After nearly nine years, thousands of lives and $800 billion later, the last remaining United States soldiers in Iraq exited the country early Sunday.
The final U.S. convoy crossed into bordering Kuwait by sunrise, marking the end of a war that claimed almost 4,500 American and more than 100,000 Iraqi lives, according to a USA TODAY article . The troop withdrawal has stirred discussion among scholars and student veterans, alike, on the U.S.’ almost decade-long involvement in the country.
Looking back, moving forward
William Banks, director for the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism at Syracuse University, said the U.S.’ initial invasion of Iraq was not legal, in that then-President George W. Bush did not receive approval to enter the country from international governing bodies.
“The war was unlawful,” he said. “We had no international, legal authority to enter with force.”
Banks said he feels the decision to enter Iraq initially angered the world community but the U.S. has since regained some good will. During the war, the U.S. took measures to help rebuild Iraq through developing security and infrastructure that cater to the basic needs of the Iraqi people.
Before serving, Ian McClellan, like Banks, was critical of the U.S.’ decision to invade.
When McClellan entered the Marine Corps as a liberal-minded 19 year-old, he said he initially felt the U.S. was involved in Iraq “for all the wrong reasons.” McClellan, who spent time in the Gulf of Aden working on aviation electronics, helping with humanitarian aide and supporting Operation Enduring Freedom, said, regardless of the U.S.’ right to enter and occupy the country, the U.S. exposed Iraqis to freedom for the first time.
“Whether or not it was our business or not, the people were oppressed,” McClellan, now president of Colorado State University’s Student Veterans Organization, said.
Though Banks is “somewhat optimistic” about Iraq’s ability to sustain this progress, the longstanding sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites remain and should be cause for concern. Iraq’s current government has also shown tendencies to favor policies reminiscent of former dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime, he said.
Banks said he believes Iraq’s political and social course should now be charted by the people of Iraq as well as the NGO’s that will operate in the region, as he feels there is “very little appetite in the United States and the United States government” to police the country.
In Lerri Deguzman’s mind, the war hasn’t ended.
Deguzman, president of the University of Southern California’s Veterans Association, said he believes for active duty military personnel, withdrawing troops from Iraq doesn’t signify the end of war. Instead, as soldiers trained and contracted by the military, remaining enlisted means being redeployed elsewhere, such as Afghanistan.
“They’re not going home,” he said. “They’re just getting redirected.”
As a Marine who served in the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003 and was involved in combat on a day-to-day basis, Deguzman didn’t concern himself with the political circumstances surrounding the U.S.’ involvement in Iraq. Instead, he focused on the mission at hand — making it to the next day.
“I just knew I had to do what I was trained to do,” Deguzman said. “I had to live. I had to survive.
Deguzman, who is now pursuing a business and operations management degree, said entering the war early-on was especially difficult. The conflict had no end in sight and soldiers had little idea of when they would return home.
“I had to forget I had a family,” Deguzman said, adding that he advised others to do the same.
Now, as president of USC’s Veterans Association, Deguzman helps veterans transition from a structured military lifestyle to life as a student.
Transitioning from life in combat — where every problem had a solution and chain of command to defer to when things didn’t go as planned — to everyday life where immediate solutions aren’t as clear-cut, can make soldiers returning to campus feel lost, he said.
Extra pressure to succeed is added, as veterans must assure themselves that leaving the service was in their best interest, Deguzman said.
“You have to prove that your decision to get out was the right decision.”
Proving the decision
Michael Dakduk, Executive Director for Student Veterans of America, said he anticipates an influx of veterans returning to school after serving in Iraq. SVA, which has 520 college chapters across the nation, has increased efforts to help with the veterans’ transition from combat to school.
At the start of 2012, Dakduk said SVA, with the help of the Bob Woodruff and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations, will introduce newly developed programs and services to better link student veterans with one another.
Leadership summits, for example, will be held on more than ten college campuses. The summits will focus on strategies to help make campuses more veteran-friendly, Dakduk said.
Paul Dolan, a student veteran at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who served as a Marine in multiple countries, said he encourages those returning from war to take advantage of the educational opportunities afforded to military veterans by the post-9/11 G.I. Bill.
Dolan’s experience as a service member motivated his decision to enroll in UW-Madison’s physical therapy program, he said. Dolan, who also studies zoology, said he hopes to use his education to help injured soldiers recuperate.
Dakduk said universities can help facilitate the transition of veterans through developing veteran resource centers on campus, or organizing an arena where student veterans can interact and adapt to campus life.
Said Dakduk: “Veterans see a need for camaraderie.”
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