U.S. vets ‘heartbroken’ as civil war overtakes Iraq

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DETROIT — Tony Blair served two tours of duty as an Army infantry sergeant during the eight-year Iraq War and was injured in a roadside bomb explosion.

Now the 55-year-old Warren, Mich., resident worries that everything he and hundreds of thousands of other American soldiers fought — and died — for will be lost as al-Qaida-inspired militants rampage through Iraq, embroiling the country in a sectarian war.

"If the Iraqi army and military police are not going to fight and hold their ground, yeah, they are going to take Baghdad," Blair said Friday, after a quick succession of major victories by the insurgency in the past week. "I'm heartbroken."

Iraq War veterans in Michigan and across the country are watching with dismay, bitterness and even sadness as the same insurgency they fought against took control of two major cities — Mosul and Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit — last week.

"We spent a lot of time and effort to secure that region of the world and to have it kind of just fall apart," said Christopher Kolomjec, an attorney from Grosse Pointe Farms, who was a Marine major during heavy fighting in Fallujah in 2006 and 2007.

"You can't help but be extremely disappointed and frustrated that the sacrifice we made might be in vain. For every veteran who has been to Iraq, it is a constant battle to not become bitter."

Nick Cook, 36, of Grand Ledge did two tours in Iraq and, as an Army troop commander, lost five soldiers.

"For me, it's very upsetting," he said, "I watch what's happening there. My first six months, it was very intense fighting in Baghdad, but then there was prosperity and good news. And to see that now on the verge of collapse, and knowing I lost five soldiers, it's very hard. These kids may have died in vain."

Nearly 4,800 U.S. and coalition military personnel were killed in Iraq and more than 32,000 were wounded.

It also was a costly war financially for the U.S. The war will eventually cost U.S. taxpayers at least $2.2 trillion, including long-term care for wounded veterans, according to a 2013 study by the Costs of War project, based at Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies.

The Sunni insurgents are part of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the successor to the al-Qaida group that battled U.S. troops, according to Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a fellow at the Foundation of Defense for Democracies. While the group shares al-Qaida's ideology and brutality, it was formally expelled from al-Qaida in February over disagreements on tactics and leadership.

'It's very frustrating'

Kolomjec said there are no easy answers to the current situation. He said U.S. forces long struggled to win the support of the Iraqi people because they knew the Americans would eventually leave and the insurgents would remain. But the U.S. can't ignore the situation.

"The one thing we can't do is nothing," he said. "You can't just turn your back on them."

Kolomjec said he thinks the U.S. should provide air support to the Iraqi army as it attempts to hold off the insurgents, but putting American troops on the ground is a much more difficult issue.

"I don't think this country right now has the stomach for ground troops. That's my impression," he said.

Cook, who was in Iraq in 2004-05 and again in 2007-08, also said the U.S. can't ignore the bloodshed.

"I don't think we need to put troops on the ground but we do need to support the Iraqi government to help oust (the insurgents). I really feel that air superiority would give the Iraqis a chance for a new front."

Michael Matwyuk, 58, is a former Army sergeant who fought in Iraq in 2004 and 2005 and now works as a social worker for the Department of Veterans Affairs. He lives near Iron Mountain in the Upper Peninsula.

"It's very frustrating," Matwyuk said. "We didn't leave a force behind to support the Iraqi forces, and obviously that created a vacuum. The enemy takes advantage of those vacuums, and unfortunately a lot of innocent people are going to die."

'They were right there'

There is also concern among the veterans about the people for whom they fought and the friends they made and left behind.

Cook said he made many friends there, including a young Iraqi boy who served as his interpreter.

"Now he is attending Baghdad University and I'm very worried about him. What's going to happen to him?" Cook said.

Matwyuk said he, too, is worried about the many friends he made in the Iraqi army, now under siege, and the citizens he came to know.

"There was a great deal of misconception particularly during Fallujah, during the big push, that the Iraqi soldiers weren't stepping up. That was not really the case. I was in the chow lines with them and, while they may not have had the training and discipline, they were right there alongside us."

Matwyuk said he is dismayed that the hope American troops brought to the Iraqi people now appears lost.

"We're going to lose that, lose that ground, that opportunity," he said. "When you see a people like the Iraqis hold their first election, and you get an 85% turnout and they went there under the threat of being killed, that's how committed they were."

'The topic of the day'

Jeff Barnes, who did two tours of Iraq as a U.S. Army captain, spent several days last week talking to fellow veterans about the developments in Iraq while attending the National Association of County Veteran Service Officers conference in Grand Rapids.

"It was the topic of the day," said Barnes, director of the Michigan Veteran Affairs Agency. "It's painful to see the ground we fought so hard for to be lost, the time and effort, the resources and lives lost."

Blair, the Army veteran from Warren, said he doesn't see a good way to end the conflict.

"The Sunnis and Shi'ites have been at each other's throats for a long time," he said. "We cannot stop that."

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