War stories: Five years later, veterans reflect on Iraq

by Amy Kingsley

On March 19, 2003, Cpl. Chris Wells and his company waited just over the border in Kuwait as US missiles shocked and awed neighboring Iraq, dashing buildings and bunkers in a dazzling display of military might.

A day later, Operation Iraqi Freedom officially began. He and the rest of his Marine crash fire rescue unit – military firefighters – followed air support over the border and into southern Iraq.

They stopped at an abandoned airfield where they set up a forward fueling point for military aircraft. His unit specialized in rescuing downed pilots, and they waited at the airstrip.

Near the airport lay a town that had been hit the day before the war. Wells passed through it during the earliest days of the conflict.

“The Iraqis looked like they were in shock and awe, between the aircraft and the long-range bombing we were doing of that town,” Wells said. “There were still Iraqi people inhabiting that town but basically the infrastructure had disappeared. I remember passing a bank and it was still on fire. I remember people standing in the street; they were just dumbfounded.”

Now Wells lives in Alamance County and works as a Greensboro firefighter. He volunteers for the Iraq War Veterans Organization, fielding calls from veterans in North Carolina.

And the veterans keep coming. American troops remain in Iraq five years after the invasion, trying to stifle sectarian violence that flared in the wake of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s ouster. Four thousand troops have died there, tens of thousands more have been injured, and Republican presidential candidate John McCain has suggested the American presence in the country may last decades.

The war today, which has descended into a fight against insurgents and Islamic extremists, has little in common with the conflict Wells fought in Iraq during the first half of 2003. He and his cohorts chased Iraqi soldiers, Saddam loyalists and Republican Guardsmen out of the country and secured coalition control.

“We were in our chemical weapons suits for the first two weeks of the war,” Wells said. “We trained and prepared just like the intelligence told us.”

The intelligence was wrong. Wells and his company never endured any chemical or biological attacks in Iraq.

Back then, when US soldiers were fighting against the Iraqi Army, the rules of engagement were clear, even if identifying the enemy wasn’t.

“We were in shock and awe mode,” Wells said. “If it looked like a threat, you took it out.”

Wells’ unit was lucky. They didn’t lose any men in Iraq and sustained only one non-combat injury. But they had at least one close call.

Just a few days after the war began, Wells’ unit was engaged in “black-out ops,” piloting trucks through Iraq and relying only on night-vision goggles – no headlights. Two of the fuel trucks crashed on the road to Nasiriyah. While Wells and his company addressed the casualties, Army Pvt. Jessica Lynch and her convoy passed them on the road and were ambushed in one of the worst firefights of the war.

Later his company moved to Basra, a city that had been secured by British troops, and set up an airfield. As they moved toward Basra, they encountered refugees fleeing the war-torn city. They gave them MREs – meals ready to eat – and bottled water.

It looked like a war zone, Wells said. The oil fields were burning, and the few remaining civilians looted grocery stores for food, filling truck beds with staples like flour and sugar.

It’s been five years since Wells was in Basra. He believed in the war when he fought it, and believes the US should stay in Iraq to stabilize the country.

He acknowledged that US intelligence was flawed, and that the military lacked a strategy for rebuilding the nation.

“My opinion is that I hope we finish what we started,” Wells said. “Iraq is a very desolate place and the wealth is not shared. Outside of Baghdad it is very, very poor. I would like to leave the Iraqis with the kind of freedom and opportunity that we enjoy in the US.”

Most of the Iraq War veterans who reach out to Wells are looking for a little guidance on transitioning back to civilian life. He hasn’t had to counsel anyone suffering from serious post-traumatic stress disorder, Wells said, but milder forms of the disorder are common among his fellow vets.

“All of us go through it a little bit,” he said. “When you get back, for the first few months, you’re not the same person.”

Cpl. Scott Garavito, the husband of YES! Weekly operations manager Rachel Garavito, enlisted in the Marine Corps after Sept. 11, 2001 and served two tours in Afghanistan before arriving at Husaybah in Iraq for an eight-month campaign against insurgents in 2005.

That was in August, more than two years after President Bush declared major combat operations over, at a time when insurgent attacks were on the rise, particularly near the Syrian border where Garavito and his company were stationed.

“The town was insurgent controlled,” Garavito said. “Our whole job was to take back the city.”

Garavito served in the infantry – he was a machine gunner. By the time he and his company arrived in Husaybah, the civilians had fled to the woods beyond the city. Before the Marines arrived, the locals in Husaybah had embraced the Islamic extremists who flooded their town from as far away as Egypt, but by the time the Americans came, they’d gotten tired of the violence, Garavito said.

Garavito and his company rooted out insurgents house by house, and his was the only team that didn’t take a major hit by a roadside bomb. The intense combat took its toll on his company – in all, his battalion of 700 marines earned 70 purple hearts for injuries sustained in the war and suffered 15 combat deaths.

“There were lots of bullets whizzing around,” Garavito said. “It was hot, and it sucked. But people who were there were just trying to get the job done. People didn’t really think about the big picture of why we were there.”

Even though Garavito said his service in the Marines improved him as a person, he said he has some misgivings about the ongoing conflict. Now that he’s left the Marine Corps, Garavito said he thinks the United States should withdraw the rest of its troops from the country.

“We need to have an exit strategy,” he said. “We can’t be there forever. But I don’t know how to do it. If we had left the place where I was, it would have been totally chaotic.”

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