Sioux Falls American Legion honors 20th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War

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The Sioux Falls American Legion Post 15 recognized the 20th anniversary of the war in Iraq by honoring veterans who served in the war as well as other Global War on Terror veterans Tuesday night, during its monthly social.

Monday marked two decades since the United States invaded Iraq to oust dictator Saddam Hussein, and under the false assumption that the country was stock piling weapons of mass destruction.

"It's a generational multigenerational war," said Courtney Steffen, the Brookings County Veteran's Service officer. "We had dads and sons, mothers and daughters who served in the same locations. It's wild."

Steffen served in the Air Force and was stationed in Iraq in 2006 as part of a mission with the Army, training Iraqi soliders.

Courtney Steffen speaks at a veterans social on Tuesday, March 21, 2023, at the Military Heritage Alliance in Sioux Falls.
Courtney Steffen speaks at a veterans social on Tuesday, March 21, 2023, at the Military Heritage Alliance in Sioux Falls.

"I was on an Iraqi base, was thoroughly immersed in their culture. It was actually a very unique and interesting experience," she said.

Between the invasion in March 2003, under the leadership of then-President George W. Bush, and the end of U.S. occupation in Iraq in December 2011, by then-President Barack Obama, more than 4,600 American troops died in the war.

It was Steffen's idea to honor GWOT veterans when she learned about the social event two weeks ago.

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At home in the United States, returning veterans from Iraq and GWOT military missions in the Middle East, including the war in Afghanistan, have faced high rates of suicide and continuously fought for more support for physical wounds suffered during their service.

According to a 2021 study published by Brown University, an estimated 30,000 active duty and veterans of the post 9/11 wars have died by suicide.

Steffen's is passionate about veterans's mental health. She said while it was difficult for her to adjust to being back in civilian life, by having links to the American Legion Post, she knew she could find a space to talk about what she endured in Iraq, even if that space is with a veteran from another war like Vietnam.

"We can relate on a lot of different levels, and that's where having somebody who's experienced similar kind of things across the table, that's kind of the magic of these organizations," she said. "It's a unique bond, and truly, it ties people together despite generations."

Brian Mehnert was in the Army infantry from 1997 to 2017 and had three deployments to Iraq, including during the 2003 invasion when he was 24.

Brian Mehnert listesns as Courtney Steffen speaks on Tuesday, March 21, 2023, at the Military Heritage Alliance in Sioux Falls.
Brian Mehnert listesns as Courtney Steffen speaks on Tuesday, March 21, 2023, at the Military Heritage Alliance in Sioux Falls.

"It's hard to believe it's been 20 years," he said. "I guess you reflect back on the people who (you) served with, the people that we lost and then just the casualties of war."

He also remembered the Iraqi children and families who became victims of the war.

Between 275,000 and 306,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in direct war-related violence between the start of the war and October 2019, according to Brown University. That estimation is probably an undercount, because of inaccurate reporting by the Iraqi government and the U.S.-led coalition.

"This is a reminder to reflect on the people I know that we've lost and make sure they're not forgotten," Mehnert said.

This article originally appeared on Sioux Falls Argus Leader: Sioux Falls American Legion honors 20th anniversary of Iraq War