Conflict in Iraq upsets Georgians who served there

Joe Johnson asked to be deployed to Iraq after his 22-year-old son was killed by a roadside bomb there.

Seeking to serve his country and avenge his son, the Georgia Army National Guard member escorted supply convoys and civil affairs missions across deadly parts of Iraq in 2005 and 2006, manning a machine gun atop a Humvee.

Like other veterans of that war, the North Georgia resident now watches with a mixture of anger and regret as huge swaths of that country fall to Sunni Muslim extremists amid sectarian violence. These veterans are now pondering the profound sacrifices their families made, and they wonder what America could have done differently to prevent Iraq from crumbling. While they don’t agree on what should be done to save Iraq, they share hard feelings about what has happened there now.

“I’m pretty much like any other guy who served over there — we are pretty (angry) about it,” said Johnson, a staff sergeant who lives in Lyerly. “We all feel like we should have left a sizable force there because we all knew this was going to happen. It was just a matter of time.”

And about the many months he served in Iraq, Johnson had this to say: “It’s all for nothing.”

Johnson is among 1.1 million American service members who have deployed to Iraq since 2003, Defense Department figures show. Of those, 4,491 died in the war, including 142 Georgians.

Johnson supports the Obama administration’s decision to send up to 300 military advisers to Iraq to help shore up that country’s security forces. But he worries that number is too low. He also supports launching a U.S. military strike against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, which has captured parts of the country Johnson once patrolled and is seeking to create its own Islamic state.

Others such as 1st Sgt. Joshua Winchester of Jesup are weary of sending more U.S. troops to Iraq. Like Johnson, Winchester spent many months there apart from his wife and kids.

“We can go over there,” Winchester said. “We can advise. We can help. We can equip. We can train. But if they are not going to use it, then why keep doing it? Why spend all the money and the resources and the personnel and time and give up lives to do it again?”

“Like we tell our kids: ‘You have got to learn your lesson,’ ” he said. “When you put your hand on the stove and you get burned, you don’t put your hand back on the stove, right? We were there for years … and what has happened? We are back to square one.”

Winchester bemoaned the deaths of U.S. troops in Iraq, the serious injuries many survivors suffered and the marriages that fell apart under the weight of months-long deployments.

Sgt. 1st Class Scott McElroy of Canton has similar concerns, particularly about how U.S. veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder are taking the grim news out of Iraq. During his deployment to Iraq, McElroy helped build bridges between Georgia National Guard members and Iraqis in a restive area south of Baghdad called the Sunni Triangle of Death. He suffered a traumatic brain injury from a roadside bomb attack there in 2005.

“Having invested so much of myself into that place, it’s pretty disheartening seeing how it is going now,” said McElroy, who serves as vice president of Georgia’s Wounded Heroes, a nonprofit that aids veterans wounded in combat. “One thing that has to happen is the Iraqis have to stiffen their resolve. They have to step up and show a sense of commitment to their nationalism.”

Col. Ray Bossert of Douglasville served in the same area south of Baghdad, training Iraqi military officers. Operating out of a cavernous potato factory in Yusufiyah, Bossert’s 17-man team was responsible for the 4th Battalion of the 4th Brigade of Iraqi’s 6th Infantry Division, a unit with 550 soldiers. Bossert said he keeps in touch with some of them by email and they tell him they aren’t getting the equipment they have been promised.

This month, Iraqi soldiers shed their uniforms for civilian clothes and abandoned their weapons and military vehicles when ISIS stormed through northern Iraq. The militants claim to have massacred hundreds of the soldiers they captured, posting photos of a mass execution.

“When we put all that sweat and blood and treasure to train them up and they just collapse on themselves — that is definitely disheartening,” Bossert said.

Bossert said the crisis in Iraq demands a multifaceted response.

“There is a military solution to everything, but that is probably not the best solution,” Bossert said. The U.S., he added, needs to look at “all the instruments of power — diplomatic and economic — and really come up with a forceful response.”

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