Mike Dizmang thinks about the Iraqi children who shook his hand and smiled when he told them that all would be OK in the end.
Zach Clark thinks about his fellow Marines killed. What he sees on the news “has got my blood boiling,” said Clark, who came home in 2008 with head trauma and eye injuries.
Michael Miller, who returned scarred and hurting after an attack on his base south of Baghdad, thinks about an Iraq that was hopelessly cleaved by sectarian strife back when he served. Sizing up the current insurgency that has driven the country to the brink of collapse, Miller said, “Iraq should have been divided up in thirds in the first place.”
They are Kansas City area veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom now wondering if all was for naught.
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Some did multiple tours and thought progress was being made. Many think the progress was doomed by U.S. troops leaving too soon.
Others say their country should never have invaded, and they’re not surprised that Iraq’s upheaval of the last 11 years has come to this.
“We spent all our time there trying to make a difference … and we did,” said Chris Chance, who after two Army tours in Iraq is now vice president of the Student Veterans Club at Johnson County Community College. “Still, the joke you’d hear was how Iraq would fall in anarchy three months after we pulled out.”
The struggles of combat veterans returning home are well known. Adding now to the emotional, physical and financial difficulties in transitioning to civilian life is the looming possibility that the U.S. mission in Iraq will be written up as a historic failure.
As President Barack Obama weighs military and political options to quell the violence, each veteran copes with the news in his or her own way.
“I’d like to go back, personally, because I’ve got a lot of books not closed,” said Clark, 27, who is enrolled at Park University in Parkville.
But he acknowledged, “I’d go back with a cane.”
The ravages of brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and inadequate medical attention Clark said he received from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs have combined to trigger seizures, prevent him from driving and keep him awake at night. The potential fall of Iraq just makes him angrier.
“That country was not ready for us to leave,” he said. “We let politicians use our fight to gain votes.”
Dizmang, too, is troubled by renewed memories of people he met there. He said he saw, over three tours, the gradual restoration of the social order and infrastructure.
He mourns friends lost.
“As if our casualties mean nothing now,” said Dizmang, a retired Army supply sergeant living in Wyandotte County.
One of those casualties was a tight buddy, Pfc. Christopher Hudson, 21. Dizmang watched Hudson die after an improvised explosive device rocked their convoy on March 21, 2004. The head of an Iraqi interpreter seated in Hudson’s vehicle was severed from the lip up.
In a later tour, Dizmang’s unit helped train the Iraqi security forces now fleeing from, or being slaughtered by, advancing Islamic rebels. In firefights, the security forces “would point their weapons over a berm and aim high,” Dizmang recalled. “For a lot of them, killing another Muslim was like a cardinal sin.
“But these militants, they don’t care. They shoot to kill.”
And there’s nothing Dizmang can do about it.
In the mental health unit of the Kansas City VA Medical Center’s new Honor Annex, psychiatrist Thomas Demark offers straight-on advice to some of the combat veterans disturbed by the chaos closing in on Baghdad:
“Stop watching the news.”
That can help some avoid “the extreme triggers” that may revive traumatic experiences and cause distress, he said.
“It’s a veteran to veteran situation,” in which others might benefit from gradual exposure to news that concerns them, in small but increasing doses.
“In many of those cases,” Demark said, “symptom spikes will decrease over time.”
For troops coming home from wars that failed to reach or sustain their objectives, including the conflict in Vietnam, Demark said: “In general I tell them, ‘You accomplished your mission.’ Their focus was in protecting their buddies and coming home. I always think that brings some peace.”
Most veterans accept that they can’t control long-term outcomes of a conflict in which they performed their duties, said David Riggs, who directs the Center for Deployment Psychology, a federal training facility in Bethesda, Md., for military and civilian behavioral health professionals.
But the adjustment can be more difficult “when they look back years later and still don’t see the payoff for sacrifices made,” he said. It’s especially true for warriors who suffered permanent injuries and families who lost loved ones.
Even among veterans of World War II and other U.S. victories, “often they’ll get focused on the waste of a particular battle they think was poorly thought out,” Riggs said. “It becomes, ‘Why did we have to take that hill, where we lost Joe?’”
Iraq veteran Rachel Punches said she was lucky to have been “mostly out of harm’s way” driving a truck for a National Guard unit.
“I never lost anyone,” said Punches, 29, of Lawrence, who is following the developments in Iraq less intensely than others. “There were soldiers over there who saw things and suffered a heck of a lot more than I did. I can understand why they’re upset.”
A 2007 blast of mortar fire at his base rendered Miller, a former Army sergeant from Atchison, Kan., incapacitated with traumatic brain injury and permanent numbness in his legs, neck and shoulders.
Yet he voices no anger or regrets about his service.
Miller believed then, and still does, in the mission of freeing Iraqis from a murderous “bully” in dictator Saddam Hussein.
Should the U.S. act again, with force, and try to restore democracy there?
“It doesn’t matter to me; I’m out now,” said Miller, 50. “But if I could, I’d do it all over again.”
Four close friends, all Iraq veterans, gathered this past week to discuss the news over a few beers at a Westport club.
Johnathan Duncan was a member of the National Guard battery that suffered a death and other casualties in the aftermath of the mortar attack that injured Miller.
“We set that whole country up for failure,” he said. “Iraq is going to be more destabilized than what it was when we went in and destabilized it. …
“Makes me sick in the stomach.”
Not all at the table agreed with Duncan’s assessment, nor with the solution proposed by Army veteran Corey Cornett: The U.S. ought to unleash drone attacks that target the terrorist hangouts without putting boots on the ground.
“We’ve invested too much” to do nothing, which Cornett said would “be a slap in the face of everybody killed, injured or who spent a year or two of their lives there.”
The group enjoyed an informed, good-natured exchange, with Army veteran Michael Siroky of Lawrence joking how his buddies back home tossed small magnets at the jagged scar on his forehead to see if they would stick.
A plate was inserted in Siroky’s head after severe shrapnel wounds in 2005 required surgeons “to pull the skull out of my brain.”
He and his friends are not avoiding news from Iraq. And neither is James Butler anymore.
Butler’s son Jacob was the first Kansan to die in action in Iraq. Earlier this year, the father went cold turkey on TV news coverage for two months.
“It was just too upsetting,” he said. “But when I decided to turn it back on, things were worse.”
After Jacob Butler’s death in 2003, James Butler, of Wellsville, Kan., fulfilled a promise to his son by traveling to Iraq, standing where Jacob had fallen and finding out what happened. He wrote a book about the experience as one way of channeling his grief.
Now he is contemplating a way to react to what he’s seeing on TV news.
“I am thinking of running for president in 2016, on the independent ticket,” James Butler wrote on Facebook.
“Angry? Yes,” he told The Star. “Frustrated, I should say.
“A lot of these Gold Star mothers are wondering if their son or daughter lost their lives in vain.”