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Iraq War veterans refuse to be defined by a war they didn’t lose


On Sept. 4, 2006, Patrick Murray’s Humvee rolled over a roadside bomb in Fallujah, Iraq, while he was serving with the 1st Battalion, 25th Marines.

That morning began with an explosion and ended with one.

A rumbling sound startled him awake near sunrise. He’d come to learn that was the sound of a Humvee from his platoon striking an improvised explosive device. The blast claimed the lives of two Marines and a Navy Corpsman and wounded another Marine.

The day’s mission concerned finding those who did it and recovering those lost.

“We spent the next few hours chasing down some of the folks that were responsible for it and pulling security so that the Mortuary Affairs unit could come and retrieve the Humvee and as much of their remains as they could to make sure that our friends got back,” he said.

Around dinnertime, he and his unit set off towards the main base to refuel before returning to their morning position, located across the city. They relaxed, removed their gear, and spent an hour there before setting back out.

About 10 minutes after leaving the forward operating base was when their Humvee hit a roadside bomb. For Murray, there was little to recall about the hit, he was in and out.

The next 48 hours blurred as he traveled from Fallujah to Baghdad to Balad then Germany, Texas, and finally to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Maryland.

This Jan. 25, 2003 file photo shows an US soldier lying with his rifle in front of an American flag that hangs from a Humvee during live fire exercises in the Kuwaiti desert south of Iraq. (Laura Rauch/AP)

“My right leg above the knee got blown off,” he said, adding, “September 4 was a very long day.”

All during his recovery, Murray never questioned what he and his fellow Marines were doing in Iraq. They were tasked with a job, and they did it. He got hurt in the process, but it was worth it as long as the mission was accomplished. It wasn’t until 2013 that he realized the war wasn’t what he thought.

“When [the Islamic State] came around and rolled all that area right up, that was disappointing, because it looked like all the hard work that was done was gone in a second,” he said.

The war meant many things for the thousands who served, but for Murrary and fellow Marine Advaith Thampi, the war started out as one thing and has since evolved into something much different in their minds.

Thampi, who immigrated to California with his mother as a child, watched the invasion on television, much the like rest of America.

“I was a kid in high school, I didn’t care,” he said. “It looked like ‘Call of Duty’ kind of. I was a very dumb, idiot kid in high school, and I really didn’t pay attention too much.”

His memory of the invasion was that it seemed surreal — same with the attack on 9/11.

“For the [Iraq] invasion, it felt like [I was seeing] a movie on the news — a war movie in real time,” he said. “I remember being very confused by it, fascinated by it.”

When he graduated in 2005, he knew he’d be going to Iraq or Afghanistan because that was where every Marine was going. He enlisted because his friends did.

“I joined with the intention to just do my part,” he said. “I knew that people were going to go to war, and I wanted to contribute to that endeavor.”

And he has no regrets about that piece of his military service.

“I’m very proud to have answered the call,” he said. “The Marines I served with had my back and mentored me. These are people that I met when I was 18 years old. They taught me how to be a man, how to be a Marine.”

For Murray and Thampi, who remain incredibly proud of their service in Iraq, the nuance of the war that could only be understood by the passage of time, and a dedication to public service has muddled their impressions of the policymakers of the Iraq War but not the U.S. military’s ability to deliver on its promises.

“We were asked to do a mission, and by and large, we did it, we accomplished our missions every single day — whether it was the global mission to invade Iraq and topple a regime, we did that,” Murray said. “We rotated through that country and did missions every single day, did what we were trained to do, and we did it efficiently, effectively … we did it honorably.”

Murray, who now works as the Director of National Legislative Service for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, holds fast to the idea it wasn’t the military that lost in Iraq. The blame, he believes, belongs to the politicians who couldn’t figure out a clear path.

Before the invasion of Iraq, there was support for the Global War on Terror from both sides of the aisle as well as the American public. Then-President George Bush even hit a 90 percent approval rating, the highest Gallup poll number ever of any U.S. president, after a speech about the War on Terror. When it came time to vote, 297 representatives and 77 senators said yes to invading Iraq.

And 4,506 American service members had lost their lives by the time the conflict ended in 2011.

Some major fumbles, including the lack of weapons of mass destruction and the inability to convert Iraq to democracy, have caused politicians, citing hindsight, to call the Iraq War controversial at best, and a mistake at worst. Three of the most prominent politicians who flip-flopped on their initial decision to support the Iraq War include former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former President Donald Trump, and President Joe Biden.

David L. Phillips, who served as an adviser with the U.S. Department of State during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations, believes that calling the Iraq War a mistake in hindsight harms government relations with the U.S. military.

“It shows a huge disrespect to them, and it does a disservice to U.S. Armed Forces,” he told Military Times. “Going to war in Iraq to eradicate the risk of Saddam, was not a mistake. The mistake was the way the post-war period was managed, and failures in dealing with the stabilization operation.”

For those that survived the Iraq War, the legacy is one of failure and mistakes made, not by the troops, but by decision makers who didn’t have clear goals or the ability to communicate clearly with the American public.

“It’s not that we never should have gone there, it’s that we never should have stayed there,” Murray said.

Thampi, who now works as legislative counsel and as the senior associate of government affairs at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said that since the war has ended, and he’s gotten involved in policymaking, the ignorance and patriotism he once had about the war is long gone.

Marines of the 8th Tanks Alpha company out of Fort Knox, Kentucky atop their M1A1 Abrams Tank. (Michael Macor/San Francisco Chronicle via AP)

Though at age 18 he believed he was doing his part to serve a country he loved, he now realizes that the war was always more complicated.

“I don’t get to be naive anymore,” he said. “I think the legacy that a lot of us Iraq War veterans will carry with us for a while is that public policy has significant consequences.”

Both he and Murray hope that the lesson learned in Iraq was that the military is a tool, and an effective one with clear objectives. But it was diplomacy that failed in Iraq, not U.S. troops.

As for the legacy of the Iraq War, now 20 years out from the invasion and U.S. troops pulled out of Afghanistan in 2021, Thampi is learning to make peace with the past and hoping that policymakers will do better to honor the people who fight in their future wars — regardless of the political outcomes — by not labeling failed diplomacy as a mistaken war.

“I think we’ve all accepted that we’re not going to have that New York City ticker tape parade moment — that feeling that we collectively won the war, we beat the bad guys, and the good guys won,” he said, “I don’t think that’s going to happen for these for these wars.”

Sarah Sicard is a Senior Editor with Military Times. She previously served as the Digitial Editor of Military Times and the Army Times Editor. Other work can be found at National Defense Magazine, Task & Purpose, and Defense News.

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