Veterans Evaluate War Experiences

The Iraq war experience is a mixed bag of pride, disillusionment and hope — at least in the eyes of the soldiers, sailors and Marines who participated in a recent survey by a group formed to represent veterans from the missions to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Calling it the first, most comprehensive such survey to date, Operation Truth (search), a group with some 400 veteran members and 30,000 e-mail supporters, released the “After Action Report: The Voice of the Troops" to demonstrate how troops perceive and endured their time in action. The report was issued on the two-year anniversary of the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

“As the press coverage [of Iraq] has diminished and becomes more narrow, the perspective of the soldier and Marine on the ground has become more important,” said Paul Rieckhoff (search), an Iraq war veteran and executive director of Operation Truth.

Rieckhoff, 29, is a National Guardsman who served as a 1st lieutenant and infantry platoon leader in the 3rd Infantry and 1st Armored Divisions, primarily conducting combat patrols in central Baghdad between April 2003 and February 2004.

Once featured in a news report in which he praised the war in Iraq, his vocal advocacy for soldiers and veterans has led him to numerous radio and television appearances, including delivering a May Democratic response to President Bush's weekly radio address. In it, Rieckhoff criticized the administration for not acknowledging the continued violence in Iraq and numerous equipment shortages among soldiers on the ground.

In its report, Operation Truth said it combed through hundreds of personal stories from soldiers, sailors and Marines who have returned from Iraq and boiled them down “unedited and uncensored” in order to provide a realistic snapshot of their experiences, complaints and observations. The report also offers suggestions on areas that could be improved.

“There are some successes and there have been some shortcomings,” said Rieckhoff, noting that the range of responses indicate that the “far right has it a bit wrong and the anti-war left has it a bit wrong, too” about Iraq.

The report can be found on the Operation Truth Web site, and Rieckhoff said “people can go there and draw their own opinions.”

What Went Well

Many respondents issued ample praise for their fellow soldiers’ strengths and perseverance in difficult times.

“Whether it be the firefights or helping the orphans, each day brought a new challenge. I am proud to have served with the soldiers of the 1st Armored Division (search), even if we were unsure of our mission on many occasions,” read the survey, quoting “Powers,” a soldier from New York who submitted a story on Jan. 18.

Charles Bidwell, a Missouri native who served in an Army National Guard medical unit in Iraq, said he was impressed by the level of dedication, ingenuity and endurance displayed by the medics in his unit.

"Even though they missed their families [many with small children] they were determined to do the best job they could for their fellow soldiers and hometown friends," he wrote. "Even though they are what the Army calls 'Weekend Warriors' and 'Part-Time Soldiers,' they perform their duties as well as or better than any active duty unit in the country.

"These soldier medics continue to carve a name for themselves in Iraq as professionals in the field of medicine by following the long-held motto of 'Conserving the Fighting Strength,'" Bidwell added.

“Navysub3,” a sailor from Arizona who submitted a story on Sept. 5, had praise for American and other forces fighting for Iraq.

“I truly had a great time learning from each branch of service and our coalition brothers,” the sailor said. “But I learned more from the average Iraqi and learned what we were doing was just.”

Other respondents also talked about positive reactions from the Iraqi people.

“You cannot tell me that we are not doing the right thing when you watch little kids run, literally from their one-room mud hut a mile away from the road … as your convoy is passing, just to wave, not to beg for food or water — just to wave,” wrote “heatherb,” a soldier from Oklahoma who submitted a story Sept. 6.

“I dealt with many Iraqis, and I fell in love with their humility and their willingness to give,” wrote “forresterfound,” a soldier from New York who submitted a story Jan. 20.

Where to Improve

But not everything on the ground was as organized as the troops would like it to be. Several recurring concerns among respondents revolved around a lack of proper training, inadequate equipment and shifting missions while they were in Iraq. Many said they were put into jobs they were never trained to do.

“We had to wait until some of our soldiers died or were seriously wounded and gave the extra armor to our support elements,” wrote “futomara,” a soldier from Oregon who submitted his story on Nov. 3.

“We went in pretty unprepared and it was really evident … it was appalling,” said Sgt. Bobby Yen of Los Angeles, an Army reservist who spent a year in Iraq and who is on Individual Ready Reserve (search).

“The morale in our unit was pretty low,” Yen, 26, told “Our goals continuously shifted; our operating procedures were changing all of the time. Because of the need for our unit, we were rushed through and weren’t given any in-country briefing.”

Army spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Rodney told that he "never heard of anything like" those complaints from soldiers.

“I’ve only heard that we are continuing to improve,” Rodney said, acknowledging that initially, supplies and equipment were not up to speed, particularly regarding armoring of vehicles. He said training today focuses on lessons learned in Iraq and getting what soldiers need in the field to where it needs to be at a rapid pace.

“It really puts our Army at the most trained, best-equipped period in our existence,” Rodney said. “We are not perfect, but we are making incredible strides.”

Another recurring complaint was the treatment of soldiers by the military after they returned home. Sailor “speakerhed” from Washington is one of many who described symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (search) after returning from the battle zone. Some also expressed a lack of confidence that the military was prepared to handle their problems.

“After seven months I returned home and my life has been miserable since,” he wrote. “Nearly every night … I see the faces of the dead and they haunt me.”

Army Spc. Rob Timmons, 29, who came home in January 2004 after 11 months in Iraq, told Operation Truth that “the little dead girl in Najaf is the one who wakes me in my sleep every night,” and said he believes a culture of denial is allowing troubled veterans to fall through the cracks.

“The whole culture says to suck up and drive on,” Timmons told He’s now on Individual Ready Reserve and can be called back to duty anytime.

If a soldier complains about a medical or psychological issue before being shipped home, it may delay one's return, he said. At home, soldiers say they feel “a backlash” from the military, or even civilian employers, if they seek counseling on base.

“I think they need to break this cycle,” said Timmons, who is getting counseling on the outside but knows of many who are not.

Respondent Patrick Jennings from New Hampshire told that he knows that as a National Guardsman he must be ready for deployment at any time. That is making it difficult to find meaningful work, he said.

“I’m 45 years old and I have a lot of education, but you feel like now, at this point in your life, all you’re good for is fighting this global War on Terror (search),” said Jennings, who is a college history professor who did tours in Afghanistan and Iraq as a military historian but cannot find a full-time position today.

“Any department head is going to get around to asking when you might be deployed again,” he said.

Rieckhoff said he hopes that the public, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and military officers take the time to read the soldiers’ stories and use them to put priorities in order. He added that he is frustrated with the lack of attention paid by the media to soldiers in Iraq.

“I worry about the detachment and the lack of concern,” he said. “We’re not pieces on a chessboard or a video game; we're real people.”