[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
MARGARET WARNER: Army Staff Sgt. Gregg Bumgardner served two tours in Iraq. First, in the initial invasion in 2003, and again from August 2004 to this past April. Army National Guard Sgt. Benjamin Flanders served with an infantry company in Iraq from March 2004 to February of this year. He’s now active in “Operation Truth,” a group that advocates on behalf of U.S. soldiers. Army National Guard Specialist Patrick Resta was a combat medic in Iraq from March to November of last year. He’s now active in the group Iraq Veterans Against the War. And Marine Reserve Sgt. Sam White fought in Fallujah, Ramadi and elsewhere from August 2004 until three months ago.
When the president gave his speech this week, he said he understood the sacrifice that the four of you have made and that other men and women in uniform have made, but that it’s worth it. Sgt. Flanders, when you left Iraq this spring, did you feel it was worth it?
SGT. BENJAMIN FLANDERS: I think it was worth it in the sense that when I think about the enemy we were confronting. You know, this is an enemy that was targeting civilians. It was targeting their own security force, as well as political leaders within a democratic process. And without any — a viable police force, a security force for Iraq to have, I felt it was our responsibility to stay until we could stand that back up, reconstitute it. So it was worth fighting for people that couldn’t fight for their selves, definitely.
MARGARET WARNER: Sgt. Bumgardner, do you think the sacrifice is worth it?
FORMER STAFF SGT. GREGG BUMGARDNER: I think we are at the point now where we are seeing — we are at the point of diminishing returns. I think the soldiers and Marines and airmen that are serving over there, I think they’re doing a great job and they’re throwing a lot of their heart into it. But I’m wondering what we’re getting back as a nation out of our deployment of 140,000 troops to that theater of operations. I personally don’t see a lot of progress that’s being made on the ground there.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you, Specialist Resta, just on the overall question. I mean, you left. You were a medic. You left in last November. When you left, did you feel the sacrifice was worth it, “I made an important contribution?”
SPECIALIST PATRICK RESTA: No, I didn’t. During the time I spent there, the attacks got worse and the security situation degenerated. I think it was obvious to all of us that were there. And just to kind of echo what he said, I think that two years into this war this situation hasn’t improved. And even the secretary of defense and the joint chiefs of staff have said so in numerous press conferences.
MARGARET WARNER: And Sgt. White, how do you feel? Do you feel the sacrifice is worth it? Did you feel that way about yourself personally when you left this spring?
SGT. SAM WHITE: Absolutely, I did. And what I did is I looked at the town next to us, the town that we were protecting, the town that we took antibiotics to the sick children, food, candy on a regular basis in the town. And they saw us, my squad, personally diffuse a daisy chain mine. And I don’t know if you know what a daisy chain is, but the few that don’t know, it’s several mines linked to each other next — they’re connected by wires, and when one goes off, the rest of them go off. And they saw us diffuse this right next to their soccer field.
So, I mean, on a broad spectrum, I can see where they would say that the progress isn’t being made. But I think in a smaller, more precise level, if you really look at it, you’re going to see some progress being made.
MARGARET WARNER: Let’s talk about strategy and tactics, and I’d like you all to talk from your own personal experience, what you actually saw.
And Gregg Bumgardner, beginning with you, because you were in the active army — staff sergeant — the president seemed to be saying this week that essentially the U.S. strategy and tactics are the right ones, and we just have to stick it out. Did it appear to you that way?
FMR. STAFF SGT. GREGG BUMGARDNER: I supported a whole brigade there in Ramadi and the Ramadi-Fallujah corridor. There were soldiers –
MARGARET WARNER: And this was doing psychological operations?
FMR. STAFF SGT. GREGG BUMGARDNER: And this was doing, yeah, psychological operations. I was a detachment sergeant of a detachment that supported an entire brigade, which is about 4,500 people or so. And by and large, we were going out every day interacting with the people, trying to get to know them and trying to convince them to take a certain course of action or a certain type of behavior. And in that contact with the Iraqi people I saw soldiers every day making a difference in their individual lives.
But in the bigger picture, I didn’t feel that we were making much of a difference on the ground. I get the feeling from each Iraqi that I talk to that they didn’t really want us there, had no interest in our continued presence there. If we were going to stay, they were interested in us providing electricity and providing water and providing generators, anything that they could really kind of get for free.
Other than that, they really would just keep asking us when we were going to leave because Ramadi, being a mostly Sunni area, they had a vested interest in seeing us remove ourselves from the situation so that they could kind of go ahead and take control of their own destiny.
MARGARET WARNER: Sam White, you served also in the Sunni Triangle, but you had a different experience. To you, did it appear that the U.S. approach was working and it’s just a matter of time?
SGT. SAM WHITE: What I saw, the strategy that they gave us was they said the commander’s intent, this is what we want you to do, this is where we want you to get to, and it’s up to you to decide how you’re going to do it.
FMR. STAFF SGT. GREGG BUMGARDNER: I think that’s great from a man-on-the-street kind of point of view. I agree. But in the larger picture, I think we’re talking about efficacy of the mission as a whole. And while I think each individual soldier and their small company-sized elements and battalion elements, they’re doing a great job. But when you look at Iraq and the al-Anbar Province as a whole, it’s a mess. But what are the standards for that? Where do we need to be to call ourselves successful as an army, as a Marine Corps, as a military force?
MARGARET WARNER: All right, let me get Patrick Resta in here. And Patrick Resta, you were a combat medic with the Army National Guard. How did all of this look from your end in terms of the U.S. troops’ tactics and, for that matter, equipment? Did it appear to you that the U.S. approach was making progress?
SPECIALIST PATRICK RESTA: No, it didn’t. I was told I was going there to help the Iraqi people. And then once I got there, I found out that I could not treat them unless they were about to die and the injury had been caused either directly or indirectly by U.S. forces, such as an IED going off or a car bomb going off or somebody being shot at a checkpoint, or something like that. So I don’t think that’s really conducive to getting people on your side.
There was one night in particular where a local Iraqi walked to the gate of our camp after he had been beaten up pretty severely and pistol-whipped, and basically the people in town told him that if he came back to town they would kill him if they saw him in town again. And he came up to our gate begging for help. I went out there, you know, to dress his wounds and take care of him.
And he was begging me to save his life and he was just, you know, turned away and told, you know, “Go to the Iraqi police and they’ll help you,” which, you know, it’s after nightfall and the police aren’t functioning, especially not in my area. So it was that kind of callous disregard that really set in what’s really going on over there for me.
MARGARET WARNER: What was your view, Ben Flanders, as an Army National Guard sergeant, in terms of the strategy and the tactics?
SGT. BENJAMIN FLANDERS: Let’s just sort of give a different perspective from what Patrick was saying, is that our company would help out anybody that we came across. If we came up on traffic accidents, even if it wasn’t caused by U.S. military personnel, medics would jump out, we would address them.
But we’d also — and we have to direct the Iraqi people towards their own infrastructure, and hopefully they can get going as far as reconstituting the hospitals and police and the army, and things like that. We responded to bombings that happened in markets. Some of our soldiers were cited for valor, for actually pulling out innocent Iraqis from suicide bombs that had gone off in the marketplace.
So it was — we were there to help out as much as we could. And from my experience, you’re driving down the road and we’re not shooting at anybody. Nobody is our target. We are the target. And in some nights, it was kind of rewarding to see. “Okay, so these are the bad guys, and rather than targeting innocent civilians, why not target me? I’m the one with the gun. I’m the one with the armor. You can shoot at me first.” So I really appreciated our role being over there, in that sort of, like, the bad guys, here we are.
MARGARET WARNER: I want to ask all of you this. What is your assessment — what is your assessment about the insurgency? How effective was it?
SGT. BENJAMIN FLANDERS: It was very effective, and the thing they have us beat at is the human intelligence side. Maybe you can speak more to this, but they can use cruel and unusual methods in order to extract information from people that we couldn’t use. There is sort of this, like, torture — that word is getting thrown around — well, the true torture is when you behead innocent civilians and throw them on the side of the road, which we came upon more than once. That’s how they get their message across.
So they were very effective at holding the Iraqi people in oppression, the same as what Saddam did, except now we’ve got a different enemy and different people holding the Iraqi people down.
MARGARET WARNER: And Gregg Bumgardner, you also speak Arabic, so you probably –
FMR. STAFF SGT. GREGG BUMGARDNER, U.S. Army: A little.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, probably more than the rest of us, so it probably gave you particular insight into the insurgency and how it was regarded by the rest of the population and how effective it was and why.
FMR. STAFF SGT. GREGG BUMGARDNER: I think that their insurgency is very effective, and I think especially through their use of intimidation. We would go into a particular area in a convoy or in a patrol or on a raid, and we would see people on the street who we would approach and talk — talk to, but they would shy away. They’d take a step back. They’d begin looking at other people in the crowd, and we knew that there were insurgents in the crowd we were talking to, influencing them right in front of us.
And they’re not armed. They’re not wearing a uniform that says, “I’m an insurgent,” so it’s very difficult to determine who that person is. And then once you do, can you arrest them? They haven’t done anything.
First off, it’s very frustrating for the common soldier, very, very frustrating for him, because he knows the bad guys are there. He knows that they’re influencing this group of people that they’re trying to do some work with. And there’s nothing you can do about it.
MARGARET WARNER: Sam, I see you nodding as Gregg was talking.
SGT. SAM WHITE: Yeah, I agree with a lot of it. And one of the biggest things is the anonymity. We would have people that…they’d go into a crowd, and they’d come out of a crowd. They’d shoot at us and they go back into the crowd.
And you don’t know who has a gun. You don’t know who had a gun. You don’t know this or that. So that is one of the things that they have going with them.
But what I thought was very frustrating was the fact that, in one instance, one of my Marines…one of the Marines that was in my unit, he was killed by an IED and as his vehicle…the IED exploded on it, the vehicle in the rear saw these two people on the side of the road and then these two people running off. So they automatically reacted and went over there and detained these people.
But the only way that they could really tell that that is the person that did it is they took them back to the site where they actually exploded the IED and they matched his footprints up, they matched his footprints up.
And so it would frustrate us in the fact that if they were…we would think if they were so into their country, if they really wanted us to get out of here, the way they would fight and then run away, fight and run away, you know, it was just very frustrating for us.
MARGARET WARNER: How much interaction did you, Patrick Resta, as a medic have with the insurgency? What was your view of how effective they were?
SPECIALIST PATRICK RESTA, Army National Guard: I went on patrols in the towns surrounding my village pretty regularly. It was clear to me that at least some people had infiltrated Iraqi security forces.
I was teaching a first aid class, and I remember introducing myself, and then I asked, you know, who in the class had had any kind of first aid training before. And it was a class of about 30, and about 20 of them raised their hands. And when I asked where, they said they were in Saddam’s security forces and in his military.
So it was clear to me that no one had done any background checks on any of these individuals. And then to go into the towns and have roadside bombs planted regularly — obviously, people are seeing who’s digging the holes, wiring these things, burying them. And our camp attacked regularly from inside the towns, having mortars fired at us, and, you know, no one would help us out or tell us who was behind the attacks even though it was obvious to all of us that they knew who was doing it.
MARGARET WARNER: How much interaction did you have with everyday Iraqi people? And I know you don’t speak Arabic, but to what degree could you gauge how they really felt about the U.S.? First of all coming in and toppling Saddam, and then the U.S. staying on?
SPECIALIST PATRICK RESTA: I think obviously no one is going to complain about Saddam being gone; obviously he was an evil person. But I think the war was sold to them as kind of drive-through toppling of Saddam, and obviously that’s not what happened. My unit got there replacing a unit that had been there for a year and all the locals knew we were going to be there for a year also, and they saw this as kind of an ongoing thing that would go on for several years, and that’s not what they want.
MARGARET WARNER: Gregg Bumgardner, what was your — I assume you talked to a lot of Iraqi citizens, given your language ability.
FMR. STAFF SGT. GREGG BUMGARDNER: There was a small portion of Ramadi, a place called Rimim, and it had a lot of teachers, a lot of more educated people, a little more diverse — some Kurds, some Shia, but mostly Sunni area — and these people, especially the teachers, you would go into their homes and, you know, we’d be searching for weapons or something like that, and sometimes they’d offer us tea and be very hospitable, just like most Arab people are.
And they would say, “You must stay. Please tell President Bush, you know, tell your commanders you have to stay because you’re the only thing that’s keeping us from these former regime elements who are pretty much in control of the area.” And then other people on the street would openly shout vulgarities in English — a lot of real hostile anti-American, anti-Semitic graffiti downtown.
So it runs the gamut even in a place like Ramadi. But by and large, my feeling from the people in Ramadi were they didn’t want us there, and the people that did were afraid to say it in the open because, again, because of that intimidation campaign that they have.
MARGARET WARNER: Ben Flanders, what was your experience on that score?
SGT. BENJAMIN FLANDERS: Well, I didn’t have that much interaction with the Iraqi people. But I think the most interesting thing was the interpreter that lived inside of our company compound.
And one time I talked to him about, “Well, what about this occupation period?” And he became somewhat angry with that term “occupation.” He’s like, “What are you guys taking? All you do is give.” I mean, he sees the headlines, he sees how much money we’re sending into Iraq, and he doesn’t see it as us robbing them so that we can take the land or we can take the oil and things like that. So he was very appreciative of our presence there.
FMR. STAFF SGT. GREGG BUMGARDNER: If I may interrupt, I think people like that, at least in the area I was in, were definitely in the minority. Most of the people that we kind of interacted with were very displeased because when we came into Ramadi and set up, we took all the best facilities, we took both of the palaces that were in that area, we had already shut down the local factory, the only glass factory in Ramadi, the only real economic engine in the whole city, and they saw us — the people I interacted with saw us very much as takers instead of givers.
They saw us as being responsible for the water being off, the electricity being off, the — in fact, they kind of thought we were punishing them for something because they would hear a car bomb go off, and then the electricity would go off immediately afterwards and they would kind of associate the two. And in reality, we had no power over that.
MARGARET WARNER: Sam White, what was your experience?
SGT. SAM WHITE: Anywhere you go you’re going to have people — for instance, some people want George Bush to be president, some people want someone else to be president — wherever you go there’s going to people that like you, there’s going to be people that hate you. And I had — I saw both of them.
And I think that we should get out in the open — at least I’m going to get out in the open — anyone who thinks that three years from now or two years from now we’re just going to up and we’re just going to take every piece of machinery that we have and just leave the country of Iraq and let them deal with it themselves, I think they’re delusional. I mean, we have a presence in Germany for the last 50 years. But I saw both — I saw both people. There’s people there that want us to be there and there was people there that did not want us to be there.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me just ask this. This is fascinating, but there are a couple of things we want to cover, and one is the training of Iraqi troops. And, again, talk from your own experience. And I’ll start with you, Sam White. Why, sitting here in the United States, does it appear it’s taking so long to train enough Iraqi soldiers to really be able to take on the job themselves and then the U.S. can leave, as the president said this week?
SGT. SAM WHITE: There are some people that I would see in the dining facility, and I would get this vibe from them that they were just there to have a paycheck, you know. And then there was some people, maybe some of the older or the younger, or just some people that you could tell in their eyes that they really wanted to get along with us, they really wanted to learn what we had to teach them.
And one of our colonels gave us this story one time and said, “Well, we had forty people that we trained and then on graduation day one of them showed up.” And then he said, “But that one person also was threatened with his life. His children’s lives were threatened, and he still made it, he still came.” One of the people, a translator, his name was Louie, that was in our unit — and he worked with us the entire eight months that we were over there, or the entire time that I was over there — he had to have just a fake name because they actually had an award or reward for him.
But he came to work, and whenever we let him go back on vacation to see his wife, he had to go in an anonymous state. We had to drop him off literally on the side of the highway and have some taxi pick him up so he could go in there and not have to worry about anyone seeing him have anything to do with the military and then going to his house and leading the insurgents back to his house. So it’s going to be a long time, not a long time, but it’s not going to be overnight, this process. It’s not going to be overnight.
FMR. STAFF SGT. GREGG BUMGARDNER: I don’t know how long it’s going to take, but I can say that it’s going to take a lot longer than I think that we have out on the table, at least in the press here.
MARGARET WARNER: What makes you think that from your own experience?
FMR. STAFF SGT. GREGG BUMGARDNER: From my own experience, I saw a lot of desertions, especially after they were directly attacked. We had a car bombing and 12 — I think it was 12 or 14 Iraqi soldiers lost their lives — and then the next day we had a lot of soldiers who just left in the middle of the night.
As far as the quality of the training, I think we’re doing the best we can to bring these soldiers to the level that they need to be, but some are unwilling to go and others just are just poor-quality troops. But then there are some very professional soldiers in the Iraqi military, very, very professional soldiers, soldiers who have seen combat before against Iran in the 1980s, saw combat against us in both wars and were consummate professional soldiers, and they’re going to be the backbone of their military.
But I found them to be few and far between because most of the professional soldiers, in my opinion, are either working for the insurgents or they’re staying home.
MARGARET WARNER: Ben Flanders, how do you see the training is going of Iraqi troops?
SGT. BENJAMIN FLANDERS: The training is going pretty slow. But I think we should be protecting them more. But I think you’d hear somebody else say, “Well, if we let them in, if we start letting them into our compounds and things like, that you’ll get the Mosul attack that killed 24 people, you get the Samara attack that happened last March that killed 15 people, you can’t really trust them.”
We would pass by checkpoints of Iraqi police or the Iraqi army and just kind of give them a wave. And, you know, if something went down like a firefight we helped them out. But what’s their incentive if they see bombings, if they see that there’s nobody protecting them and that these insurgents are better equipped, they’re better trained, who’s protecting them? They’re more likely to say, “Well, forget it. I think I’ll just go home.”
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that the president spoke to this this week about whether we need more U.S. troops there? Sam White, I’ll begin with you. Do you think we need more U.S. forces?
SGT. SAM WHITE: I think ideally we would want more U.S. troops, simply because there is always people saying we need more cops out on the street or we need more security guards or we need more teachers. It would definitely make it a lot faster if we had more people there filling in the gaps that the other people aren’t there to be able to do.
MARGARET WARNER: How do you see that?
SPECIALIST PATRICK RESTA: I don’t think more U.S. troops are the answer. I think that will just make the situation worse. If you look at what these people behind the attacks are saying, they’re attacking U.S. forces and those who collaborate with them. I think the only way the situation in Iraq is going to get a lot better is for the Iraqi people to have faith in their government; that it’s a legitimate government and is acting independently.
MARGARET WARNER: Gregg Bumgardner, do you think the U.S. needs more troops there?
FMR. STAFF SGT. GREGG BUMGARDNER: I think — yeah, I think we do. I think just from my experience — I mean, I could have used another, you know, 20 or 30 soldiers at a minimum to do the job that I was trying to do with just 12 or 13 guys.
MARGARET WARNER: What would more troops give the U.S. force there?
FMR. STAFF SGT. GREGG BUMGARDNER: The thing is that without more troops, we’re not getting the footprint on the ground that we need to interact with every person that we need to because the differences we’re making are individual differences in individual lives, and that’s great, but –
MARGARET WARNER: There’s not enough of them.
FMR. STAFF SGT. GREGG BUMGARDNER: It’s just not enough.
MARGARET WARNER: The president this week asked for the American public to have patience and to stick it out. And my question to each of you is, one, when you were in Iraq, did you feel you had the American public behind you? Just from your friends and family, do you sense in any way that the American public is losing heart for this effort? Patrick?
SPECIALIST PATRICK RESTA: I’m not, you know, sure what the American public behind me really means. I was sent there to do a job and I did it, and I think that’s the way most of the other servicemen operate while they’re in the country.
MARGARET WARNER: Is your family, now that you’re back, supportive of what you did?
SPECIALIST PATRICK RESTA: No, they were not supportive of the war before I went, so no.
MARGARET WARNER: Sam White, what was your experience? One, did you feel the public was behind you when you were there? And two, what are you hearing now that you are home?
SGT. SAM WHITE: Well, without a doubt, I felt the support, without a doubt. I was getting cards from kids in elementary school in Oregon, and I was getting — we had so much, at one point we had so much food that people sent us that we had to actually either try to give it away or throw it away because we were going places.
And now that I’ve come back, as far as, like, do my parents support it, well, between myself, my mother, my father, my brother and sister, we have over 45 years of military service. So my mom told me, “Don’t do it, Sam, don’t do it,” because she didn’t want me to go over there and get killed. But she was proud of me when I did do it and when I came back, so…
MARGARET WARNER: Gregg, your experience?
FMR. STAFF SGT. GREGG BUMGARDNER: I think we all had the same experience. I think that the American people, my family especially, were very supportive of the soldier and the Marine on the ground, and I really appreciate that.
But I think, looking at my family and looking at the people I’m talking to, there’s less and less support for the war. And people say something that kind of confuses me. They say, “Thank you for your service.” Then they also say, “And thank you for defending our country.” And I walk away kind of scratching my head going, “Well, I know there’s terrorism in Iraq, but when I was there the first time, there was no terrorism.”
MARGARET WARNER: So no one is saying to you, “Gee, was the — is the war a good idea?”
FMR. STAFF SGT. GREGG BUMGARDNER: I think people are, and certainly when I talk to people we talk about that, is the war a good idea, is it not a good idea? I think people are questioning the war. And I think that that’s really good. I think it’s really good to have a dialogue that we’re — that’s happening, although not at the higher levels I’d like to see it, but I think the dialogue is very good.
MARGARET WARNER: And Ben Flanders, your experience on both those points.
SGT. BENJAMIN FLANDERS: There’s obviously family support for somebody going overseas and fulfilling their duty, but I heard a lot from my family, you know, “I support you guys, but I didn’t believe in the invasion, I didn’t believe that that was a good enough reason to go to war.”
You hear that sort of dichotomy, which is good, divorcing their own beliefs and justifications for the war and then looking at the actual people that are on the receiving end, executing that mission or that foreign policy.
So it was a mixed bag. I mean, well, it was always unequivocally supporting me and my wife and my family, but there was also like, “I don’t support the war,” or “I didn’t support the invasion.” And now people, I think, are just feeling generally frustrated and confused about what they are seeing from news reports.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. That was really terrific, and I really thank you all, and I thank you for your service.