"War Ends, A Soldier at a Time"
Op-Ed, Boston Globe
December 26, 2011
Author: Juliette Kayyem, Lecturer in Public Policy
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security
After two tours in Iraq, guardsman from New Bedford is one of last to leave
BRINGING HOME the massive US presence in Iraq was a logistical feat as daunting as the build-up that preceded the 2003 invasion. At its peak in 2007, the United States had 505 Iraqi bases. By 2009, when President Obama began to anticipate a permanent withdrawal, 146,000 troops were there. The Massachusetts Army National Guard's Battery E, 101st Field Artillery Regiment was one of the last to exit, part of a small contingent that considered Iraq home through most of this year. They didn't turn out the lights in Baghdad, but they stayed until nearly the end.
How a war is fought is a dramatic narrative brought home by fearless reporters. The seemingly less heroic process of a drawdown is not as interesting. It's mundane and technical. Over a short period, the troops, planes, trucks, post offices, canteens — all the little cities we built — needed to come home. There was no final battle, not even the clarity of a frenzied escape on a helicopter. This war ended one soldier at a time.
Josh Baker, now 31, was a kid in New Bedford when he joined the Guard in 1998. He has spent 10 years in and out of war, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq with Battery E, a unit that has been under nearly constant deployment since 2002. It included Sergeant Michael Kelley of Scituate, who was killed in action in 2005 in Afghanistan.
For some part of this decade, I worked with the National Guard as the state's undersecretary for homeland security. I did not know Baker then, but we finally met at a Dunkin' Donuts in Easton. Though the interview had been authorized by his bosses, Baker was quick to deflect any focus on himself. Often, he made clear that his story was just one of a million of those who sacrificed and served.
He simply had a "job to do, and I did it." It's a familiar refrain of those who serve. It isn't that geopolitical strategy and Middle Eastern politics are irrelevant to those who go to war; it's just that, in the midst of the fighting, thinking about those matters is a luxury.
Baker's two deployments were, from his account, safer than the perils facing combat troops. His last job in Iraq was essentially to track the logistics and personnel of the 118-person unit. Still, there were constant incoming rounds at the Balad base, 40 miles from Baghdad. Otherwise, Balad was comfortable, with housing units, a gym, coffee shop, and Internet cafe. Compared to Baker's first deployment in 2002 to the austere Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, this was more like home.
Coming home was like no other military mission for Battery E. Everyone knew they were returning, but when exactly was unclear. The military was pulling "everything in," Baker told me, but the return date kept getting moved. Because Baker's unit was assigned to protect other troops, they were likely to be there until December.
Not quite. Battery E was home right before Thanksgiving. They spent a month — an entire month — at Fort Bliss, Texas, decompressing, doing paperwork, getting mental evaluations, and learning to successfully reintegrate back to civilian life. For many, war haunts them.
The state's Guard leadership met the unit in Texas to make sure "they are good to go," Baker said. "Good to go" is a vague standard, but maybe it's enough. Between active-duty and Guard members, the state has lost 143 servicemen and women since 9/11 who considered Massachusetts home.
Texas was like a purgatory as the troops waited to come home. They made it back by the holidays, a small gift in an otherwise ruthless year. As a new year approaches, Baker is looking forward to "getting ready for my life, buying a house, enrolling in school, and starting a family with my girlfriend." Planning for a future may be a luxury of adulthood he hasn't had so far.
He will be returning to the Guard to be part of its domestic efforts. He did not watch pictures of the last tanks coming back over the border from Iraq. He was watching the Patriots game.
Was everything worth it? This war ended with an inconclusive resolution, and a stability in Iraq that already seems in jeopardy. Baker didn't want to answer. It's not his job; he's just grateful that everyone from Battery E came home. But when talking about the year ahead, he offered, "I don't have to worry about people losing their lives in Iraq because we are not there anymore."
That's all. That's how it ends.
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