Remembering the Iraq war on its 10th Anniversary, by a Rockwall veteran

(By Tony Arterburn, a 1999 Rockwall High School graduate who was among the first boots on the ground in the Iraq War. He is pictured on right in left/main photo)

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” – T.S. Elliot

If war is hell, then politics is purgatory, or so it seemed for this writer as I anxiously awaited the first strikes on military targets in Iraq from my apartment in Fayetteville N.C. in March of 2003. Two days earlier the President had given Saddam and his two sons 48 hours to leave the country they had ruled since the time of my birth. With my gear packed and orders pending, I sat with the Fox News feed on mute, glancing back and forth between the giddy reporters and a biography of Harry Truman. My gut feelings did not have the intellectual capacity as yet to express what was unfolding before me.

Even as I write this today with the “Fog of War” lifted and a decade of life lived in between, it is hard to channel the feelings of angst that I had or the history that was happening around me – for we were a different America then and, so too, am I a different man now.

On that fateful night in March of 2003, I was 23 years old and newly married to a courageous fellow veteran of the Afghan war. She was wrongly sent away for training at the time, which left me alone, scared to death and a very angry young man.  Less than two months earlier I had buried my best friend and brother-in-arms, Specialist David Iszkiewicz, with honors at Arlington National Cemetery. David had died in his sleep of a “mysterious” combat related illness at the age of 25. My thoughts at the time were dark. The task of escorting his body had fallen to me, and it is a six-hour drive from Fort Bragg N.C. to Arlington VA – plenty of time for the smell of embalming fluid to permeate my class A uniform, the thought of which to this day weakens my resolve not to cry.

The countdown clock seemed to be running faster than actual time, as if the boney finger of death itself was franticly moving beads across an abacus. Zero hour finally arrived and the guns of March soon followed. Reports of bombs falling on Baghdad poured into media news rooms, where war is a spectator sport. A punctual Bush administration in the form of Press Secretary Ari Fleischer strolled out to the White House press room to inform the world.

“The opening stages of the disarmament of the Iraqi regime has begun,” he said. It was a statement that did not allow for follow-up questions. A few days later and, on more than one occasion, Mr. Fleischer would refer to the war as “Operation Iraqi Liberation” or (O.I.L.) – a gaffe that was promptly whitewashed from the White House.

My youthful and naive hopes that a possible last minute peace could be made were dashed and instantly replaced with a fighting resolve. As the “smart boys” in Washington dreamed of throngs of Iraqi citizens greeting us with garland wreaths and parades of appreciation, I began to prepare my nervous system for the possibility of having to take human life. I didn’t have the luxury of living in an academic world of make-believe; I knew better. I was a veteran of Kosovo and my company had been the first Army unit on the ground in Afghanistan. I was a paratrooper, and a warrior serving with the best soldiers in the U.S. military. I buried my feelings and locked them away. There was no time to look back; no time to cry.

And so it came to pass in the spring of 2003 that the 108th Military Police Company Airborne/Air Assault and I followed the most powerful Army on earth 800 miles through the “cradle of civilization” to Mosul, Iraq, on which stands what is left of the ancient city of Nineveh.

My time in Iraq was one of both personal growth and regression – the latter of which I would come to grips with years later as I fought off the demon of alcohol to reclaim my soul. I read deeply and I learned the limitations of my temper, aggression and abilities in the face of danger. I am alive today because the bravest and most noble people I will ever know were watching out for me.  To my fellow soldiers, even if I did not like you then, may I say with the deepest sincerity, “I love you now. You are and will forever be my brothers and sisters.”

It would be improper on this solemn occasion to recount the cost in blood and treasure, or the impact the Iraq war had on countless families and the strength of our Republic. For as the philosopher Nietzsche said, “Even the bravest among us rarely has the courage to face what he already knows.”

With so much left to say I am loathe to close. The feeling starts to grip me that each day I lived after that tumultuous spring of 2003 is a gift. As my mind wonders I am transported to that time and, for a fleeting moment, I become that frightened and angry young man. I look to the television, it is silent and no pictures of war flash across the screen, I scan the room for my gear, but the duffle bag has long since been turned in, and my weapon is safe in an armory far away. My war is over. I immediately recall the words of Anthony Swafford in his memoir “Jarhead” about his experience as a Marine in the first Gulf War.

“A story: A man fires a rifle for many years; And he goes to war. And afterward he turns the rifle in at the armory; and he believes he’s finished with the rifle. But no matter what else he might do with his hands – love a woman, build a house, change his son’s diaper – His hands remember the rifle…We are still in the desert.”



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