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How the Iraq War Changed a Generation of Veterans

December 26, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
After the withdrawal of the last U.S. combat troops, four Iraq war veterans share their experiences and reflect on the personal impact of the nine-year war. Jeffrey Brown leads the conversation.
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MARGARET WARNER: Finally tonight, a look back at the Iraq war now that all U.S. combat troops have been withdrawn.

Last week, Jeffrey Brown had this conversation with four American war veterans about their experiences and conclusions.

JEFFREY BROWN: More than a million men and women served in Iraq and the armed forces over the past nine years in a war that will have lasting impact on them and on the nation.

We talk about that with four veterans. Army Staff Sgt. Gregg Bumgardner was a psychological operations specialist. He left the military after two tours in Iraq. Maj. P.K. Ewing is in the Marine Corps Reserves and currently on active duty recovering from war-related injuries. He served as a civil affairs team leader in Anbar Province. Sgt. Kelly Dougherty of the Colorado Army National Guard served as a military policewoman helping guard supply convoys in Iraq. After leaving the Army, she helped found Iraq Veterans Against the War. And Marine Corps Lt. Wade Zirkle did two tours in Iraq, including the first battle of Fallujah. He left the Marines in 2005 and founded Vets for Freedom, an advocacy group that promoted the surge.

And I want to welcome all of you to the NewsHour.

I’d like to start with your own experience first.

Gregg Bumgardner, start with you.

How did serving in Iraq affect you, change you?

STAFF SGT. GREGG BUMGARDNER (RET.), U.S. Army: I think the first thing that comes to mind is, before we actually went across the border in 2003, we were all pulled together into a hangar in an air base in Kuwait.

And we were given a talk by a military chaplain. And one of the things that he said was, we’re about to embark on something that was going to be the most important thing that we were going to do in our lives.

And I think, for the most part, that that holds true for me. It’s — other than, you know, the birth of my daughter and marrying my wife, it is the most important thing that I’ve done in my life. It’s shaped me. It’s changed me in very deep and very personal ways.

I think that Iraq is something that I live with every day. And it continues to shape how I do things even to this day, even, you know, five, six years later.

JEFFREY BROWN: P.K. Ewing, what about for you? How did it change you, affect you?

MAJ. P.K. EWING, U.S. Marine Corps: I couldn’t agree more.

It became a defining moment in my life. There is me previous to Iraq and me post-Iraq. Aside from the injuries that I’m still dealing with, my personal outlook and my whole — my whole persona is different. What Gregg said about this being the most important thing we might do in our lives, to date, that was true.

I know that I had an impact on the lives of several Iraqis and on the soldiers and Marines, and they had a significant impact on me. So I would agree 100 percent.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was, of course, a very controversial war.

And, Kelly Dougherty, as we said, your experience led you to become an advocate against it. Tell us — tell us about that.

SGT. KELLY DOUGHERTY (RET.), Iraq Veterans Against the War: Right.

Well, going over to Iraq initially, I was not supportive of the invasion, but I thought maybe we would be able to do some good. So I tried to look on the bright side of things. And my experience definitely did transform me. It showed me the reality of military invasion and occupation and what effect that has in people’s lives.

And then, returning home, you know, Iraq is something — like everyone has been saying, it’s a life-transforming event to take part in a war and an occupation. And while the actual deployment was very — has been very central in my life, what I have done post that, my work with other veterans in trying to advocate for an end to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the support of veterans’ rights, has been totally life-changing.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Wade Zirkle, you came to a very different conclusion about the war after serving there. Link up your own experience to what — what your view of the war became.

LT. WADE ZIRKLE (RET.), Vets for Freedom: Sure, Jeffrey.

I think — I served early in the war, in 2003, for the invasion, and then in Fallujah in 2004. And I and my fellow Marines, most of them, felt like the war wasn’t being prosecuted the way it should. We weren’t doing the things we were supposed to be doing. We didn’t have enough troops. We weren’t employing the right tactics and the right strategy.

So we came home and we really advocated to increase the troop levels and to fight this war to win it. We also wanted the war to end, but we wanted it to end in honor and also in success for U.S. forces.

JEFFREY BROWN: And can I start with you on that kind of big question that the nation asks, is sort of what — was it worth it? Was it worth it from — based on your experience?

LT. WADE ZIRKLE: I do.

And I think military members and veterans, we’re biased because we want it to be worth it. We’ve invested a lot of time and effort and periods of our lives towards a mission. So I think there’s a natural proclivity to want the mission to be worthwhile.

So, for me, it was worth it. And I think the history books will really judge it in the long run, was this the right strategic move to make for the U.S. in 2003? But I think, if you look where Iraq is now, where the Iraqi people are now, and where they were under a lifetime of Saddam Hussein’s oppression, I think Iraq is better off, I think the Middle East is better off, and I think the world is better off.

JEFFREY BROWN: Gregg Bumgardner, is this an easy answer — easy question for you, if I ask the was-it-worth-it question?

STAFF SGT. GREGG BUMGARDNER: It’s a little bit more difficult for me to answer that question.

I have a very complex feeling about it. I certainly want and I certainly believe that what we have done in Iraq, I’m hoping that the blood and treasure that we have spent on this is going to be worth it.

And, you know, today’s and even recent events, with bombings in Baghdad immediately after we leave, I certainly am pessimistic about that. However, I am so proud of the work that my fellow soldiers, Marines and airmen did in Iraq.

And I think that Iraq right now has the best chance it’s ever had or it’s ever going to get. It really depends on what the Iraqis want to do with it now. But, again, I’m very pessimistic about Iraq’s future.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Kelly Dougherty, you chime in here or pick up on what you started with your work after leaving the service.

SGT. KELLY DOUGHERTY: Right.

Well, I was actually on the same program about six years ago in 2005, and the question was the same. Was it worth it or is it worth it? And I would say the same thing I said then, which is absolutely not.

I think the question itself is a little bit of a strange question, because the reasons for us invading Iraq were supposedly weapons of mass destruction, which I believe were totally lies. Basically, we went into Iraq based on lies. And so many people have been killed, injured, traumatized. There’s been so much damage done, that we cannot ever really quantify the amount of damage that has been done.

So, I think, for someone like myself, it has definitely not been worth it. It may have been worth it for someone like an oil executive or a defense contractor, but I think, for the majority of the actual human beings affected by the invasion and occupation, it has been a huge mistake.

JEFFREY BROWN: P.K. Ewing, you were talking about your own feeling like you had helped people there.

MAJ. P.K. EWING: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you look at the bigger picture, what do you see?

MAJ. P.K. EWING: Well, I have — I have a couple of viewpoints on it.

From the bigger picture, there is increased stability in the region. There are — there is a working democratic government there now. And the people there are experiencing a level of freedom they hadn’t ever in their history experienced. And from that standpoint, I think it was worth it.

And that dovetails off of my own personal experience. My family on my father’s side is from Guatemala. And that country has suffered a lot of unrest, a lot of rule under military juntas and corruption and things of the same nature that we removed in Iraq.

I can remember times when — I can remember seeing on TV before I deployed the throngs of people that were happy to see Saddam be removed from power. And then, when I was there in 2004-2005, I remember specifically, before the battle for Fallujah, the people asking us whenever we went out on patrols, the people asking us when were we going to get rid of the insurgents, because we want to live, we want freedom.

I heard that a lot. And that was my own personal experience. But that shapes my viewpoint, in that it absolutely was worth it.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the question for all of you about now and in this country? After all these years, we have thousands of soldiers and Marines who, with this experience that you have all had — and they’re — now come home.

First of all, was it hard to come home?

Wade Zirkle, I’ll start with you. Was it hard for you personally to come back to real life, so to speak?

LT. WADE ZIRKLE: It was and it wasn’t.

I was wounded on my last tour and was evacuated. So I spent about six weeks in the hospital recuperating before I was released into civilian society to finish rehabilitation. So, I had some time to decompress. So, I think I had a little bit of different experience than your average soldier or Marine who one week is in Iraq fighting insurgents and the next week is in a barroom dealing with civilians. I had a decompression time that most people didn’t.

But I think there is — it’s a hard adjustment. And this has been talked about a lot. And I think my other fellow veterans probably feel this way that are on the program this evening. A very, very small fraction of this country is invested or is sacrificed in this war. It’s less than 1 percent of the overall population.

And there’s a real disconnect between those who have fought these wars and those — the rest of America, who has been largely disconnected and disassociated from it. And I think there’s — within the veterans community, there’s a sense that the rest of society doesn’t really understand or doesn’t appreciate as deeply what has happened in these years since 9/11.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yeah, that’s a very important subject. Let’s continue on that.

Gregg Bumgardner, do you sense that disconnection between the veterans who served and the rest of us?

STAFF SGT. GREGG BUMGARDNER: I wholeheartedly agree with what was just said.

There’s 2.5 million Americans that have fought in Iraq and in Afghanistan. And that’s less than 1 percent of the population. America has much less skin in the game. And I know people have said that before, but it really holds true when a veteran comes home and realizes that they are in a very, very tiny minority.

You know, the only other veterans that I really had to talk to in my area of New Jersey were Vietnam veterans. And they were very helpful to me. They got me through a really tough time. But, still, there’s a generation gap between my father’s generation, which fought in Vietnam, and my generation, which fought here.

The good news about that is, though, is that my generation is the Facebook generation. So I’m in contact with a lot of my — you know, my Army buddies that I fought with in the al-Anbar Province.

But, you know, the flip side of the coin is, is that there’s nobody here on my right and left here in southern New Jersey and the Philadelphia area that I know who had this same or similar experience that I did. That makes it a little difficult.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, you had a hard — you had a hard time coming back?

STAFF SGT. GREGG BUMGARDNER: I think so. I think so.

I had a — I felt that I had a difficult time adjusting from the al-Anbar Province of 2005 to peacetime southern New Jersey. They were two completely different environments.

JEFFREY BROWN: P.K. Ewing, I saw you nodding at some point when you were listening to that.

MAJ. P.K. EWING: Absolutely.

I am a reservist. And when I first came back, I had, of course, my injuries to deal with. And they were addressed, but not completely, because some of the aftereffects didn’t manifest right away.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have injuries in the neck and back.

MAJ. P.K. EWING: In my upper spine and my shoulder and my back. And I’ve had part of my neck fused. I’m going to have the rest fused in January.

But the — as a reservist, you come back and the whole unit disperses. And you’re literally left alone. And your family and your friends can’t relate to you. And the camaraderie that you found in your unit, it’s missing because everybody has road trip back home and is going through their own thing sort of in isolation. So it was very difficult to come back.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what do you think about this question of shared sacrifice, or lack of it, the disconnect that we were talking about between those who served and the rest of the country?

MAJ. P.K. EWING: I would agree there is a great deal of that.

I think it’s evidenced by the fact that, oftentimes, the only acknowledgment I get is somebody handing me a handshake and saying, “Thank you for your service.”

And I personally feel, if you are really grateful, go do something for a vet. Go volunteer for a charity. Go start one. Go help in some capacity. So, I do feel that disconnect.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kelly Dougherty, what do you — do you feel that disconnect as well? And is it — do you feel it’s a problem for us as a nation?

SGT. KELLY DOUGHERTY: Yes, and I think all of my fellow veterans really hit the nail on the head with, this is the common experience of veterans returning, is that disconnect, feeling like people, one, don’t care about what’s happening and are so disconnected and uninformed about what’s happening in Iraq and in Afghanistan and in the military as a whole.

And, so, when we talk about the war being over, really, there’s a whole other war that veterans are facing when they return to get care for post-traumatic stress disorder, military sexual trauma, traumatic brain injury, and other physical and mental injuries that they suffer. And it’s a huge problem.

I mean, there is a huge suicide epidemic among veterans and active-duty service members. And, you know, they’re coming back to one of the hardest economies in recent history. And there’s a lot of problems that veterans are trying to deal with coming back from a war zone.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me just ask you all — and I will ask for a brief answer — starting you with Kelly Dougherty, would you do it again?

SGT. KELLY DOUGHERTY: Well, I don’t know. It’s not really a brief answer. I wouldn’t necessarily change things, because I feel like my experience, I have been able to lead it into something positive. But I wish that we had never invaded Iraq in the first place.

JEFFREY BROWN: Wade Zirkle, would you do it again?

LT. WADE ZIRKLE: Yes, sir.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s a short answer.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Gregg Bumgardner?

STAFF SGT. GREGG BUMGARDNER: I would have to say no. I would tend to echo Kelly’s feelings on that. I just — not again, no. I was offered a third tour. And I just — it just wasn’t in the cards for me. And I wouldn’t want to do it.

JEFFREY BROWN: And P.K. Ewing?

MAJ. P.K. EWING: I’m in lockstep with my fellow Marine.

Wade, I will be right there with you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Alright, P.K. Ewing — P.K. Ewing, Kelly Dougherty, Wade Zirkle, and Gregg Bumgardner, thank you all very much for joining us.

LT. WADE ZIRKLE: Thank you.

SGT. KELLY DOUGHERTY: Thank you.

STAFF SGT. GREGG BUMGARDNER: Thank you.

MAJ. P.K. EWING: Thanks.