As we near the 10-year anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq, Yahoo News asked U.S. servicemen and women who served to share their perspectives and discuss how it changed them. Here's one story.
FIRST PERSON | It took a bit to sink in. Nothing can really prepare you mentally for being in a war zone.
Until my first convoy security mission -- when I returned to the FOB (forward operating base) with my Humvee windows full of bullet holes -- it seemed pretty harmless. Well, not so much anymore.
As my missions went on and the IEDs started hitting, it got real pretty fast. It was 2008, and I was deployed to Mosul, a large northern city in Iraq. I was SPC Coots in a convoy security company from the Indiana Army National Guard. We guarded convoys of food, supplies, mail, water, fuel -- anything that needed transported, really.
Spending a lot of time outside the FOB let me see the real Iraq. The impoverished people and their terrible living conditions really made me see the sense of entitlement that I (along with most Americans) had. It made me realize how good we have it, even when we think how bad our economy is or how "tough" we have it. For instance, we have doors on our houses. Which shows we're already doing better than they are.
I watched our military police train Iraqis for the Iraqi army and police force. I watched the checkpoints on the roads that used to be manned by our Army become controlled by Iraqi army. Their ability to police their own country greatly increased in just the short time I was there.
I listened to our Kurdish interpreter explain how things had been in the many years leading up to the toppling of Saddam's regime, and how happy they were to see him gone, even though it meant many difficult years of rebuilding. I listened to him painfully share how his entire family was executed just for being Kurds by Saddam's troops and how he was happy to assist Americans who freed the people from his tyranny.
It was a time when I really felt I was making a difference and doing a good thing for others.
Coming home and returning to civilian life was a challenge, to say the least. It's hard to go from serving your country in a war zone to making $11.75 an hour in a Vincennes, Ind., auto parts store. It's hard to get used to not grabbing a rifle and pulling security every time you're startled by a loud noise. It's hard to understand why everything seems so different, even when you realize the concussions and head traumas caused by explosions has altered the way your brain works. It's hard to go in a restaurant or bar and not sit with your back in a corner and consider everyone a possible enemy.
Four years since Iraq, after leaving the Guard as Sgt. Coots, I'm a 32-year-old tractor mechanic at a John Deere dealership, still in Vincennes. I'm engaged to a wonderful, supportive, patient woman that is not scared of dealing with my PTSD episodes and issues. My parents were very loving and supportive when I could only pull 20 hours a week and my depression kept me hiding in my house on my off days.
Finally, after many V.A. Medical Center appointments and many V.A. Medical Center prescriptions, I'm starting to get a better handle on normal life. Some days it's still really difficult to put all the bad things in the past, and that's when I'm glad to have a supportive family.
Unfortunately it seems public opinion just wants us out of Iraq, whether the Iraqis are ready to govern themselves. This unconventional war has soured American civilians on extended periods of fighting and military actions in other countries. I'm afraid the insurgents will continue to live and operate with no consequences as long as the Iraqi police and army are not ready to maintain order. I hate thinking so many American soldiers were killed and wounded to leave the job unfinished. I very much hope I'm proven wrong about this.
I have to say, though, after all this, it's one experience I wouldn't trade for anything in the world. I went to war and came home. Wow. Sometimes when I reminisce it blows my mind. Ironic.