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We won in Iraq -- a veteran's take on the war

The long war in Iraq—known to the U.S. military as Operation Iraqi Freedom—has been labeled many things from a war of liberation to an illegal occupation to the worst American military blunder since Vietnam. But for those who served on the battlefields of Iraq, who fought the enemy and sacrificed much sweat, blood and tears, we call it something else: Victory.

Much of the American public doesn’t know what to make of the Iraq War. This is fueled in part by misconceptions in the news media, inaccurate portrayals in television and movies, and a lack of coverage of the latter years of the war once violence levels plummeted. There never was widespread acknowledgement of the evils of the Iraqi insurgents toward their own people.  In addition, the extraordinary security gains that were achieved at tremendous cost and personal sacrifice by American military forces were never displayed.  In spite of this, from my perspective through three combat deployments to Iraq, it is absolutely crystal clear: We won.

I am proud to have served in Iraq, to have answered the nation’s call, to served alongside some of the finest warriors imaginable in a desperate fight that made a difference.

For those of us who fought on the “front lines” in Iraq, we witnessed in technicolor the horrific evils of our insurgent foes—as evil as any the U.S. military has ever faced. They ruled over the civilian populous through murder, torture, rape, fear and intimidation. The war for us was never about establishing democracy in Iraq or building a strong centralized government.  It was about fighting and destroying our nation’s enemies. It was about keeping the flashpoint of the worldwide Islamic jihadist movement against America and our allies on foreign soil -- and away from our homeland. It was about defeating the insurgency; freeing the Iraqi people to live more secure and peaceful lives; protecting our brothers in arms and bringing as many of them home as we could; but most importantly, about doing our utmost to win and leave Iraq in some semblance of order. And win we did.

Consider the example of Ar Ramadi, Iraq—where Sunni Sheiks sided with U.S. military forces in the “Anbar Awakening” and played a central role in this victory. Some pundits and politicians maintain that this phenomenon magically happened of its own accord. In reality, it was directly enabled by U.S. combat troops as the result of an orchestrated effort by a bold U.S. Army Colonel and his commanders on the ground to retake the city one neighborhood at a time.

I deployed to Ar Ramadi as a SEAL platoon commander in April 2006 and led many operations in support of those efforts. At that time, Ramadi was a total war zone and the deadly epicenter of the Iraqi insurgency. U.S. forces there could not penetrate into many areas without sustaining significant casualties. Rubble pile buildings, roads marred with IED craters and twisted metal hulks of burned out vehicles were everywhere. The string of U.S. Marine fortifications along the main route received constant attacks from dozens of enemy fighters, with automatic weapons fire, RPG-7s, mortars and suicide truck bombs. Every day, brave U.S. Soldiers and Marines were bloodied. The Camp Ramadi medical facility was a near constant flow of mangled, dead or dying. A U.S. Marine intelligence report leaked to the press grimly labeled Ramadi and Al Anbar Province “all but lost.” Virtually no one believed it possible to turn around the security situation. And many in Washington were clamoring for U.S. withdrawal.

Yet under the leadership of U.S. Army Colonel Sean MacFarland, and through the extraordinary heroism of the American Soldiers and Marines of the “Ready First” Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Armored Division, the impossible task was undertaken. The plan called “seize, clear, hold, build” was implemented throughout the summer and fall of 2006. U.S. troops seized key terrain, established permanent outposts in enemy held areas, beat back the insurgency, forced them out of their deepest safe havens and broke their stranglehold on the local populous. As a result, the people of Ramadi and Anbar Province switched sides, joined with the U.S. and Iraqi Security Forces and rose up against the insurgency. These successes were not without extraordinary sacrifices.  In the six months that my SEAL unit spent with the Ready First Brigade in Ramadi, 58 U.S. Servicemen and women were killed in action including two of our SEALs, Marc Lee and Mike Monsoor, and a third, Ryan Job, later died from surgical complications to repair his combat wounds. Over 300 U.S. forces were wounded. But the sacrifices were not in vain.

In September 2009, I once again deployed to Ar Ramadi, Iraq.  This time, the warzone of 2006 was almost unrecognizable. Many of the rubble pile buildings were rebuilt, markets and cafes were open, hospitals and schools were fully functioning and operational. Iraqi Police checkpoints were located throughout the city. Peace and security had broken out everywhere. Though a modicum of violence still existed, it paled in comparison to what had been. To put this in perspective, throughout my six-month deployment there in 2009-2010, only a single U.S. Soldier was killed in a non-combat fatality in all of Al Anbar Province. The turnaround was staggering.

For me, and for those I was honored to serve with, it was a testament to the victory that had been achieved. It is a victory that looks vastly different than some might have envisioned. But it is victory nonetheless. I am proud to have served in Iraq, to have answered the nation’s call, to have served alongside some of the finest warriors imaginable in a desperate fight that made a difference. What this victory means in the long run only history will judge. For now, our war in Iraq is over.  And we won.    

Leif Babin is a former Navy SEAL officer who served three tours in Iraq, earning a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart. He is the co-founder of Echelon Front LLC, a consulting firm specializing in leadership development, team building and crisis management.