Call of Duty: 4 Iraq War Veterans Tell Their Battlefield Stories a Give a Face to the War

On March 20, 2003, just before the sun rose over Baghdad, Iraq, explosions ripped through the city stillness. The bombs marked the beginning of the Iraq War — the United States’ second military campaign against the amorphous threat of terrorism since it invaded Afghanistan in 2001.

Only one percent of Americans serve in the Armed Forces, yet that small group is America’s backbone. Though war is no new or novel event, few Americans know the men and women who are defending their country.

War exists at a distance — it is an event to which we “go,” in places from which servicemembers “come back.” It comes to us as a narrative, stories that happen far from our shores, in places we know only in the context of war, against people we do not understand. We experience war secondhand — through filters of distance.

In the months since President Obama announced the end of the Iraq War and the final withdrawal of troops, the voices of the War’s veterans have been missing. Many have attempted to quantify and explain the significance of the war’s 105 months, 150,000 deaths, and battery of political and social implications. But our servicemembers have become “unidentified,” as faceless as our amorphous ideological enemies.

But these men and women exist — with names, faces, and realities. Between 2004 and 2010, ER (pseudonym), U.S. Marine Corps Corporal; Jamila Lewis, Army Sergeant; Mike Riley, U.S.M.C. Colonel (Ret.); and Justin Howell, U.S.M.C. Corporal were deployed to Iraq. Theirs are four of 170,000 stories.

Felicia Reid (FR): Why did you decide to join the Armed Forces?

Justin Howell (JH):  Before I joined, I didn’t know anything about [the military], but I always wanted to serve my country — that was a big deal [to me]. War’s been going on since the beginning of time. If it’s destined to happen, I may as well serve my country. 

Jamila Lewis (JL): I wanted to work in the medical field, but I hadn’t put much thought into the military. Honestly, I thought it was for people who couldn’t get into college, weren’t smart, or had social issues. Then I took the ASVAB (Armed Service exam) my junior year of high school and joined once I realized it was such a great opportunity. Once I got in the Army, my opinion completely changed.

Mike Riley (MR):  My dad fought in WWII and Korea, and my mother was a public servant her entire life. They instilled this sense of giving back to the country what you have received. It’s a duty. 

ER: It was a spur of the moment thing. I didn’t know much about it, I didn’t do research or anything. It looked exciting and I wanted adventure. I went with a friend who was going to join originally — he ended up not joining and I … <Laughs> 

FR: Where in Iraq were you stationed? 

MR: I was primarily in Baghdad for 13 months, from January ’09. I was the senior liaison for USMC forces, representing my two-star general at the Multinational Force and Multinational Corps level.

ER: I was deployed twice, both times for a year. The Sunni Triangle would be an approximation. In 2004, I flew directly to Ramadi where we took it over from the Army. In 2006, I was in Ramadi and Rutbah, near the Jordanian border. There’s nothing out there, just desert.

JL: I was a Specialist in the Intermediate Care Ward at the 399th Combat Support in Al Asad. I got there in March of ’07 and was there for eight months. 

JH: I was in Ramadi from January 2009 to October of that year.

FR: Our intervention in Iraq was controversial. Our reasons were disputed, and pre-emptive military action was both a legal and moral issue. What were your initial experiences in being deployed?

JL: They suddenly called me and said I had eight days to be in Iraq. I spent [that] week training for traumatic injuries and things that I would see. The first day in Al Asad, I dropped by bags off, went to the ward, and met my sergeant and commander. I hit the ground running. You’re thrown right in; you have to pick it up.

ER: I was at the [School of Infantry] in Hawaii. Suddenly, they pulled us out and I was assigned to a unit that was deploying right away. I wasn’t nervous, but I had to call home and tell everyone. My mom was pretty upset, but she got over it. My dad came home from working in New Jersey and saw me off.

MR: I was well informed about our reasons for being [in Iraq] and volunteered to go — I knew what my obligation was. It was great to work with the Iraqi Armed Forces, working to improve their military capabilities. I was proud to help another nation [work to] operate on its own.

JH: Going to Iraq, seeing how other people live, that was a big, big change. You realize how good you have it; you don’t realize [that] until you see how other people live.

FR: What were some of the most difficult aspects you faced while in Iraq?

JH: [When] you go [on patrol], it’s nerve-wracking; it’s scary. You never know what’s going to happen. I’m a religious guy, so my faith in God got me through those times. If I was going to die, I was going to die. [If that] happened, there was a reason for it.

ER: You send people out looking for IEDs. Then an IED goes off — it blows up your friend. You just pick up his pieces and continue patrolling. Do this every day, and you start going crazy. [I]t’s suicide, but you have to do it. There’s no way blow off steam and you have to entertain yourself. People start doing stupid things, they start aiming guns at people, looking at them through the scope. People have accidents, people start talking about killing people, people start acting weird as hell.

MR: Knowing people who have been killed, that’s difficult. There are [also] the times you’re away from home because you’re deployed or you’re on a mission. Everyone wants a little bit of excitement, but nobody wants to be away from home. You have to make some serious adjustments.

JL: Anybody that died, the feeling that you did everything that you could and still couldn’t help. A group of soldiers were in a convoy when an IED blew up their truck. It turned over several times. Three died, two survived. The two that survived, there was no getting them out of what they were in. The other three were their family, then, they were gone. We got a lot of soldiers that had psych issues. Being a medical unit, we were inundated with counseling toward the end.

FR: Culture clashes can be difficult to navigate even when they’re productive. In Iraq, you must have met this at every level of experience. What were some of your challenges?

JL: There was a disconnect in the way people viewed Iraqis. It’s hard not to think of an individual as a person when you see them suffering — you see them as a person. There’s a coping mechanism with Americans, they choose not to see “the enemy” as human. I’ve heard soldiers talk about [Iraqis and Muslims] as a whole like, “They’re animals, they deserve to die.” They talk about Darwinism. I’m Muslim and found myself having to educate people. But people hear what they want to hear and believe what they want to believe. Our ward took everyone, soldiers, civilians — insurgents too. As a nurse, I deal with people even if they don’t like me. 

ER: Being deployed is frustrating. They expect a lot out of you. Sometimes something really bad happened and you’d talk about it in a group for a few minutes — but then, every single day, there were so many bad things happening. It was what life had become. You do what you’re told; you can complain or try to have a good attitude about it. Some people do well, some people can’t handle it. I’ve seen both. 

JH: Sometimes it was frustrating [working with the Iraqis]. When you teach, you try to approach it their way. With Iraqis, the biggest [obstacle] was the language. You had to have patience enough to teach them without getting upset. How you treat them goes a long way. Many Iraqis have never encountered an American before; you have to recognize that. 

FR: In the context of this war, you must have intensely experienced moments of humanity. Did any instance have a particular impact on you?

ER: In Iraq, it’s you versus everyone else, but you [don’t] serve alone. You eat, sleep, live with [other soldiers] 24/7. You become best friends. You get so close with everyone, you hear somebody cough in a different room and you know who’s coughing.

JL: The first patient I had was a little Iraqi girl, Neba. She was at home when she heard something outside. She opened the door and a stray bullet hit her. She was evacuated to our hospital where we removed about a foot of her intestines. Neba had the best outlook given the circumstances — never cried or had a bad attitude. I remember her saying, “Tell my mom I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have opened the door” — she apologized for getting shot. Anything I was going through could never have been as bad as how she suffered. She changed my perspectives.

MR: Where we operated, there were several canals. Once in awhile, I’d help teach Iraqi children how to fish. You don’t read about [these things], the great activities service members are engaged in. There were service members who were parents and maybe felt that if they couldn’t be with their kids they could help another child. 

JH: The best thing was the people I served with. There are times when it gets difficult dealing with everybody. People come from different areas and do different things. After you get [over your differences] — and you have to — everything else is pretty good. You talk about [your fears and your frustrations]. In the military, you can help out people with their problems, they come talk to you and stuff like that. You have people that need you.

JL:  I had a Marine who came in with his battle buddy. An insurgent had filled a truck filled with explosives and rocks and drove the truck at them. The truck exploded [and shrapnel] punched open his cheek, but he came walking in like nothing was wrong. His battle buddy had severe damage and he was more concerned with him than [with] his face. While I was cleaning him he goes, “Oh, can I get your number?” They’re still human, still guys. Later, they were trying to send him to Germany for facial surgery. He didn’t want to go and hid in the bathroom. We found him and I said, “You’re a Marine and you’re hiding because you don’t want to get on the plane? He said, “I’ll be fine, just send me back to my unit.”

FR: When you returned home, even if you redeployed several times, was it difficult to adjust to civilian life? 

MR: I’ve known folks who’ve had difficulty returning to civilian life. The camaraderie that you build with your brothers and sisters in arms is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced anywhere else. There are a lot of DoD services to help folks adjust, and the VA is doing a tremendous job ensuring that veterans are cared for and looked after.

JL: At one point, I flew home for my grandmother’s funeral. It was so quiet at home. I didn’t have my M16 with me, I felt naked. I was used to carrying it – it was part of me, part of my uniform. When I went home, I was happy to be there, but I had trouble sleeping. In Al Asad, I heard mortar attacks and things going off on a regular basis. Even now, I’ll hear a loud noise or a bang and I’ll jump. I never used to do that before. I think I’ve adjusted well, I don’t have any major issues, but I know PTSD is very real for many soldiers.

ER: When I got out in 2007, it was pretty touch and go. I got home and I didn’t have any friends. I got into some trouble right away. I had signed up for classes at community college, but I started drinking real heavy — got a DUI. I’m on the G.I. Bill now, but it’s tough going to college when you’re 28. Nobody knows what you did, they’re never going to understand. But I guess [that’s] kind of irrelevant. You just have to get your life going, find your niche and work your ass off.

JH: I was excited to come home, but when you get there, it takes awhile to adjust. I was a gunner and I’d be driving around all day in Iraq, [so] back home, it was just awkward. I felt like something was going to happen any moment, even with the [better] control you have over things. Civilian life can be tough — it’s not as organized as the military. In the military you have to do something because you’re supposed to. Maybe you’ll have some attitude in it, but you still do it. 

FR: Given the literal and figurative distance that Americans have from war, there is a natural disconnect. Stories of war are filtered reflections, and often soldiers are either glamorized or demonized. How do you feel about perspectives and depictions of military service? 

JH: After being there, I feel [my experience] was different from how media portrayed it. I mean, now that I’ve been in the Marine Corps, I can’t stand media. Media and news, they find bad things, that’s what sells. Nobody wants to see how it really is. There’s [bad and good].

MR: This is America, so you’re going to hear people ask, “How do you guys do this, these large-scale disputes?” “People are killed because they’re registering opposition to what our government wants to do. How do you [justify] that?” You don’t read about the good things we are accomplishing. You read about how many civilians were killed, this is what makes the news, that gets people excited, but it causes mixed feelings. 

ER: After being there, I see how fake media is. It glamorizes the military more than shows it realistically. But I don’t think that hurts our image. As long as people are thinking about their veterans, it’s better than sweeping them to the side and forgetting.

FR: There have been reports of veterans encounter negative responses to their service and our military presences. Some have even taken measures to hide their service. Have you ever met with such criticism?

ER: That’s unfortunate. In the past, just to get into politics you had to have been in the military. I guess that comes from after [the World Wars] where everybody had to serve. With Vietnam, military service became unpopular. People avoided it, went to college instead. Now people don’t know what it’s like to serve — maybe their fathers shunned it. It would be a mistake not to tell people you were in the military. If somebody asks me about it, I’ll say it. Being a Marine has definitely been to my benefit. 

JL:  I’ve had a positive reaction to my service. It’s something I’m proud of. When I first came back, and people would find out, they’d congratulate me and thank me. Once, I met a man who mentioned that he was in Vietnam. I felt terrible because I knew he didn’t get the same welcome home that I got. People weren’t lined up thanking him.

MR:  People are grateful for my service. [In the States] there are a lot of people that feel we’re German storm troopers, that all we want to do is kill people. That hurts, that’s not what we do. Everyone has a criticism, but that’s the way people are. One percent of Americans feel that being in the military is okay; I think most are grateful they’ve served that time. There’s a camaraderie that comes from living in an environment that most don’t understand.

JH: It’s frustrating to hear about negative reactions [to the military]. You don’t hate them for feeling the way they do, but it’s hard to understand why [they feel that way]. You may not believe in war, but that’s irrelevant. At least you can believe in the people who are serving, [the] human beings out there doing something for you. Whether you understand it, being out there, that’s not in vain.