Christopher Levi of Melville lost his legs while serving in...

Christopher Levi of Melville lost his legs while serving in the Iraq War. Credit: Tom Lambui

The U.S. invasion of Iraq began 20 years ago with the “shock and awe” bombing of Baghdad, starting a yearslong war that would reshape the region, yield a violent insurgency, and kill hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians and thousands of American military personnel.

Launched on March 20, 2003, in the shadow of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the war was premised on flawed intelligence by the George W. Bush administration suggesting links between Iraq's dictator, Saddam Hussein, and the attacks. The administration also claimed he possessed weapons of mass destruction. No such weapons were ever found, and the 9/11 Commission found "no credible evidence" linking Iraq and the attacks.

Among those killed in the Iraq War were 35 Long Islanders, as young as 19. The oldest was 45. They hailed from across the Island — from Elmont near the Queens border to Southampton on the East End.

The war's legacy continues to be felt every day.


  • At least 35 military personnel from Long Island were killed in the Iraq War, which began on March 20, 2003.
  • At the peak of the war, 170,000 U.S. forces were in Iraq.
  • The military formally completed its withdrawal in December 2011. But U.S. troops have remained in the country for years. The head count is currently roughly 2,500.

Loss, regret and the Iraq War

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of my son. And my worst nightmare would be to wake up one day and not think of him,” said Cathy Heighter, 67. Her son Raheen Tyson Heighter, a 22-year-old private first class and infantryman from Bay Shore, was killed July 24, 2003, the first Iraq War dead from Long Island. She found out later that day when a uniformed military officer and a civilian chaplain came to her hair salon on Main Street in Bay Shore to tell her what happened north of Baghdad as Heighter's convoy came under fire. 

Among her mementos: her son’s wartime letters, written in neat penmanship, that she received during his deployment. She got one of them in the mail July 22, two days before his death. (“Time goes by like a continuous Groundhog Day over here,” he wrote. “In the beginning, there was a lot of bloodshed, but now it’s all over.”) A final letter — which he’d addressed to her but never got a chance to send — was found in his locker on the base.

He was posthumously promoted to corporal. His brother, Glynn Heighter, named his barbershop in Bay Shore after him.

Glynn Heighter, above, named his barbershop in Bay Shore after his...

Glynn Heighter, above, named his barbershop in Bay Shore after his brother, Cpl. Raheen Tyson Heighter, who was killed in the war in 2003 Credit: John Roca

About five months before the war began, all but one member of the Long Island and Queens congressional delegation at the time voted “yea” to the war authorization, which passed the House of Representatives, 296 to 133, in October 2002. In the U.S. Senate, both New York senators, Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton, were among the 77 who voted to authorize the war; 23 voted against it.

One of the now-former Long Island congressmen who voted “yea,” Democrat Steve Israel, today says “it was the worst vote I ever cast, and I think about it almost every day.”

“I believe that we were misled, and despite the sacrifices that our troops made every day, the policies resulted in calamity," he said. "The policy distracted us from the real threats coming from al-Qaida. The cost of the war reduced important investments in our own national capacities, and it was all based on intelligence that was at best misguided and at worst fabricated,” Israel said in an interview on Sunday. He said he wishes he’d have heeded the call of dissenters — including some of his own constituents — who cast doubt on the Bush administration’s claims.

Republican Peter King stands by his vote, based on intelligence briefings he got back then. Nor, with the knowledge of hindsight, does he regret that vote, he says.

“No, because you have to act on evidence that you have at the time, and also, it was important that he be removed,” King said Saturday of Hussein.

He added: “I don’t think Middle Eastern countries that we needed for the War on Terrorism would have stood with us if they did not see us take action against Iraq.”

In a statement sent by spokesman Angelo Roefaro, Schumer said: “I believe that when the nation is attacked, you give the president the benefit of the doubt. Obviously, if we knew then how badly the president would bungle the war start to finish, we would not have given him the benefit of that doubt, and we certainly wouldn’t again.”

Clinton has said she regrets her vote. Other members of the delegation couldn’t be reached this weekend or didn’t return messages seeking comment.

Public support for the war has sunk. In 2003, a Pew Research Center poll found that 67% of U.S. adults favored taking military action in Iraq to end Hussein’s rule, if Bush decided it was necessary, with 26% opposed, and 7% not sure. By 2019, 62% said the war wasn't worth fighting, according to Pew.

Wounded veteran: Nothing but support on LI

Christopher Levi, 40, of Melville, an investment adviser who grew up in Holbrook, doesn’t regret enlisting in the Army and going to Afghanistan and then Iraq. He said the military helped many Iraqis, and the world is a better place with Hussein toppled.

Levi lost his legs in a roadside bomb on March 17, 2008, south of Sadr City. His recovery required 130 surgeries, including 30 to save his life. He was at the Walter Reed military hospital in Maryland for two years before returning to Holbrook. He received the Purple Heart last year.

Reflecting on war planners’ choices, Levi said: “Do I regret some of the decisions we made and how we did it and how we went about it? From a military standpoint, yes. But I don’t think we went in as the bad guy. I still don’t.”

Since returning home, Levi said, he’s felt nothing but support from Long Islanders and his family. He’s done his best to keep his mom, sisters, nieces and grandparents from worrying about him, and wants to be an inspiration, not someone to be threatened by or to be pitied.

“Literally, I make the funniest jokes — about getting blown up — to me, at least. And I love when people ask me about it,” he said. 

Levi said he likes sharing his story, especially with nonveterans who can't imagine what it is like to be in a combat zone.

Matthew Schmidt holds a photo of himself as a soldier...

Matthew Schmidt holds a photo of himself as a soldier in Iraq. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Even among troops who weren’t physically injured, the specter of wartime remains.

Matthew Schmidt, 43, of Massapequa, who has post-traumatic stress disorder, was a civil affairs sergeant in Iraq, a liaison to locals. Postwar, he and his team were tasked with helping rebuild. Retiring in 2020 as a Nassau County cop, mainly in highway patrol on the Long Island Expressway, Schmidt founded and now runs the Nassau Police Veterans Association.

He recalled attending the Broadway musical “Chicago” with the woman who would become his wife and being unable to sit still in public with a large group of people. His PTSD has also manifested in hypervigilance: for example, being out a restaurant with family and needing to be able to see the front door, never facing away from it.

At war, he said, survival meant developing an instinct to be on the lookout for an unseen enemy, always.

“You were fighting an IED bomb on the side of the road,” he said. “You were fighting somebody that you didn’t see.”

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