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New York's Iraq War vets weigh the war's price in blood and treasure

James O'Leary, Upper West Sider and a veteran

James O'Leary, Upper West Sider and a veteran of the Iraq War Photo Credit: photo courtesy of James O'Leary


The Iraq war is over, but the questions may never end.

After eight years, nearly 4,500 American deaths, 32,000 U.S. injuries and a cost that some experts argue will top $3 trillion, many still wonder if it was all worth it.

For New York soldiers who served in Iraq, the end of the war prompts a kaleidoscope of confusing, often conflicting feelings: pride, anger, survivor guilt, patriotism, resentment, regret. The feelings are all mixed up, resistant to easy parsing.

They hope they left Iraq a better place than it was under the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, but also wonder what the enduring repercussions will be not just for Iraqis, but for their fellow fighters who have returned home and those who continue to serve.

Ann Little, 32, Dongan Hills, Staten Island
U.S. Army carpentry and masonry specialist

In light of the violence that has rocked Iraq since the departure of U.S. troops on Dec. 18, Ann Little is wondering more than ever, “What was it all for?”

Little mightily resents the massive amounts of public funds that went to private contractors such as Halliburton, Titan Corp. and Blackwater Worldwide. Private employers, she said, profited at the expense of soldiers who performed far more perilous jobs for a fraction of the wages, and who returned to find their own country had changed, too – with record rates of unemployment and wage compression.

Little, who is now pursuing a master’s degree in history and works as a veterans-support assistant at CUNY’s College of Staten Island, consoles herself that the war helped the Kurds, “who are not getting gassed in their villages anymore.” But the country’s infrastructure has been decimated, leaving many without critical services such as water or electricity and nostalgic for the predictability of life under Hussein, she noted.

“How many lives have we lost?” Little asked. “How much debt have we gone into? I don’t want to say it wasn’t worth it because, otherwise, what was my time there for? The people I knew there who didn’t make it would have died for nothing.”

While “Arab Spring” democracy movements bode well for the Middle East, Little argues that if the Iraqis are able to sustain a democracy, “it will be a very different democracy from what we have.”

Allyson Parla, 29, New Hyde Park
Photojournalist for The Expeditionary Times in the U.S. Army Reserve'a 77th Sustainment Brigade

“From my perspective, we helped them. … Anytime you’re able to improve someone’s life by giving them food, training and teaching them English, it’s worth it,” said Parla, who documented the final training of Iraqi security forces before the handover.

Her departure, she said, was “bittersweet. I would have liked to stay and keep helping.” The Iraqis she encountered, she said, were delighted by the assistance U.S. troops provided and “wanted us to stay there . . . .I can’t even describe the emotions. They cried when we left.”

She conceded that her experience differed from that of many soldiers. “I always felt safe,” she said, adding that she had “the best job ever,” with far more autonomy, authority and excitement than her stateside job as a paralegal.

Two credits short of a master’s degree in school psychology, Parla credits the military with providing generous educational benefits that have allowed her to better herself. She is confident that her service record and military experience will be a boon in her career. “A lot of people look very highly upon veterans,” she said.

Andy Cheng, 27, Jackson Heights
U.S. Army Specialist, team leader and “mortar man”

The Iraq war “should have ended a long time ago,” said Cheng, who joined the army at the age of 17. His parents “signed me in,” as he needed their consent, but in retrospect, he and others motivated to join up after 9/11, “should have gone to college,” he said ruefully.

What most concerns Cheng, an operations director for Four Block, an organization that helps arrange internships for veterans, is how returning veterans will create new career paths in a ravaged – and often isolating – economy. Soldiers are used to built-in support systems and camaraderie, he explained, and know little about career building skills such as “networking.“

"The minute you sign your discharge papers, you're on your own," noted Cheng.

“If you shoot through school with an MBA, what is it going to get you when you get out?” Cheng asked. “There’s no middle class anymore. And the cost of living is much higher than it was. We have a lot of veterans in homeless shelters. That was really a shock for me.”

Cheng said he loved the army and is proud to have served. But it hurts, he said, to think of what vets have endured in going to a country where “little kids would come up to you and draw their fingers across their throats like they wanted to kill you.”

James O’Leary, 27, Upper West Side,
U.S. Army specialist

O’Leary received a medical discharge in 2006 after losing part of a lung and shoulder in a 2004 mortar attack in which two people died. It was an event of such spectacular, unadulterated chaos (“the tents caught fire, and all our ammo was cooking on top of that”), it is still seared in his mind.

He is not celebrating because he is too worried about other soldiers facing threats in Afghanistan. “That,” O’Leary intoned, “is a really tough place to be. I just lost a good friend over there, and I feel guilty I’m not there.”

From his vantage point as an outreach coordinator for the Wounded Warrior Project, it’s only “the physical war in Iraq” that has really ended, anyway.

“We’re still fighting a war here with all the PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. … Left untreated, it can ruin a whole generation,” he said. “We have a lot of triple amputees, and guys with traumatic brain injuries. A lot of women are coming back hurt, too.”

O’Leary has had his own struggles resuming life stateside, mostly with PTSD and “constant lung and chest infections.”

“I want to believe in my heart we did the right thing,” said O’Leary, noting that the Shiites are now better off in Iraq’s sectarian-based society. But he conceded, “I don’t see democracy working over there because – let’s be honest – it’s never worked.”

O’Leary laughed when asked if the invasion of Iraq could be termed a victory.

“I don’t know what winning a war is, to be honest,” he said. “I’ve lost good friends in both wars. If I start to think that it’s not [worth it], then it just seems like such a waste.”
 

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