn’t going to be a threat beyond its borders for a long time.

In a few months, thousands of soldiers will be heading for another deployment. For now, it will be a peacetime move. Between now and then, and even when they get there, that geopolitical landscape may change.

It’s been 20 years, so the faces have faded from memory. But the names of those soldiers I met two decades ago who didn’t come home are still etched into my conscience. Let’s just hope there are no more trees to add to Warriors Walk when they come home this time.

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