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Iraq Veterans: 20 Years On

It was the moment 20 years ago when President George W. Bush told the world the United States was going to war with Saddam Hussein.

“These are opening stages of what will be a broad and concerted campaign,” the 43rd president said on March 19, 2003, as US troops deployed to Iraq.

“At this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to ​​free its people and to defend the world from grave danger,” Bush told the American people at the beginning of what would turn into years of controversial conflict.

The justification for the US and UK governments was the removal of Saddam Hussein, and his purported weapons of mass destruction (WMD). But the conflict ended in 2011 with the deaths of more than 4,400 US troops – and serious question marks over the reasons why the coalition forces went to war.

“To all the men and women of the United States armed forces now in the Middle East, the peace of a troubled world and the hopes of an oppressed people now depend on you,” the Republican president said in his historic speech.

But twenty years after those words were uttered, the very men and women who shouldered this burden described by Bush have mixed feelings about being responsible for “the peace of a troubled world.”

It was a time of “great apprehension,” in the words of retired US Army Lieutenant General Mike Linnington. In 2003, he led the 101st Airborne “Screaming Eagles,” and was part of the invading force of Operation Iraqi Freedom in mid-March.

But “once we crossed the berm and began combat operations that dissipated,” he told Newsweek as the twentieth anniversary of the start of the war approached.

“My unit traversed the entire country over the first 30 days” before reaching Tal Afar, not far from Mosul, in the north-western corner of Iraq, he recalled.

The announcement of war sparked “initial shock” for Aaron Cornelius, who ended up serving three tours in Iraq over the years. But quickly he felt “obligated” to fulfill his military duty, not just to his country, but to the innocents in Iraq.

“I wanted to be able to protect them as well,” he told Newsweek. “So I was fully ready to do so, and begin the task of going across the desert.”

For many, 2003 was just the beginning – and many would follow in their footsteps. Californian Advaith Thampi, who joined the Marine Corps out of high school, shipped out just days after his 21st birthday in 2008 as a crew chief working on C-130 cargo transport aircraft.

“Someone who was going to have to go to Iraq,” he told Newsweek. “I just wanted to do my part.” Thampi joined the military in 2005, two years after the start of the Iraq War, because the images of US soldiers out in the Middle East “impacted me,” he said.

For many veterans who shipped off in the years following 2001, 9/11 was part of the origin story of the Iraq. Watching the attacks inspired anger and grief, Cornelius said, feeding a conviction to ensure that “nobody else had to endure something like that.”

The al-Qaeda terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 people as nineteen extremists hijacked several commercial airplanes, which crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Passengers on the fourth plane forced the hijackers to down the aircraft in a field in Pennsylvania.

It was the single largest loss of life from a foreign attack on US territory and took the lives of 441 first responders. It also left an indelible mark on American society, not least on the military personnel who ended up in Iraq years later.

But in 2004, the September 11 commission that was set up in the wake of 9/11 found no evidence of a “collaborative relationship” between Iraq and al-Qaeda, challenging a core belief that had circulated around the Iraq War.

The same year, President Bush said there were “numerous contacts between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda,” but not that “the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated” between the Iraqi leader and the terrorist organization.

However, while the justification for the Iraq was came under scrutiny, the mental links between 9/11 and Iraq remained for many Americans.

Born and raised in a military household, Donna Pratt had spent years in the military before 9/11, but had returned from a run of exhausting shifts at her retail job, and mistook the news footage of the planes hitting the towers for a movie.

In the days that followed, she thought about rejoining the armed forces as she passed a military recruitment center on her way to work. On the third day, “I turned around and went into the recruitment station,” she recounted.

It was the moment 20 years ago when President George W. Bush told the world the United States was going to war with Saddam Hussein.

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