Veterans share views on Iraq war


Veterans share views on Iraq war
by C.W. Nevius 

When the Commonwealth Club recently hosted a panel of veterans who fought in Iraq, a lot of us went looking for answers. All we got were tougher questions.

“There are,” says Diana Morrison, a former California National Guard staff sergeant and turret gunner in Iraq, “no answers.”

For all the TV talk shows and political spin machines, the one voice we haven’t consistently heard in the debate over the war in Iraq is that of those who’ve had their boots on the ground.

What we found at the Commonwealth Club is that their viewpoints are as divergent and conflicted as everyone else’s.

About the only thing the four veterans agreed upon is their belief that media depictions of the war are distorted. But that didn’t mean they were all gung-ho about the war. Morrison was so discouraged that she co-founded Iraq Veterans Against the War…


Marine Lance Cpl. Sam Reyes of Houston, on the other hand, is not only fiercely proud of his service, he is also convinced that the mission is helpful and worthwhile.

But after suffering brain trauma and post traumatic stress disorder in a roadside explosion, he finds himself enduring combat flashbacks, feeling cast aside by the Marines and wondering where he goes from here.

“I’m 21 years old,” said Reyes. “I had dreams of going to college, of becoming an officer. I can’t remember things. I was pretty much at a college level in math and reading when I went, now I am at a 10th grade level in reading and 9th grade level in math.”

Perhaps no one conveyed the confusion and frustration our troops feel so well as Maj. Michael Samarov, a squared-away Marine who was among the first to enter Baghdad. After that his unit was sent to Karbala, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, to attempt the frustrating task of getting the city’s infrastructure up and running.

“I think the Iraqis thought we were going to be magic people,” says Samarov, who lives in San Francisco. “We would arrive and everything would be perfect. They expected things to happen like that. We were bound to fail based on that.”

Samarov now is the commanding officer of a recruiting station. But he’s no Pollyanna. Although his Marines were ready for the invasion, they “did not expect or plan for what would occur next” — helping create democracy in a place long ruled by tyranny.

Samarov led the rebuilding of Karbala, a province of about 1.5 million people, by ear. He and his troops had to get the streetlights working, the police force functioning and people living under some semblance of order. Frankly, Samarov admits, they made a lot of it up as they went.

At one point, with absolutely no experience, they decided to start a local newspaper. They put a Karbala resident in charge. After a while, Samarov found a group with a different point of view and gave them the same setup.

Within days, the first guy was at Samarov’s headquarters, absolutely furious. He could not believe Samarov had created competition for him. Didn’t the Marines realize that the second paper was advocating that the Americans leave Iraq? Yes, Samarov replied.

“So this is democracy?” the Iraqi man said.

Yes, Samarov replied.

“He took me by the shoulders,” Samarov said, “and he said, ‘This is very dangerous.’ Then he kissed me on both cheeks and left.”

That isn’t the type of thing taught in basic training.

Morrison adamantly opposes the war, but admits having a “serious conflict between my belief and the military.” She has been deeply touched by the support she’s received, especially from Vietnam veterans.

But she’s also exasperated with what she considers American blunders in its execution of the war, not the least of which is the military’s having almost no fluency in Arabic or understanding of Iraqi culture.

“Do you know what this means to an Iraqi?” she asks, holding up her hand in a gesture most of us would recognize as “stop.” “It means ‘hello.’ We killed so many civilians at checkpoints. They don’t understand our hand signals.”

But now that they are home, the veterans realize most of us don’t understand them either.

Cpl. Reyes has every reason to be bitter. He served two tours in Iraq and earned three Purple Hearts. He “lost many a brother” on the battlefield, and it pains him to hear people argue that the whole thing was a mistake and the United States should withdraw.

“I still believe in what I was doing,” he says. “When we heard that the people at home were not really for us, it made us feel that we were the ones doing the bad things.”

These people made more than one tour of Iraq and all they can tell you is it was a confusing, difficult, dangerous job. They weren’t trained for what they were made to do, and frankly, they often got by on little more than luck and wits.

Samarov told the story of how a group in his unit rounded a corner one day and came on an Iraqi funeral procession, which, in traditional fashion, featured both gunfire and shouts. What to do in such a case? Draw your weapons in defense? Protect the procession in case there is violence? Disrupt the procession by passing?

Such a situation isn’t covered in any field manual. Making a split second decision, a young corporal ordered the troops to lower their guns, remove their helmets and bow. The Iraqis, after a pause, broke into applause.

It was a brilliant stroke. Samarov said there was never again any problem in that neighborhood. And it was the result of trying to pull the best possible idea out of thin air and hoping it is the right choice.

In Iraq, there are a lot of moments like that.

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