Five Years - And Counting - Of War

Five Years - And Counting - Of War
March 16th, 2008  
Team Infidel

Topic: Five Years - And Counting - Of War

Five Years - And Counting - Of War
Philadelphia Inquirer
March 16, 2008
Pg. 1
Veterans of Iraq recall when the conflict was new.
By Edward Colimore, Inquirer Staff Writer
From a Black Hawk helicopter, Army Capt. Craig Colucci of Malaga watched the opening moments of the ground war in Iraq: the unending line of American tanks and trucks barreling through the desert toward Baghdad, and Iraqi soldiers frantically "waving white flags at us, trying to surrender."
From Camp Commando in Kuwait, Army Col. Tom Collins of East Norriton saw "young Marines, fresh from training, all lined up with rifles between their knees." Then he waited to respond to biological and chemical attacks that never came.
For then-Army Spec. Jon Hinker of North Cape May, the early days were marked by "bodies, and the earthy smell of death."
Colucci, Collins and Hinker don't need reminders of the day - five years ago this Wednesday - when America's "shock-and-awe" campaign began. Or the heady time, a few weeks later, when the statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled down in Baghdad.
Like thousands of other troops sent to Iraq in 2003, they are home but never far from the war that has so far killed nearly 4,000 Americans and wounded 29,300 in action.
Few anticipated the nation's involvement would go on longer than World War II or the Korean War.
"We entertained thoughts of going home in a couple months," the 31-year-old Colucci said. "We had no idea it would last this long."
And few predicted the strain placed on the nation's volunteer military - with some units now on their fourth tour of duty.
Or the cost: about $12 billion a month now by some estimates, $500 billion so far.
How long the United States will remain - or must remain, as some argue - is at the heart of this year's presidential election, as it was four years ago.
"Can Iraq actually hold this together as we disappear?" retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey asked skeptically last week, in an address to mark the five-year war anniversary.
While the nation grapples with the questions, the soldiers who were there from the start have quietly gone on with their lives.
Touched by the war, all of them say they are more appreciative of the freedoms and the simple pleasures of home - cutting their grass, driving their cars, sleeping in beds, having plumbing and home-cooked meals.
Five years later, they and other Iraq veterans remain proud of their service and largely supportive of the mission.
Today, Colucci is a decorated active-duty soldier who felt a "survivor's responsibility" to start Peter's Wish, a nonprofit that provides $1,500 scholarships to Gloucester County high school seniors involved in community-service projects.
The Iraq war "is what it is and can't be undone," Colucci said. "We have to finish what we started. . . . I wish there was more [public] support for it."
The captain, now stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., recalled the early concerns about weapons of mass destructions as troops prepared to cross from Kuwait into Iraq. That "was a serious motivator for us," said Colucci. "Our best friend was our gas mask."
He helped provide security for the Army's Fifth Corps commander on the first day of the ground war and later lived in one of Saddam Hussein's palaces. "It was a surreal time - with mines on the roads and on the sides of the roads," he said.
Colucci, shortly after the invasion, was riding in a convoy when a bomb went off near a Baghdad bridge. He passed the same way two days later and saw a burned-out American humvee. "Unfortunately," he said, the insurgents' roadside bombs "were successful on another convoy. The near-misses, that almost factor . . . you don't think about it until later."
Grateful for his safe return - and in memory of his brother, Peter, who died of an illness at age 10 - Colucci formed Peter's Wish ( with $27,000 of his own money and donations from others.
"The war changed me," he said. "I survived in one piece. I was one of the lucky ones."
Another Iraq veteran, former Army Sgt. Pauric Devine, 44, of Philadelphia's Bella Vista section, has also chosen to reach out to others.
Devine helped start Philadelphia Chapter Six of the Veterans of Modern Warfare (, which, he said, is more attuned than other veterans groups to the needs of soldiers who have fought a high-tech, urban war that never lets up.
"Nobody had a good grasp of what would happen," said Collins, who started his war service in Kuwait anticipating not only chemical warfare but a massive flow of refugees, neither of which happened.
Today, the 53-year-old Montgomery County resident is homeland defense analyst for the Defense Contract Management Agency in Philadelphia's Frankford section.
"A long war was not foremost in our minds," said Collins, who wound up guarding oil wells and convoys in southern Iraq. "But I anticipated there would be a presence there. We've had a presence of more than 50 years in Germany and Korea. What I didn't anticipate was five years of counterinsurgency and hostility."
Collins, though, said he was "pleased the surge is having the results it is having. We have to keep our eye on the prize: getting Iraqi army units to do what our units are doing now."
Accustomed to the 120-degree heat of Iraq, Collins came home in August 2004 to a 90-degree day - and felt chilly. He had to get used to life here, "where everything is green" and bridges and road debris are not the threats they are in Iraq.
Jon Hinker had to make adjustments, too. He said his wife had moved on while he was in Iraq and they divorced when he returned. Their limo business also fell apart.
But Hinker - who remains supportive of the war - remarried, got a job as a correctional officer with the Cape May County Sheriff's Office, and enjoys camping with his son and two stepsons.
"When I reflect on things today, I divide everything into life before Iraq and after," said the 38-year-old former member of the New Jersey National Guard's 253d Transportation Company.
"It changed everything. I found a new outlook on life. I don't worry about the little things that I worried about before."
Still, Hinker is reminded of the war every time he speaks. His voice is perpetually hoarse - the result of burns to his larynx and lungs when insurgents blew up a sulfur plant near Mosul.
And he reflexively swerves his car to avoid debris along the road. Trash dumps bring back the smell of death. "It doesn't leave you," he said.
The war also remains vivid for Army Sgt. First Class Michael Vey, a member of Hinker's unit, who gained the nickname "Papa" because he watched over the troops like a father.
Vey, now a member of a Guard unit that trains troops heading to Iraq, recalls "armoring" trucks with sandbags and the hatches of old Soviet tanks to protect his troops from insurgent attacks during convoy runs.
"We did the job we were supposed to do," said Vey, who recently retired from the Wildwood Crest Police Department. "We haven't finished it yet. Look at the Revolution. It took eight years to beat the British . . . but the American people don't have a lot of patience."
Five years later, though, some soldiers question the rationale for the mission. New Jersey National Guard Sgt. First Class John Trainor, 41, of Sea Isle City, N.J., said administration officials had lied about the weapons of mass destruction.
"I think we went in for the wrong reasons," said Trainor, who provides security at the Salem Nuclear Power Plant as a member of the Guard. "We should have waited for more support from the rest of the world."
Trainor, another former member of the 253d Transportation Company, who commanded gun trucks through the dangerous Sunni Triangle, said sounds and smells here continued to bring back memories.
"Car backfires, fireworks when you don't expect them, and rotten trash are reminders of gunfire and rotten human flesh," he said.
When Trainor came home, he lost a construction job he had for 14 years and was treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. "You just don't feel like going to work," he said. "You have anger and resentment. You feel like a stranger. People don't understand you.
"Going to Iraq is easy. Coming home is hard."

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