For people like Ellery Majalca, the memories of the Iraq war will not soon fade, if ever. “It’s one of those things that you think about almost every day,” said Majalca, 28, who grew up in Vandalia and served as a tank crewman in Iraq. “We lost a few people that I knew.”
Tuesday marks the 10th anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, but the legacy of the divisive combat mission remains unclear, given its significant economic and human costs.
The war directly cost an estimated $823 billion, and it also cost more than 4,400 American troops their lives, including more than 20 soldiers from across southwest Ohio.
Another 2,200 U.S. soldiers died in Afghanistan, which is in its twelfth year of American involvement.
Local residents said the troops who fought in the “wars on terror” enlisted because they love their country and believe in protecting it. Some troops said they helped eliminate despotic leaders and regimes and liberate oppressed people.
But some families and veterans said they are ambivalent about the wars, because of the lack of clear and realistic objectives and the lives lost or damaged.
“My uncle had been wounded in Vietnam and lost his right leg, and he had all sorts of trouble, so I always thought we kind of knew what it was to suffer from war,” said Cindy Pyeatt of West Chester Twp., whose son, Cpl. Lucas T. Pyeatt, was fatally wounded in Afghanistan. “But that was until my son was killed.”
How it began
A coalition of forces, led by the United States, invaded Iraq on March 19, 2003, after Saddam Hussein and his sons refused to comply with President George W. Bush’s demands to surrender and flee the country.
Bush administration officials said pre-emptive war against Iraq was necessary to extinguish an imminent threat. Later, some information used to justify going to war — including the threat of Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction — was proven wrong.
More than 1.5 million Americans served in Iraq between March 2003 and December 2011, when the last troops withdrew, according to White House estimates. But about 4,488 troops did not return home alive, while 32,221 returned home with injuries.
Pfc. Marlin Rockhold, 23, of Hamilton, was killed by a sniper on May 8, 2003, while directing traffic at a bridge in Baghdad. Army Spc. Artimus Brassfield, 22, who lived in the Fairborn area until he was teenager, was killed in a mortar attack in October 2003 at an Iraqi military base. Marine Cpl. Derek Dixon, 20, of Riverside, was killed on June 26, 2007, during combat operations in Iraq.
Many other troops with local ties were killed in Iraq by roadside bombs, gunfire and noncombat-related illnesses and injuries.
Majalca, a 2003 graduate of Butler High School and the Miami Valley Career Technology Center, said he knew he would be deployed to Iraq when he signed up for the Army while in high school.
Majalca said he was very patriotic and he was eager to get out and see the world. During his 13-month stint in Iraq that began in January 2006, Majalca said he was shot at by enemy combatants, involved in multiple firefights and his tank was hit by at least six improvised explosive devices.
Years later, Majalca said his thoughts return to his time in Iraq nearly on a daily basis. Looking back, he said U.S. intervention brought stability to Iraq’s government, improved infrastructure in the country and removed some brutal tyrants from power.
“What we did was not in vain, and we did at least dispose of a disliked dictator (Saddam Hussein), and we did eliminate his fascist regime,” he said. “There are a lot of mixed emotions on the war in Iraq, and we took casualties and lost people. But we did some good, and we were able to help out some residents of a third-world country on the other side of the world.”
Majalca, who is now a member of the Army Reserves, said he is willing to go to war again if his unit is activated.
Serving his country
About 2.5 million Americans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many have served more than one tour. Many soldiers were deployed to both war zones.
Retired Marine Lance Cpl. Larry Draughn Jr. said he enlisted in the Marines in December 2006 because he felt obligated to defend his country and help improve national security. The 25-year-old Fairborn resident was deployed to Iraq in 2008 and then to Afghanistan in 2009.
“I wanted to serve my country and do my part to make sure our guys got to come home alive,” he said.
Draughn was on patrol on May 30, 2009, when he stepped on an improvised explosive device. The explosion resulted in Draughn losing both of his legs and two fingers on his right hand. He also suffered a traumatic brain injury.
Draughn said his sacrifice and the sacrifice of many other Americans were not for nothing. He said the United States boasts some major accomplishments in Iraq and Afghanistan, including toppling some tyrannical leaders, eliminating high-priority targets and improving national security by fighting against dangerous insurgents.
But he said wiping out the insurgency in that part of the world is unrealistic. He said there will always be more violent rebels.
Some local troops or their family members have mixed feelings about the Iraq war and the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan.
The United States has helped establish schools, medical clinics and more stable governments in countries where the people have suffered under oppressive dictators for centuries, said Julain Jones, of Greenville whose son served as a Marine in Afghanistan.
She said she supports her son and the military, and believes “most Afghan people are happy to have our help.”
While she does not want her son to go back to the dangerous combat zone, she said “I don’t want innocent people, including children, to suffer either.
Pyeatt, 24, was deeply disturbed by the atrocities being committed against innocent people in Afghanistan and the Middle East, his family said.
He felt obligated to serve his country and he was an extremely smart and empathetic person, said his mother, Cindy.
His family later discovered in his car a copy of an August 2010 issue of Time magazine. The magazine’s cover features a photograph of a teenage Afghan woman whose nose and ears were cut off by her husband.
“That kind of stuff really affected him, because he loved his sister, and he loved his niece, and he couldn’t imagine someone being vile or vicious to them, just because they are females,” Cindy Pyeatt said.
‘It needs to be over’
Pyeatt was killed by an improvised explosive device on Feb 5, 2011, during an ambush in the Helmand province, Afghanistan.
Cindy Pyeatt said it is very sad that her son and so many other bright and promising U.S. service members have been seriously harmed or killed fighting in a part of the world that continues to reject democracy and attempts to help them build a free and stable society.
“I just think it needs to be over,” she said. “I think it’s ridiculous, because these people over there don’t want to change, and they had every opportunity to change.”
Carey Smith, 41, of West Carrollton, whose husband and stepson are in the Army and have served in Afghanistan, has similar feelings. She said her husband was eager to assist the Afghan people, but after arriving in the country, he was dismayed by how little they could accomplish.
“It’s a waste,” Smith said. “We are not doing any good, because they don’t want us there, and they try to kill us all the time … and you can’t help people who don’t want to be helped.”
Smith said the troops are so busy trying to stay alive that they are unable to do much else.
Marine Cpl. Paul Zanowick II, 23, of Miamisburg, was killed June 3, 2011, by enemy fire during his second tour in Afghanistan.
His father, Paul Zanowick, said his son and members of his unit believed they were helping the Afghan people and fought over there to prevent more attacks on America soil.
“They believed that being there was necessary as part of our price for freedom here,” he said.
Paul Zanowick said Afghanistan remains very unstable, and “as much as people don’t like our presence there, our presence provides stability.”
The mission in Afghanistan was successful, because it made Americans safer, said Dr. Larry James, dean of Wright State University’s School of Professional Psychology and a retired, decorated army colonel with 22 years of experience.
“Since we invaded Afghanistan, there have been no more 9/11 (type events) on U.S. soil,” said James, who led a team of psychologists assigned to interrogators at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for five months in 2003 and again in 2007-08. He also oversaw interrogations at the Abu Ghraib detention center in Iraq in 2004, after the infamous photos surfaced that showed guards abusing detainees.
James said he believes the United States should maintain a military presence in Afghanistan to prevent Al Qaeda from returning, but it should withdraw many of its troops.
But James said U.S. forces never should have invaded Iraq, because the country lacked weapons of mass destruction or the military capacity to pose a real and imminent threat to U.S. security and its allies. Still, he said some good came of the war, even though many lives were lost or damaged.
“Although there were high costs, we liberated a nation … and we helped to get rid of a horrible tyrant and dictator,” he said.