On a recent weekday, a truck packed with explosives blew up in a crowded market in Iraq’s capital, Baghdad, killing dozens and wounding hundreds.
It’s been 12 years since the U.S. went to war there and four years since the last of our troops left.
The United Nations says the scale of people displaced by Islamic State attacks has put Iraq on the brink of catastrophe. Former Florida governor and current presidential candidate Jeb Bush says going there in the first place (a decision made by his brother George W. Bush) was a mistake. Critics of President Barack Obama say we should have stayed and wiped out the Islamic State.
But Iraq War veteran Rick Burns says rather than belabor what we should have done, we should do more to help Iraqis and Afghans rebuild their lives.
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It has been four years since the 54-year-old U.S. Army reservist, born in Tennessee, raised in Mississippi, educated at Utah’s Brigham Young University, and now settled in Iowa, completed the last of three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. But he can’t — he won’t — let it go.
A friend of his, a Vietnam vet, suggested he get checked for post-traumatic stress disorder. But trauma isn’t at the root of Burns’ obsession. He feels a personal responsibility knowing 8.6 million Iraqis need immediate humanitarian assistance and about 3 million are displaced.
“And 40-plus percent are children,” he says.
As a civil affairs officer for the Army, the lieutenant colonel “was not out kicking doors down but trying to solve civilians’ problems.” And as a civilian, he still is. After retiring from the military, Burns started a nonprofit organization called The Karadah Project, named for an Iraqi district where an Army friend of his set up a district council in 2003. Burns served as his brigade’s liaison to the council. Later, he organized a sister city partnership between the region and Council Bluffs, Iowa.
The Karadah Project collaborated with three other nonprofits started by U.S. veterans in a venture called Soccer Salam, which has the simple objective of getting soccer equipment to Iraqi kids to distract them from war. But the project is increasingly also trying to respond to Iraq’s humanitarian crisis. It raised more than $30,000, and with the funds, delivered soccer balls, blankets, sleeping bags, food, water tanks and medicine for fleeing families. Recently it raised another $20,000 for sanitary facilities like toilets and showers. And it continues its appeal for help.
These needs are a far cry from Burns’ “perfect childhood” in small-town Mississippi. As a Mormon, he went on a mission in Denmark, later in life moving with his wife to Elk Horn, Iowa, to apply his Danish language skills to running a Danish museum there.
Goats weren’t in his background, either. But with Afghan women in mind, his nonprofit last year founded Goats for Afghan Villages. They give two goats apiece to the women of a village, who raise them and use the milk and cheese to feed their families and to sell. They can also sell the offspring.
With donations of $25 or $50, Burns raised $15,000. Last year, that paid for goats for 15 families and 10 for a local women’s foundation, which donates the offspring to others. It also provides the training, vaccinations and milk-processing equipment. Now there are well over 100 goats, says Burns, and they’ve added a second village to the program.
If you ask why he stays so connected to countries he no longer has to serve in, he says, “It’s the people I met over there. Iraq is not a macro thing anymore. It’s very micro.” Pressed, he observes, “The contradictions and the inhumanity of war cause different reactions, both for civilians caught in the middle and those sent to fight. Some leave the experience bitter and battered while others see opportunities to bring something positive from the experience.”
Burns commutes to Leavenworth, Kan., for work researching threats to the U.S. Army. He has honed a talent for bringing people together, getting the Kiwanis Club to partner with Sister City International and raising money from Rotary International. He created an Iraq-Afghanistan conference in Elk Horn, brought Iraqi artisans together with American marketing experts and built a partnership between the dental schools of Creighton University and Iraq’s Baghdad universities.
He says he’s awed by the resilience of the Iraqis and heralds the cooperation between the Shia and Sunni Muslim sects whose religious differences have been exploited by terrorists and dictators alike. “I’ve heard wonderful stories about Shia taking in Sunnis,” he said.
We don’t hear enough of those stories. We hear more about troop abuses of detainees than about veteran-led work in countries where they served, though Burns says there is plenty.
“When you take young kids and put them in a foreign environment, it’s tough on them. They start blaming the wrong people,” he said. But also, “Something happens when people are brought together in a war.… For some of us, we feel the pain of continued conflict, instability, and insecurity in the lives of friends we left behind and who continue to make their communities better.”
So from a distance, veterans like Burns do their part, showing the best engagement comes not from the bullet or the bomb but from the heart.
Rekha Basu is a columnist for The Des Moines Register. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.