On a sunny afternoon in Baqubah, a convoy of Iraqi troops and U.S. soldiers depart the small base they share on a mission to bring blankets and heating oil to a nearby village. They drive down an empty road, passing packs of dogs and curbs scarred by weeks of steady roadside bombs. Suddenly, the team's humanitarian operation turns deadly as an explosion rips into the lead humvee. Sgt. Chester Jones and Sgt. Maj. Eddie Del Valle help rush a critically injured young sergeant to the field hospital. Jones, a medic, cradles the soldier's injured head as he vomits, while another helps change bandages soaked through with blood.
It is twilight as troops from the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, tow the blasted humvee back to base. They cover it with a tarp, then get the news that they fear: The young soldier, Sgt. Jay Gauthreaux, has died from his wounds.
That was just over one year ago. Today, Del Valle and Jones are back home at Fort Hood, Texas, after their second Iraq deployments. Like tens of thousands of this war's veterans, they look back on their time in the country with a complex mixture of pride, frustration, satisfaction, and sadness. Del Valle recalls, for instance, the emotional task of cleaning out Gauthreaux's room the morning after the attack, packing up photos of the fallen soldier's 4-year-old son. "He's the same age as my little daughter," says Del Valle, "so you put yourself in that situation." Jones saw war's human toll every day while training Iraqi Army medics, but that didn't lessen the shock of losing his good friend. "I didn't realize it was G until I ran to the truck and pulled his body back," Jones says. "With training, you learn to try and push that stuff aside," he adds, "but it's tough."
Just as wars leave a lasting mark on soldiers, they tend to change the culture of the armies that fight them. As the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq approaches, American troops are reflecting on their experiences even as they await how their mission will be judged. So, too, the institution of the military is wrestling over its own narrative for this war, assessing how well America and its commanders have used one of the most powerful tools available to any nation. The lessons it takes away from the experience of its soldiers and marines will influence how it adapts and organizes itself—and how it cares for those sent to do the nation's fighting.
What is immediately clear is that this conflict has put enormous demands on American troops. They are warriors on some days, diplomats on others, in a conflict with no clear front lines and a changing cast of adversaries. And while they are grateful that the American public has steadfastly supported them, regardless of feelings about the war itself, many soldiers report a sense of disconnection, too. America as a nation is not waging this war, many tell you—its military is.
Recent security gains in Iraq, particularly the sharp declines in combat deaths, have come as a welcome development. But there remains a heavy burden on America's fighting men and women. Commanders express grave concerns for troops shouldering wars on two fronts with no end in sight, particularly the half million who have served more than one combat tour since 2002. Soldiers in Iraq, who have seen the duration of their deployments extended as a result of an inadequate post-invasion plan, work seven days a week for 15 months straight, minus two weeks for a trip home to visit family. And they do it all, they joke, without beer (American troops today are forbidden to drink while at war). More than 60,000 troops have been subjected to controversial stop-loss measures—meaning those who have completed service commitments are forbidden to leave the military until their units return from war.
Sacrifice. The news that their yearlong tour was lengthened by three months hit the team hard, says Del Valle. "That was the worst. It's like when you're real thirsty, and you're about to reach for the bottle—and somebody pulls it far away from you." Midway through medic Jones's tour, his wife called to ask for a divorce. "I'm not mad at her, because I can't blame her," he says. "She was tired of being alone." Jones has been deployed to Iraq two of the past five years, which has left him little time to see his children, now ages 4 and 2, grow up.
The sacrifices are great, and sometimes soldiers wonder why they keep making them. On the night that Gauthreaux died, Del Valle and Capt. Christopher Whitten, the gunner that day, talked about their career choice over a game of chess at a small shop on their base as the Iraqi owner served them tea and warm bread. They express a brief moment of doubt about the extent to which what they do is really understood by most Americans. "You get in a humvee every day because that's the job that is feeding your family. I also believe in what we're doing here," says Del Valle. "Our soldiers here are giving 100 percent for every American guy back in the States." Whitten nods, adding, "It makes you wonder, does anybody really appreciate what that guy gave up today?"