Iraq
3:39 pm
Tue January 7, 2014

Fallujah Veterans Ask Hard Questions About Their Sacrifices

Originally published on Wed January 8, 2014 7:17 am

Will Walsh got to know the Iraqi city of Fallujah while running across its bridges in the middle of the night, under fire, looking for IEDs. That was nearly 10 years ago.

Last weekend, the former Army captain heard the news that Fallujah had fallen, again, to al-Qaida-linked groups.

"The question I have to ask myself is was that effort in vain?" he says now. "Was all the work that we did, all the sacrifice that we had, what is the benefit?"

Walsh's platoon lost one man in Fallujah. Hundreds of Americans were killed or wounded there. It was 2004. Al-Qaida had taken control of the city, and most civilians had fled. Fallujah was: house-to-house patrols, snipers, alleyways and American bombs shaking the earth. Walsh says he has thought about it every day for nearly 10 years — and he's not alone.

Kael Weston spent years in Fallujah for the U.S. State Department, embedded with the Marines.

"A lot of Americans want to forget about it, but there are thousands and thousands who don't have the luxury of forgetting about it," Weston says. "We're all gutted."

Since the weekend, Weston has heard from Marines, from generals to corporals. He has also gotten emails from Iraqi friends in Fallujah desperate for help.

"First, the Iraqis didn't ask to be invaded by us. We invaded and occupied badly," he says. "But on top of that, I'm angry our policy never matched the sacrifice, especially of the Marine Corps."

Weston says there's no clear American solution now, despite real achievement in the past: For a time, Fallujah was stable.

"I don't think it was all in vain," Weston says. "But in the big picture, the American legacy there is now being subsumed by more violence."

Troops who fought there knew Iraq always had a good chance of returning to violence. Former Marine Eliot Ackerman, who received a Silver Star for valor in Fallujah, says his Marines talked about liberating Iraq — but only rarely.

"We were fighting for the same reason guys have always fought: for each other, and for a sense that we were bound to an obligation to serve our country at a time of war," he says.

Ackerman says there was a fantasy that maybe some of the Marines would come back to Fallujah someday as tourists — if things went well for Iraq.

Now the collapse of Fallujah has veterans debating what the war in Iraq was even about. Paul Szoldra served as a Marine in Afghanistan but knew many Marines in Fallujah. Szoldra is known by veterans as the editor of a satirical military newspaper, the Duffel Blog, but his last piece was serious, titled "Tell Me Again, Why Did My Friends Die In Iraq?"

It's gone viral among veterans.

"It's just a painful reality to face — nobody wants to think that the death of a military service member was a pointless thing," he says. "Nobody wants to say that or put that into words."

Szoldra says it's hard to look at Fallujah and not think the same thing is going to happen in Afghanistan, where combat troops are scheduled to leave by the end of this year.

"I get an email every time someone is killed in Afghanistan. I feel so bad for the family," he says. "But my second thought is why are people still dying there?"

Szoldra says he got a storm of responses to the article — much of it supportive, some of it critical. He says a national discussion is starting about the meaning of the recent wars. He hopes the discussion will be a civil one --even if it's a painful one.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

As we just heard, the Iraqi government is battling an al-Qaida-linked group for control of the city of Fallujah, and that is stirring up painful memories for thousands of Americans who served in the military there. More than 1,300 U.S. service members died in Fallujah and the province around it, over the course of the war.

Now, veterans are starting to ask hard questions about the meaning of that sacrifice, as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Fallujah was the largest set battle of the Iraq War.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

(GUNFIRE)

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #1: Hey, Sgt. Lee!

LAWRENCE: In November 2004, I recorded this for the BBC.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #1: Hold on!

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #2: Whoa!

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #1: Hey, we've got you covered!

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #2: All right.

LAWRENCE: I was running behind Lt. Will Walsh, on the western edge of the city.

WILL WALSH: My name is Will Walsh. I served in the United States Army for five years.

LAWRENCE: Walsh got out of the Army a few years ago. Today, he was traveling on business in Richmond, Va., but keeping an eye on the bad news out of Fallujah.

WALSH: The question I have to ask myself is, was that effort in vain? You know, was all of the work that we did, all of the sacrifice that we had, what is the benefit?

LAWRENCE: Walsh's platoon lost one man in Fallujah. Hundreds of Americans were killed or wounded there. Al-Qaida had taken control of the city. Civilians had mostly fled. It was house-to-house snipers, alleyways and American bombs shaking the earth. Will Walsh says he has thought about it every day for nearly 10 years, and he's not alone.

KAEL WESTON: A lot of Americans want to forget about it, but there are thousands and thousands who don't have the luxury of forgetting about it.

LAWRENCE: Kael Weston spent years in Fallujah for the State Department. Since the weekend, he's heard from Marines - generals to corporals - all gutted by the news. He has also gotten emails from Iraqi friends in Fallujah, desperate for help. Weston says there's no clear American solution now, despite real achievement in the past. For a time, Fallujah was stable.

WESTON: I don't think it was all in vain, but in the big picture, the American legacy there is now being subsumed by more violence.

LAWRENCE: Troops who fought there knew Iraq always had a good chance of returning to violence. Former Marine Eliot Ackerman received a Silver Star for valor in Fallujah. He says his Marines talked about liberating Iraq, but only rarely.

ELIOT ACKERMAN: We were fighting for the same reason guys have always fought, which was, you know, for each other, and for a sense of - that we were bound to an obligation to serve our country in a time of war.

LAWRENCE: Ackerman says sometimes his Marines would half joke about coming back to Fallujah someday as a tourist, if things went well for Iraq. Now, the collapse of Fallujah has veterans debating what the war in Iraq was even about. Paul Szoldra served as a Marine in Afghanistan, but he knew many Marines in Fallujah. Szoldra now writes for Business Insider. His last piece was titled "Tell Me Again, Why Did My Friends Die In Iraq?" It's gone viral among veterans.

PAUL SZOLDRA: It's a painful reality to face. Nobody wants to think that the death of a military service member was a pointless thing. Nobody wants to say that, or put that into words.

LAWRENCE: Szoldra says it's hard to look at Fallujah and not think the same thing is going to happen in Afghanistan. Combat troops are scheduled to leave there by the end of this year.

SZOLDRA: I get an email every time someone is killed in Afghanistan. And, you know, I feel so bad for the family of that soldier, Marine or sailor. But my second thought is, why are people still dying there?

LAWRENCE: Each time Szoldra gets one of those emails, hears that someone has died in Afghanistan, it reminds him of Iraq and his friends who died there.

SZOLDRA: Cpl. Steven Renamaki(ph), Cpl. Eric Gehrut(ph), Cpl. Eric Leaken(ph) and Staff Sgt. Jason Ramseyer(ph), along with Lance Cpl. Franklin Sweger(ph) - they're no longer here. They were good guys, and I miss them.

LAWRENCE: Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.