Violence in Iraq a letdown for Louisiana veterans

Some feel war was waste; others say this is just step backward

One former soldier spent days on patrol in the Shula neighborhood of Baghdad, trying to win over the locals while also rooting out makers of improvised explosive devices. Another was a flight engineer perched in the back of a Chinook helicopter, helping ferry special forces teams around Iraq.

Now these Louisiana veterans are back home, taking in the news that sectarian violence is once again ripping the country apart. They are aghast as cities once successfully fought over by U.S. troops are taken by Sunni militants.

“It feels like, ‘What was the point in us being there?’ ” said Jeff Argrave, a former corporal in the U.S. Army’s 502nd Infantry Division who moved to Prairieville after he was injured during a subsequent tour in Afghanistan.

Douglas Ducote, the former flight engineer and founder of the local advocacy group Veterans United for Justice, agreed.

“Something needs to be done, if for no other reason at all, so that the American forces and coalition forces that lost their lives over there didn’t do so in vain and those that came back injured and mangled for life will have some kind of peace knowing that our commander-in-chief cared enough to stop this from happening,” he said.

President Barack Obama announced this week that he would send as many as 300 military advisers to Iraq to help that country’s army quell the militant group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, along with 275 troops to help protect American assets. But Obama made clear this would not mark the return of combat forces to Iraq more than two years after the last troops left.

Both men echoed criticism lobbed at Obama by former officials with President George W. Bush’s administration, saying it was a mistake to pull out without leaving behind some kind of military presence. Argrave noted there is historical precedent, such as troops left in Italy and Germany after World War II, while other area veterans pointed to our long-standing presence in South Korea.

“Innocent people are dying and you’re going to allow this country to be taken back over that we’ve already liberated,” Ducote said.

Ducote, who served three weeks at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom before he was injured, remembered the disillusionment he saw in the faces of his father and uncle who served in Vietnam when they watched the North Vietnamese overrun Saigon after American forces left.

“I see that happening now,” Ducote said. He spent decades in the military and National Guard, including serving in Iraq during Desert Storm.

But retired Maj. Gen. John Basilica, former commander of the Louisiana Army National Guard’s 256th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, dismissed the notion that American efforts in Iraq were a lost cause, saying that idea is a slap in the face of those who served and gave their lives.

“This is a step backwards, but you cannot say that anything that was done was a waste or wasn’t worth what we did,” said Basilica, who spent 33 years in the military, including 20 in the Louisiana National Guard. “The soldiers that were with me believed in the mission, believed in what they were doing and what they were doing was important.”

He pointed to the removal of Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s first democratic election in January 2005 and the work troops did to try to win the proverbial “hearts and minds” of the Iraqi citizens as lasting impacts on the region.

“There was a tremendous amount of progress made during that period,” Basilica stressed.

He also praised the training Iraqi troops and police received under the American troops. The 256th helped train two Iraqi brigades.

This past week, Iraqi forces clashed with ISIS around the country’s largest oil refinery in the town of Baiji, which is roughly 140 miles north of Baghdad. Reports at the end of the week indicated the government troops had held the critical asset, one of the few glimmers of positive news. The Iraqi Army has come under harsh criticism for reports of mass desertions and running from the oncoming ISIS forces, who have made a bloody show of executions in the media and on the Internet.

Basilica said one of the factors to keep in mind when hearing reports of Iraqi military desertions is that some in the Iraqi Army are Sunni, just like most of the militants. To most Iraqis, loyalty to their country comes in fourth behind loyalty to family, tribe and sectarian affiliation, he said.

“In this priority of loyalty, it’s not surprising at this point,” he said.

Basilica said he supports the move to send advisers to the region to help secure and protect U.S. interests in the region.

“We have an interest in a peaceful Middle East,” he said.

Retired U.S. Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Letitia Signater, who served in Iraq in 2009 and 2010 as a convoy commander with the 256th, said she’s talked to Baton Rouge National Guard soldiers who are mentally preparing themselves in case they will be sent back to the region.

She said she believes the Obama administration is carefully weighing its options so that the sacrifices made by soldiers are not in vain.

Signater said if she faced the possibility of going back to Iraq, she would want to know that high-ranking officials had a clear-cut set of goals, and an entry and exit plan before sending any troops there — a statement others agreed with.

“We, as a nation, cannot afford another long war,” she said.

Argrave said if Obama is serious about helping the Iraqi government, he needs to send more than 300 troops and take the kid gloves off when dealing with the extremists.

“If they are going to go send 200 to 300 troops, that’s just a waste of time because … nothing’s going to get resolved; we’re going to have to bring in more troops than that if we’re going to do any type of resolution with everything,” he said. “If they are going to send troops back in, they have to stop sending troops in with padded gloves. They did that to us when we were there.”

Follow Ryan Broussard on Twitter, @ryanmbroussard.