May 2, 2003; an airfield south of Baghdad:
“GAS! GAS! GAS! GET YOUR MASKS ON!!!”
The anonymous command came just seconds after a massive explosion rocked the building serving as our battalion headquarters. I immediately darted out the door and ran 50 or so feet toward the adjacent building that was serving as our makeshift barracks. Other soldiers were doing the same. Holding my breath, I looked to the left and saw the source of the explosion—a mushroom cloud that rose hundreds of feet into the air, not more than a mile from our location.
I was holding my breath for fear of inhaling any chemical agents that may have been delivered with the attack. But part of me was in shock and refused to believe that someone might actually be firing missiles at us.
We later learned that putting on gas masks had not been necessary. The explosion came from an ammunition storage depot located just outside the perimeter fence of the former Iraqi airfield we were occupying. Apparently, someone had attempted to steal some of the munitions but had sparked the detonation that destroyed the depot.
With the “crisis” under control, we took photos of the mushroom cloud before the wind dissipated it. The tension gone, we made light of the moment, joking about how we would make this into a “war story” when we returned home.
On September 11, 2001, I was serving as a company commander with the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, New York. The 10th Mountain had the reputation of being the Army’s most-deployed division; in the ensuing months, several soldiers under my command were sent to Kosovo, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan. I was always left on the sidelines, wondering when it would be my turn to serve my country in harm’s way.
Saddam Hussein would change that.
As part of the United Nations’ cease-fire resolution from Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Iraq was directed to destroy all of its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and any missiles or munitions capable of delivering them, and to open itself up to weapons inspectors to verify compliance. Saddam had always proven reluctant to cooperate, however, and Iraq ejected all weapons inspectors from its borders in 1998. U.S. intelligence information, Iraqi defectors and U.N. weapons inspectors concluded that Iraq still had a formidable arsenal, yet in the years that followed the international community was unwilling to make Saddam fulfill his U.N.-mandated responsibilities to disarm and to allow verification of that disarmament.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent American toppling of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, however, U.S. forces uncovered evidence that Al Qaeda was trying to get its hands on nuclear, chemical and biological weapons to carry out far deadlier attacks against American targets. President Bush made it an urgent priority to prevent the rogue states of Iraq, Iran and North Korea from giving Al Qaeda the ability to carry out attacks that might be far more horrific than 9/11 was. With his past use of chemical agents against his own people and history of collaboration with terrorist organizations—including Al Qaeda—Saddam Hussein posed the most immediate risk to the United States.
Through the United Nations, Bush demanded that Iraq allow weapons inspections again. Saddam refused. Only when the United States began deploying tens of thousands of troops to the Kuwaiti desert late in 2002 did Saddam comply with the U.N. demands.
Shortly after the inspectors returned to Iraq in early 2003, they began to uncover more evidence of Iraqi lies. Though he claimed to have destroyed all banned weapons, Saddam was caught with missiles that the United Nations had explicitly prohibited Iraq from having. With this deception and 12 years of other Iraqi deceptions, combined with the cost and challenges of keeping 150,000 American troops in the Kuwaiti desert indefinitely, Bush ordered U.S. forces into combat on March 20, 2003. The mission of Operation Iraqi Freedom was to topple Saddam’s regime, to keep his weapons of mass destruction out of terrorist hands, and to liberate his people from more than 30 years of brutal oppression.
When the Iraq War started, I was assigned to a logistics unit at Fort Drum, serving as a battalion operations officer. From as early as September 2002, in light of the new crisis with Saddam, I knew we might deploy. After months of speculation, those deployment orders officially were published in February 2003.
I was going to war.
Anxious to get into the fight, I was frustrated when I saw the start of the war on TV rather from the Kuwaiti desert. We were only a few days from being deployed; but at the rate Allied troops were advancing into Iraq, I was afraid the war would be over before I arrived.
Our time would come, though. In March 2003 we arrived in Kuwait and were herded into a tent, given instructions and the procedures to be followed in the event of a SCUD missile attack, and then taken to another tent. It wasn’t long before I would practice what I was taught.
Sirens suddenly blared. SCUD missile attack!
Within seconds, I had my gas mask on, soon followed by my chemical protection suit (which included thick trousers and coat, gloves and boots). When I was at Fort Drum, I had always had problems getting my mask on in under nine seconds (after nine seconds, you run the risk of suffering fatal exposure to chemical or biological agents). When I had to do this for real in Kuwait, I was motivated to be fast.
During SCUD alerts, there wasn’t much you could do besides sit tight, check on each other and wait for the All Clear, a series of short siren bursts. The problem was that in those first few hours in Kuwait we had so many SCUD alerts that I was going in and out of my chemical suit every few minutes, which was physically draining in the heat. We also had to wear our body armor, helmet and other gear, which raised our body temperature even more. We were inside a tent, which worsened the stifling effect of the Kuwaiti heat.
I had eaten nothing since landing in Kuwait—I had been drinking a lot; but in hot conditions eating is as important as hydration for taking care of your body. You can drink from a canteen while wearing the mask, but you can’t eat. Just when I was starting to feel drained by this repeated exertion, the Iraqis launched another SCUD at us. Instead of following quickly, the All Clear signal was a long time coming.
My body began to shut down. I removed my flak vest and helmet, collapsed to the floor, and mustered all of my remaining willpower to not panic and rip off the mask. I tried to slow my breathing and to close off my mind to the reality of the moment. I was desperate, my entire existence focused on making it to the All Clear. I realized what a fool I had been to be so anxious to get myself to the middle of a war—as I watched SCUD alerts on CNN a few days earlier, I though how cool it would be to be experiencing one myself, gallantly risking my life in the service of my country. Now, I was a pathetic sight. I begged God to forgive me for being so anxious to deploy. “Damn fool, I am,” I wrote in my journal.
When the All Clear was given, I got some food and slowly rebuilt my strength. My T-shirt was drenched in sweat, and the people around me said I looked like hell. Throughout the rest of the day, I did everything faster than usual—eating dinner, going to the bathroom—in the fear that I would be caught in the middle of it during the next SCUD alert.
More SCUD alerts happened during the night and in the days that followed. That first day, though, left its impact on me—I had heard that siren so much on the first day that throughout the following days I mistook almost any noise as the SCUD alert and was always nervously watching for other soldiers to put their gear on or asking if they heard the siren. I was jittery.
It should be noted that the United Nations had banned Iraq from having SCUD missiles, and Saddam had claimed he didn’t have any.
We eventually left Camp Wolf and made the long bus ride across the Kuwaiti desert to Camp New York. Our equipment arrived a few days later, and we drove it from the ship to our camp. Soon we were using those trucks to move supplies north in support of the 101st Airborne Division and logistical units as they pushed deeper into Iraq.
As the weeks passed, I grew frustrated. Our mission was important, yet I felt like I was being left on the sidelines again, watching on TV from Kuwait as Allied forces helped angry Iraqi civilians tear down Saddam’s statue in Baghdad, thus liberating the city from Saddam’s butchery. I had recovered from the stress of that first day and was anxious now to move north and to do my part.
Finally, on April 20, 2003, Easter Sunday, it was time for my unit to move north into Iraq. Not wanting my fiancee or family to spend their Easter worrying about me, I didn’t tell them I was heading into Iraq until after I had arrived there.
Before crossing the border, I locked a magazine of ammunition into my rifle and placed my fiancee’s photo on the windshield of my Humvee so it would feel like she was with me. Within minutes of crossing the border, we encountered our first Iraqi village.
The drive soon became tense: Iraqi civilians were standing in the middle of the road to try to force us to stop so they could sell us trinkets. My driver—a 20-year-old woman who had never deployed before—began to slow down. But stopping would make us a target for attack. My operations sergeant—who was sitting behind me—got on the radio and informed the other convoy vehicles what we were experiencing. Simultaneously, I yelled in my driver’s ear, “Speed up! Don’t slow down! They’ll get out of the way!” My driver fought her instinct to slow down, and we sped through the Iraqi civilians, who always scattered in time.
The encounter with the civilians gave us a preview to what we found throughout that drive and in the coming weeks—the Iraqis were treating us as liberators and not as conquerors. Whenever we passed them, they stopped what they were doing to wave at us or give us a thumb’s up. Iraqi children would salute, and I even saw one Iraqi child waving an American flag at us. Just a few weeks earlier, Saddam’s forces had executed Iraqi civilians whose only “crime” was waving at Coalition forces.
Soon we saw road signs for Baghdad and Basra and made our way across southern Iraq. We saw things you would expect to find in Iraq—herds of camels and sheep, oil pipelines, destroyed Iraqi military equipment. But I also saw green for the first time in a month, as some vegetation grew in the desert. We also began to see the impact of Saddam’s oppression of his people; many Iraqis lived in small huts made from sun-caked mud. What we would consider to be poor in America would be filthy rich in Iraq. We sometimes passed an Iraqi woman who would wave at us with one hand while motioning with the other to her mouth to beg for food.
Whenever a vehicle suffered a breakdown, it forced us to stop the convoy. As convoy commander, when this happened I would hustle soldiers out of their vehicles to post security. During one of these breakdowns, a couple of Iraqi civilians had walked up to our trail vehicle before anyone from that Humvee had dismounted to pull security. After nothing but friendly contact with the Iraqis that day, I figured they were harmless. However, I couldn’t take a chance. Without hesitation, I confronted them, made a shoo-ing motion with my hand, and repeatedly said “Go! Go!” Fortunately, the scowl on my face was enough, because the Iraqis soon walked away. I have photos of myself taken minutes after this confrontation—between the scowl and my helmet, body armor, weapon and sunglasses, I looked much meaner than I really am.
This incident occurred before the insurgent attacks began causing a steady flow of casualties among American forces. With the advantage of hindsight, I wonder now what the hell I was doing that day—the two men could have been armed with weapons or explosives.
Aside from dodging Iraqi civilians, the only danger we faced on that Easter Sunday was from the blinding dust, which increased our chances of getting lost or having an accident. My watch and my travel alarm clock still are encrusted with sand from Iraq and Kuwait.
Our destination was an Iraqi airfield south of Baghdad. Being in Iraq was having an impact on other soldiers in my unit. Talking to my driver, I learned that she had not previously been supportive of this war. However, now that she was in Iraq and saw the poverty Saddam had inflicted on his people, she said she realized we had the potential to help the Iraqis improve their lives. At a refueling point, she walked up to a group of Iraqi children and gave them some candy.
As I settled in for bed on my second night in Iraq, I was sleeping on the hood of my Humvee with the sound of wolves and other wild dogs howling in the distance. It still hadn’t fully sunk in yet that I was in Iraq. It was surreal.
After two weeks at the airfield south of Baghdad, we headed to another airfield, this time north of Baghdad. We occupied a building that had not been used since the Iraqi army was driven from the airfield a few weeks earlier. As we cleaned the building of its immense amounts of garbage, we saw something that scared me more than anything else did in Iraq: vials of white powder surrounded by abandoned Iraqi gas masks and chemical protection gear.
We didn’t know what it was, but in the aftermath of the anthrax scare in the United States we weren’t going to take any chances. As we shoveled these items into trucks to be hauled away and disposed of, all of us wore gloves, and one soldier even donned his gas mask for added protection. I never found out what that powder was, and my health has been fine since returning from Iraq. However, at the time, seeing it shook me up some.
The building serving as our headquarters also had an eerie legacy from the recent fighting: bloody hand imprints left on the walls by wounded or dying Iraqi soldiers.
My time in Iraq also gave me two opportunities to fly across northern Iraq to Mosul, near the border with Turkey. I welcomed these flights because they gave me the chance to see more of the country and also broke the cabin fever I had from staying on the airfield. With the enemy still active in northern Iraq, though, a fellow officer once gave me an ominous farewell: “I hope you don’t get shot today.” I took additional ammo and cleaned my weapon extra well.
Northern Iraq was downright picturesque, with its mountains and lush greenery from river valleys. Golden-topped mosques gloriously reflected the sun. The flights also exposed me to more effects from the war—the remains of Iraqi jets, tanks and missiles dotted the landscape while bomb craters could be seen on the runways of several airfields. Wherever we went, Iraqi civilians would stop what they were doing to wave at us as we flew overhead.
These flights also gave me exposure to some of Saddam’s 200-plus palaces that dot Iraq. I flew over one such palace near Baghdad and toured another in Mosul. It was beautifully landscaped, and on the inside sported a swimming pool, magnificent artwork, endless rooms and brilliant color detailing in the walls. It was also a sad contrast to how most Iraqis lived.
During our Memorial Day ceremony, I had the honor of reading the names of the 162 American military personnel who had thus far been killed in this war. Within a few days after my reading, five more American lives were lost. Each one broke my heart.
My time in Iraq was destined to be limited, however. With another duty assignment awaiting me, I flew from Iraq to Kuwait on June 14, 2003, and caught a flight from there with other members of my unit that were also heading home. After a layover in Spain, I returned to the United States the following day. During the layover in Spain, I watched reports on CNN about Iraq. It already felt like a dream.
Back at Fort Drum, there were no parades waiting for us. This was fine to me, because the real heroes were still in Iraq, or had already come home in flag-draped coffins. My fiancee picked me up on post. That was the only heroes’ welcome I needed.
Serving in this war leaves me proud to be a veteran. Everything about life in America—saluting the flag, singing the national anthem, disagreeing in a political debate or just traveling around our great nation—takes on a deeper meaning now that I’ve risked my life to protect this country.
But more than ever now, I hate war. In fact, the people who hate war most in America are its military personnel and their families, because they are the ones who have to bear the greatest hardships and sacrifices when America does go to war.
I hate war because it puts my family through hell. When I left for Korea in 1997 and for Kuwait in 2003, both my parents and I approached these farewells as if they might be our last ones. At the same time, I had to put my life on hold because of the long ramp-up to this war. This is why my wife and I eloped less than three weeks after my return.
I hate war because each week I read the casualty reports in the Army Times from the War on Terrorism, wanting to see if anyone I know had been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.
I hate war because I do not enjoy revising my will, specifying the details of my own funeral, writing letters to the people I love so they know how I feel if I shouldn’t return, or viewing stories on CNN about discussions in the Pentagon over whether or not to cremate the remains of U.S. forces killed as the result of a chemical or biological weapons attack. I don’t enjoy being faced with my own mortality.
War destroys homes, widows spouses, orphans children, spreads fear and diverts economic resources away from social programs and scientific advancements that can benefit all of our lives—Iraqi and American. Imagine what Iraq and the United States would be like if war wasn’t necessary and our defense budgets could be used for other projects. I resent Saddam for leaving the international community no other choice but to use war to protect ourselves from his support of international terrorism and to liberate the Iraqi people from his butchery.
So although I hate war, I am deeply honored to have served in Operation Iraqi Freedom. I continue to support our cause there and have no plans to leave the military anytime soon.
Because as much as I hate war, I remain convinced there are things in this world that are worth war . As a Christian, I have respect for pacifists and for the nonviolent resolution of conflict. However, in the days following Saddam’s capture, estimates of the number of Iraqis he had murdered ranged from 300,000 to 1 million. If America had not attacked Iraq, that death toll would have risen much higher, as Saddam and his sons would have continued their genocidal war against their own people. Just as soldiers were needed to liberate Hitler’s death camps in World War II, so too were soldiers required again to stop genocide, more recently in Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq.
War is indeed evil, but sometimes it is the lesser of two evils. To not have attacked Iraq would have left Saddam in power to continue to terrorize and butcher his own people. Stopping or preventing this nightmare is an objective worthy of a great nation, which is why the United States did not hesitate to act in Iraq while others lacked that resolve.
In short, they are things worth fighting for.
Captain Andrew DeKever is a native of Mishawaka, Indiana. He holds a master’s degree in Peace Studies from Trinity College, Dublin. He and his wife, Mary Goldthrite-DeKever, live in Liverpool, New York.