Iraq veterans say pulling out not an option now

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Iraq veterans say pulling out not an option now
by Gail Schontzler

MONTANA–Six local soldiers who served in Iraq last year with the Montana National Guard’s 1-163rd Infantry Battalion have sometimes conflicting views of the war, but all seemed to agree on one thing.

The United States should not pull out its troops and expect Iraqis to fend for themselves.

“We can’t abandon these people. We’d be throwing them to the wolves,” said Sgt. Don French, 25, a senior at Montana State University.

Whether the United States should have gone to war in the first place, French said, one could debate both sides. But now we need to stay until the Iraqis are capable of standing up for themselves. We have to fight the insurgents.

“In my opinion, this is my generation’s Cold War,” French said.

And despite setbacks, he believes progress is being made in Iraq. “In general, the movement is forward.”…

     

Lies and fantasies

“I was against this war from the beginning,” said Sgt. 1st Class Richard Galli, 49, a history teacher at Bozeman High School’s Bridger alternative program.

Galli has served in the military, as an Army paratrooper and in the National Guard, for 26 years. He called the Iraq war “the worst adventure of my life.”

But even he said the U.S. should not pull out.

“No. We’re stuck,” Galli said. “If we leave, it will turn into a full-scale, bloody religious war, and it could easily turn into a regional war, between the Shias in Iran and their Sunni neighbors – which sure as shooting could turn into a world war, with Iranian nukes and Israeli nukes, and world oil being cut off.”

Ousting Saddam Hussein, he said, was the only good thing to come out of the war.

Galli agreed with the U.S. general who was fired for suggesting we need a much bigger force of 400,000 troops in Iraq. The United States stayed in Germany and Japan for decades, he said. It’s going to take many years to try to change an entire generation of Iraqis.

Yet American leaders keep talking about pulling out and the Iraqi army standing on its own.

“It’s all Washington fantasies,” he said, “Democrat or Republican.”

What he learned in Iraq, Galli said, is this: “If it’s worth fighting for, it’s worth telling the truth. And it’s not happening.”

Lying is like a disease among U.S. leaders, he said. They declared “mission accomplished” a few months into the war, predicted Iraqis would meet U.S. troops with flowers, claimed the insurgents were on their last legs, and blamed a few low-level soldiers for the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuses.

“We went into a war with absolute lack of foresight,” Galli said. “I could have told them there would be an insurgency. It’s the Middle East — what were they thinking?”

Winning

1st Lt. Eric Rosenbaum, 31, pharmacy manager at Western Drug in Livingston, agreed that U.S. troops need to stay and finish the job.

“I definitely don’t think we should pull out,” Rosenbaum said. “It’s horrible to think of a soldier dying and a family suffering the loss of a loved one. But in my mind, pulling out would be a catastrophe.”

The Iraqi army is starting to step up to the task of fighting the insurgents, he said. “I think pulling out would mean all-out civil war.”

Asked if we were winning the war, Rosenbaum struggled for the answer.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know if winning is the right word. I think things are getting better.”

The latest elections in December saw a lot more Iraqi people voting than in the first election the previous January, he said. And that’s a sign of progress.

Waste

Spc. Travis Kamps, 21, an MSU student, joined the Guard at 17, while still at Bozeman High, to help pay for college. It’s a decision he regrets.

“It’s kind of 17 months I wish I could forget,” Kamps said. “It was kind of a waste of time.

“There’s not a whole lot of support for the war. I don’t support it either. I think we should get out as soon as we can. Then again, you just can’t take everyone out and leave a vacuum. The Iraqi police and army would just get slaughtered,” he said.

Kamps is not optimistic about Iraq becoming a democratic nation, and doesn’t think the sacrifices made by U.S. soldiers have been worth whatever good has come out of the war.

“I don’t think democracy is going to stick,” he said. “They’ve had dictators as long as they’ve been a people.

“They make a big deal about the Iraqis’ free right to vote. (But) each one is voting the way the sheik or head of the village tells them to.”

Making progress

Sgt. Matt Wemple, 29, of Three Forks was one of two officers from MSU’s nine-member campus police force who left for Iraq with the 163rd.

Pulling out of Iraq, he said, would be “the worst thing we could possibly do.”

“It would leave a political vacuum,” Wemple said. “It might be a short-term, feel-good solution. But it’s not smart at all. I believe it would be sending the wrong message to the wrong people.”

America has a vested interest in Iraq becoming stable and democratic, he said.

“They’re making progress. For people to vote, when they could be shot or blown up, says a lot.”

And Wemple said too many American soldiers have died in Iraq. They all would have died in vain if we don’t finish the job.

Although news reports from Iraq often make it sound chaotic, he said we are winning the war.

“Anything that’s going to bring about change in the Middle East is not easy,” Wemple said. “It’s essential to making the world a better place in the long run.”

Changed by war

Staff Sgt. Jeff Schoenen, 40, a Livingston firefighter, could have gotten out of going to Iraq. In the months before mobilization, he had an operation for thyroid cancer. Then he dislocated his hip in training.

Guard officials told him he wasn’t going.

He told them that was “unacceptable.”

“I felt like I had a duty and a responsibility to go,” Schoenen said, a responsibility “not just to my country, but to my guys.”

He, too, thinks U.S. troops have to stay in Iraq. Americans like doing things fast, but Iraq, he said, “is going to take time.”

Like other soldiers, Schoenen said the experience of war changed him. At first he was always on edge, especially driving, when he’d reflexively try to evade anything that looked like a roadside bomb.

“It’s changed me for the good, for the most part,” Schoenen said. “You learn not to sweat the small stuff.”

He and his wife sold their fitness business, for example, so they could spend more time together as a family.

Rosenbaum was one of several soldiers who said the war taught him not to take things for granted and gave him a greater appreciation for what Americans have.

Being gone had been tough on his little girls, whose school work suffered, and hell on his wife.

“It was awesome when we got home,” Rosenbaum said, smiling at the memory of that day last November. His girls latched onto him and wouldn’t let go. “There was nothing better than coming home. It was the best.”

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