For eight years, Fort Hood soldiers deployed to Iraq.
Our servicemen and women were involved in every phase of the war, from the initial invasion in 2003, to the capture of Saddam Hussein, to the much-heralded surge, to Operation New Dawn.
During the course of those eight years, more than 700,000 active-duty soldiers and 76,000 National Guard and Reserve elements deployed to the global war on terror, the vast majority to Iraq, III Corps statistics show.
Many of our soldiers returned wounded — or didn’t return at all. A total of 519 Fort Hood soldiers died in combat in Iraq and more than 5,400 were wounded. Fort Hood’s heavy burden is reflected by the fact that 20 percent of all Iraq War casualties deployed from the Central Texas Army post.
Given these sobering statistics, it must be particularly troubling for Iraq veterans and their families to watch the unfolding sectarian violence that has shaken Iraq over the past several weeks and threatens to irreparably damage the country.
In the midst of the chaos, there is no shortage of finger-pointing on Capitol Hill, naturally. Some blame the Obama administration for withdrawing U.S. troops at the end of 2011, possibly before the Iraqi army forces were sufficiently trained. Others blame the Bush administration for ordering the invasion of Iraq in the first place and then executing a flawed strategy for stabilizing the nation. Still others place the blame on Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who has fanned sectarian tensions by denying Sunnis a greater role in the country’s government.
Wherever the blame lies, the escalating violence has to be a bitter pill for those who risked their lives to help establish democratic rule in Iraq. The pain is likely even more palpable for the families and loved ones of those soldiers who never returned.
The celebration of Saddam’s capture by 4th Infantry Division soldiers seems a lifetime ago at this moment, after jihadist fighters last week stormed through the cities of Mosul and Tikrit — areas once liberated and controlled by U.S. forces.
Over the course of the eight-year operation in Iraq, Fort Hood soldiers not only invested their lives in toppling a dictator; they worked diligently to improve living conditions for Iraqis — building schools, paving roads and improving electric and water infrastructure.
The country appeared to be well on its way to achieving stability.
According to the U.S. Defense Department, in December 2008 the overall level of violence in the country had dropped 80 percent since before the surge began in January 2007, and the country’s murder rate had dropped to prewar levels.
When the last Fort Hood soldiers crossed the border into Kuwait in December 2011, many no doubt left with the hope that Iraq was an emerging democracy, that its people would prosper and see the United States as an ally.
Now that hope is all but gone, marred by bloodshed and violence that have destabilized a nation that as little as four years ago appeared to be at peace.
Of course, the question now is what to do about the situation.
Already, President Barack Obama has announced he will send 300 special forces soldiers to Iraq to serve as advisers for joint operations around Baghdad, as insurgents advance on the Iraqi capital.
The president has hinted at the possibility of airstrikes, but to this point has ruled out sending combat troops. Still, the current crisis holds the potential for renewed military involvement at some point — and that carries major implications for the Fort Hood community.
Given the fact that Iraq’s society has been fractured by sectarian divisions for centuries, it’s unlikely that any military solution will prevail.
Forging a more inclusive government in Baghdad may be the only way to stem the tide of sectarian violence. Preserving Iraq’s fledgling democracy will not only offer stability, but it will honor the sacrifice of our soldiers who fought and died for the cause of freedom.
And if that’s not feasible, what did eight years in Iraq really accomplish?