This story is the latest installment in a joint initiative by The Associated Press and Associated Press Media Editors taking a closer look at this latest generation of war veterans as they return to civilian life, and the effect this is having on them, their families and American society.
SAN DIEGO (AP) — Just months after the U.S. military departed, violence in Iraq is increasing. Hundreds of people have died in recent weeks in bombings and drive-by shootings, some claimed by al-Qaida insurgents.
How do the U.S. troops who fought in Iraq for nearly nine years, and in December completed withdrawing from what was supposed to be an emerging democracy, view the turmoil? What do they feel it means to the legacy of their time on the ground? Associated Press reporters who cover military bases and communities in the U.S. asked some of those veterans.
More than 1.5 million Americans served in the Iraq War, and these are just a handful of voices from among those ranks, offering a range of perspectives. Some worry the sacrifices may have been for nothing. Others have put all news of Iraq behind them as they focus on their civilian lives. Some take a long view and say history has yet to decide the war's outcome. Here are their views.
Former Marine Lance Cpl. Andrew Rothlein, from League City, Texas, fought in a unit in Fallujah in 2004, going building to building hunting insurgent snipers in one of the bloodiest battles of the war. He joined the Marines fresh out of high school, emboldened to do something for his country after the 9/11 terror attacks. He left the service six years ago and Iraq's unrest this year leaves him wondering why nearly 4,500 American military members died in the war.
"What did we lose our lives for?" Rothlein asks. "We never really saw justice. Sure we took out Saddam but none of the other lives needed to be lost. Iraq's not free. Afghanistan is not free. They're still basically at the same stage as they were when we went in."
"We knew what could happen as soon as the troops pulled out," said Indianapolis Marine veteran Matthew Ranbarger, 27, who fought alongside Rothlein. "They have been fighting each other for thousands of years, before America was even founded. We did our job. There is only so much we can do. They have to do their part now."
Rothlein says he has been comforted by Vietnam veterans, who he says know what it was like to fight in a controversial war with no clear victory, then return home to hear their fellow citizens debate whether it was all worth it. Don't go there, they tell him. Just accept that it is what it is.
Rothlein and several buddies from his unit have suffered bouts of post-traumatic stress disorder. Adjusting to life in the United States would be easier and maybe the nightmares would be less if he could find a sense of purpose in the suffering his unit endured, he said.
"If they (Iraqis) were starting to flourish in a democratic way, it would be like 'Mission accomplished. We went over there and it made a difference. We helped the people of Iraq. We made history.' But we didn't make history. We're going to be in the history books for the bloodiest battle in Iraq. But for what? There was no outcome. We may as well have all gotten killed. There's no finish line."
Former Marine 1st Sgt. Todd Kennedy served two tours in Iraq but said he no longer closely follows the news there, especially since his fellow troops have left for another conflict or come home.
After a 22-year military career, Kennedy said he is focusing- on life back home. The 41-year-old is working on dual degrees in history and anthropology at San Diego State University.
"For me personally, I have no regrets about the deployments, I have no regrets about the (Iraq) conflict in general," he said. "In any war there are lessons learned. Any war has its skeletons. Any war has its debates, repercussions, its conspiracies. Regardless of whether it was right or wrong to go into there, for me personally, it's not something I did a lot of dwelling on. It's one of those things. The nation called on me, so it was something I had to do."
Army Capt. Lauren A. Cabral helped train Iraqi women in 2007 for a security force in one of Baghdad's most dangerous districts, which she called a historic milestone for women who volunteered because they thought Iraq was getting better.
Cabral said her fellow soldiers of 3rd Squadron, 7th U.S. Calvary, witnessed the Adahmiyah district go from a "hopeless state where soldiers and hundreds of local nationals were dying every day, to a hopeful and desired environment. Watching this event unfold for those few days was so inspiring."
Cabral, from Ft. Stewart, Ga., and now deployed in Afghanistan, said she doesn't know if the renewed violence means Iraq can't achieve stability.
"Most of the reported attacks seem to state that the target is civilians in predominantly Shiite communities. The public sees the events that are catastrophic, can see a possible historic cycle rising again, but what about the noble and accomplished events that are happening in Iraq? Those are the things the citizens of the U.S. need to know about and to ensure us all that the sacrifices that were made by our country were not done in vain," she wrote in an email.
"As a part of the mission in Iraq, the goal was to help stabilize the government to operate in a self-sustainable manner. The tools were provided, systems were in place, and it was time for the U.S. to allow the government to take charge. Of course, this road for them has been a rollercoaster, but we have seen this before in Iraq. This is their time to prove that they truly love their country and have the ability to prevent (and) successfully react to historical violent attacks; we must stop enabling in order to see a change."
Army Staff Sgt. Jesus Lozacruz, of Tustin, Calif., says he survived 11 explosions and 126 missions during his two tours in Iraq, and he tries not to think about the country's troubles. It only compounds his despair over what seemed to him an unnecessary war and brings up haunting memories, like the time he shot and killed an armed woman and child after an ambush.
"It's like there was no purpose," he says. "To me and some of my fellow soldiers, it feels like we gave all this for nothing ... We went there and gave all this just to withdraw out of nowhere? We did all this stuff, set up all kinds of things, and now it's gone, it's trashed."
"The only time the Iraqis are going to get peace is if someone is going to go there and bring them support again. They're not going to be able to go shopping and not worry about getting blown up in their own town. They're not going to have that tranquility again anytime soon."
The 32-year-old was in his third year at Cal State-Fullerton in 2000 when he dropped out and joined the Army at his mother's request, as a way to keep an eye on his newly enlisted younger brother, Moises.
Lozacruz was excited to be part of the U.S. war on terror when he first went to Iraq with the invading forces in 2003. Soon though, he began to question why the Americans were there. There were no weapons of mass destruction and Lozacruz, trained in logistics, spent a lot of time protecting shipments of oil.
"That's when I started to get disappointed. We're getting shot at like crazy, for what? I never stopped doing my duties, but I didn't agree with it. Our mentality became, we just want to do what we have to do to come home."
He returned from his second tour in July 2007 and has recently been discharged. He works at an auto-parts store, suffers from PTSD, and meets weekly with a psychiatrist. The VA considers him 90 percent disabled.
As an Army Reserve civil affairs officer, Rory Carolan worked mainly with Iraqi civilians south of Baghdad in 2007 and 2008. He saw violence decline as coalition forces surged, allowing a population wracked by war to return to everyday life.
"People moving back, Iraqis making plans for the future, to stay, to open a business, to plant crops, to bring the family back, to bring in a generator and air conditioning — doing peaceful things. The change was quite dramatic," Carolan said.
The surge was generally successful, said the 55-year-old veterinarian. And the increased violence is disappointing, he said in an interview at his farmhouse near Frederick, Md.
"But, you know, is it unexpected? Not by me," Carolan said. "You've kind of got to figure it's going to be an ugly process. It's a new government, a new country, proud people looking for their way by themselves, doing it their own way — and it's not always going to be pretty."
Carolan said he hopes it's just a brief uptick and not a slide back toward civil war, but he doesn't know where Iraq is headed.
"The end of that story is not written," Carolan said.
Brian Castner, a former Air Force captain who led Explosive Ordnance Disposal units that hunted and defused roadside bombs in Iraq during two pre-surge tours, says he doesn't feel any successes are threatened now because he never felt much headway was made during his deployments in 2005 and 2006.
"We didn't have a plan to win and we didn't know what a win looked like and the surge hadn't started yet. So much of what we did was fruitless," said Castner, a 34-year-old married father of four from Grand Island, N.Y., who has just published a book on his Iraq experiences, "The Long Walk."
He said he ignored Iraq news after all his friends who served there returned home.
"The guys you serve with are like family," he said. "Once they're not there anymore, I guess I stopped paying attention."
As an Army Ranger and platoon leader deployed for a year to Iraq in 2007 and 2008, Phillips McWilliams led soldiers searching for roadside explosives, conferred with local Iraqi sheiks to keep the peace and made sure one of the largest oil refineries in central Iraq was secure enough to keep working. Now back in home in Columbia, S.C., and enrolled in law school, the 29-year-old says there was at least one benefit of the war that's unchanged by Iraq's troubles.
"One way to look at it is: We got rid of Saddam Hussein and no one can say that's not a good thing. He was a horrible person, obviously."
McWilliams said he spent a lot of time absorbed in watching news about Iraq after returning stateside for his last year in the Army.
"It used to boggle my mind that people didn't pay attention. It was like, how could people not pay attention? It is such an important thing happening in our time," McWilliams said.
But since he's become involved with law school, a summer of work at a local law firm, and plans for an upcoming wedding, McWilliams said he's found less chance to be so absorbed with fighting in Iraq and in Afghanistan, where some of his Army buddies have been deployed.
"I've just paid less and less attention. I've become exactly like the people I couldn't understand!" he adds with a laugh.
McWilliams said he thinks "not enough time has gone by for historians to decide whether America's involvement there was worth it or not."
"I hope things go well. We lost a lost a lot of people there."
For Maj. Christy Nyland, whose Army unit spent a year training and advising Iraqi military and security forces from fall 2009 to September 2010, the recent eruptions of violence have tested her faith that Iraq will be able to stand on its own. Still, the 37-year-old intelligence officer stationed at Fort Stewart, Ga., said she still believes Iraq's democratic government can prevail.
"Sometimes you take it a little personally, because you hate to see this," said Nyland, a New Orleans native who serves as deputy intelligence officer for the Army's 3rd Infantry Division.
Nyland's first tour of duty in Iraq came during the months after Saddam Hussein's army fell and before the focus of the fighting turned to shadowy insurgents whose roadside bombs became the signature weapon of the war.
Her second and last Iraq tour ended roughly a year and three months before the last U.S. forces withdrew. Again, Nyland said, she noticed a palpable lull in the violence. That was a good sign, considering Nyland deployed to Tikrit — Saddam Hussein's hometown — under orders to step back from being in charge and instead advise Iraqi forces.
Nyland said there were notably fewer attacks in Tikrit by the time she left in September 2010. Now that's changed dramatically. The chaos that's killed hundreds across Iraq has included bombings in Tikrit.
"When we departed it was expected that this was going to happen, though you could never predict exactly when," Nyland said. "I don't think, in my personal opinion, this is a disaster that's going to keep going downhill. I just think this is going to be par for the course. I have confidence they're prepared to handle it and move forward."
Air Force Col. Sal M. Nodjomian commanded Joint Base Ballad, one of the biggest coalition military bases in Iraq, in 2008 and 2009. He said it breaks his heart to see the renewed violence spread fear and uncertainty.
"It is heartbreaking because it is such a minority that is still creating that problem over there. I cannot say I speak with ultimate authority, but I can speak with a little bit of authority, having been there and spoken with the people who surrounded our installation and who would come onto our installation.
"They just want to wake up in the morning and know their families are safe and maybe their kids will do better than them. When you hear about the bombings and coordinated attacks and everything, it is a small fanatical part of a population that continues to do that and we are not going to solve that from here. "
Nodjomian, now a commander at Eglin Air Force Base near Pensacola, Fla., said he hopes Iraqis will be able to achieve stability.
"It is very fragile over there. We tried to set the groundwork for a successful, thriving economy, but that is all there is, just ground work. I honestly don't know if the roots have gotten deep enough for them to sustain that. I don't comment on the political side of things, because I did what my chain of command told me to do, but I'm thankful I was able to go over and try to set some conditions for success."
Associated Press writers Russ Bynum in Savannah, Ga., Gene Johnson in Seattle, David Dishneau in Hagerstown, Md., Chris Carola in Albany, N.Y., Susanne Schafer in Columbia, S.C., and Melissa Nelson in Pensacola, Fla., contributed to this story.