Tuesday marks the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War, a conflict that brought the full efforts of the United States military to bear against a conflict some international leaders still maintain was a mistake.
A cursory look at a troops from a decade ago compared to those today yields a stark difference. Soldiers and Marines in 2003, living in a country still staggering from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, had just begun to understand the implications of the 17-month old battle in Afghanistan when President George W. Bush informed the country of a new front line.
These young men and women would soon witness the harsh realities of an insurgent enemy who hid among civilians and phoned in much of the battle through devastating makeshift roadside bombs. This war created the generation of hardened veterans coming home to a nation now planning for relative peace after 2014.
One officer at the forefront of the military's efforts to heal its veterans has experienced firsthand how the Pentagon has learned from last decade of war.
"This is about underwriting our security for our future," says Army Col. Greg Gadson, garrison commander at Fort Belvoir in Virginia. "If we don't do right by those who serve, we are not recruiting for the future."
Gadson is one of the only double above-the-knee amputees to maintain active duty status in recent years. He was seriously injured in an IED attack in Iraq in May 2007, and sent back to Walter Reed Medical Center in Maryland. Both of his legs were amputated in subsequent days and he underwent multiple surgeries on his right arm.
Now he oversees a military installation just outside the D.C. Beltway, home to some of the Army's most important resources, such as its logistics and intelligence wings, in addition to his service as a motivational speaker.
Gadson solidified his advocacy for wounded veterans by starring in the 2012 film "Battleship," portraying a troubled veteran facing the effects of his same wounds. He also delivered a motivational speech to the 2007 New York Giants, launching them to a 10-game winning streak that was capped with a win in Super Bowl XLII. Gadson shirks any responsibility for those victories.
"Our nation has a commitment to this all-volunteer force, and it's going to be very important for our leaders in all sectors of society—public, private, as well as our government—to make sure we support this all-volunteer force," he says.
The military medical system has been "incredibly nimble" in adapting to the needs of its veterans facing physical wounds, as well as neurological and psychological trauma. Gadson references double, triple and quadruple amputees who have not only survived but have "reasonable expectations for a quality of life."
Dr. John Nagl is a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, and one of the foremost experts on shifting ground combat toward fighting insurgencies in the last 10 years. He served under Army Gen. David Petraeus and helped draft the 2006 U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual.
"One of the lasting impacts is clearly going to be the long-term responsibility to take care of those who have born the battle, and their widows and their orphans, to paraphrase Lincoln," says Nagl, now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
He cites "the signature wounds of this war," such as traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, and the great efforts required to reverse them. Much of the medical staff dedicated to taking on this healing process are now subject to cuts under sequester. Roughly 60 percent of all of the Army's health care staff are civilians.
"War in Afghanistan isn't over yet, and we're already cutting back on the people who need to help them?" Nagl says. "We've asked these men and women, all volunteers, to serve over and over again, and now they're struggling to regain some degree of normalcy."
But he agrees with Gadson's assessment of the flexibility of the modern fighting force, born almost 40 years ago in the wake of Selective Service System drafts during the Vietnam War.
"We could never have imagined that it would be an all-volunteer force that would continue to operate through two extended protracted wars," he says. "Not only has it continued to function—we never had to call on selective service—but other than that, we arguably have the finest, best trained, most combat experienced military we've ever had."
"That's an extraordinary success story, but Greg is right. It's fragile," Nagl adds.
An ability to understand and train foreign enemies and allies has been at the forefront of U.S. efforts in Iraq, says Nagl, and those efforts contain the most valuable lessons he hopes the military does not forget.
Some of the most brutal conflicts in Nagl's Iraq tours took place in Al Anbar Province, where he says he would have traded a platoon of infantry for two good interpreters that he could trust.
"They were more valuable than riflemen," he says. "There was never a time in Iraq where we couldn't go anywhere we wanted to go, but we couldn't do what we needed to do because we didn't have the knowledge or support of the people who were there at that road crossing, in that mosque."
Now America hopes to draw down in Afghanistan in 2014, just as it pulled out of Iraq, yet the U.S. military has still not perfected training its allies to fight small wars abroad, Nagl says. Resurgent violence in Iraq may serve as a harbinger of what the U.S. will face in Afghanistan.
Al-Qaida conducted more suicide and vehicle bombings in 2012 than in 2011, according to a threat assessment report released March 12 from the Director of National Intelligence. These attacks are against almost exclusively Iraqi targets, though the fighters do not have sufficient strength to defeat Iraqi Security forces, the report states.
"That is the glaring failure of both Iraq and Afghanistan of the American military," he says. "We haven't figured out how to do that right, yet."