Commentary by Col. Charles J. Westgate III, 386th Expeditionary Maintenance Group commander
1/4/2008 – SOUTHWEST ASIA (AFPN) — We all had many different reasons for joining the military, but since Sept. 11, I know we all joined or re-enlisted knowing that we are at war with the terrorists.
But, why are we still fighting in Iraq and putting our lives in jeopardy?
To shed some light on this question, I want to provide some of my personal thoughts and avoid the politics of the issue. I will not debate whether Saddam had weapons of mass destruction at the beginning of the Operation Iraqi Freedom, nor will I argue whether Saddam killed innocent men, women and children who were citizens of his own country. Those are all questions for the politicians, historians and senior leaders of our military and government to answer. I’d like to focus on the current situation and the people aspects of the issue.
Regardless of who was right or wrong, the fact remains that at 10:15 Eastern Standard Time on March 19, 2003, the United States and coalition forces began OIF and moved troops into Iraq. By April 7, the forces had captured Baghdad and Saddam’s presidential palace. Iraqis were celebrating in the streets and overjoyed to be free and out from under Saddam’s rule. Since this time, there have been many factors that have changed the environment in Iraq and caused a major rise in terrorist activities across the country. But, we cannot change the past. We can only try to change the future.
If you had an opportunity to meet some Iraqis, you would probably find them to be very much like you and me. Yes, they speak a different language and practice a different religion than most of us. But, if you look a little closer, you will find many of our words come from Arabic and some of our major religions have the same roots and similar beliefs.
You also may find some of their customs to be different from ours. But again, at the core of their customs you will find a belief in good values and taking care of family. They enjoy watching TV, playing sports and browsing the Internet, and parents want their children to grow up and have a good education, just like us. So, in the end, the majority of Iraqi people are just looking for a happy and peaceful life, and they are not terrorists.
Since the insurgents’ activity has escalated in Iraq, daily life has become quite uncomfortable. The most obvious issue, of course, is the improvised explosive devices in the neighborhoods that are blowing up and killing innocent people.
Receiving consistent electrical power also has been a challenge because the insurgents often targeted the power and oil infrastructure. Imagine trying to sleep at night when it is 120 degrees outside and you have no air conditioning. Keeping food cold and fresh is also tough when you are only getting a few hours of electricity each day.
But, in the midst of all this chaos, the Iraqis still go about their business trying to improve their lives, complete their educations, get married and raise a family.
The members of the Iraqi military and police force make a huge sacrifice by just joining the service. As soon as they put on their uniforms, they are a target for the terrorists. Many Iraqi military members have sent their families into hiding or have developed “cover stories” to help keep their family safe. In some cases an Iraqi service member may not even know where his family is located and not communicate with them for many months, wondering if they are alive and safe. Numerous Iraqi servicemembers also have been killed after returning from training in the United States.
Yet Iraqis continue to join and serve. In fact, the Iraqi air force recently graduated their second class of officers from their newly established air force academy. These men and women continue to join and serve because they want to have peace in their country and want a better life for their children.
As the fight against the terrorists has continued, the Iraqis and coalition forces have been training and fighting, side by side. A large number of the coalition forces in Iraq are there as trainers and advisors. They have been working, eating, laughing and fighting along side one another.
There are many stories of Iraqis coming to rescue or protect their American counterparts. One Iraqi officer did not hesitate to place himself in harm’s way to protect an American Airman when his aircraft was forced to land in a very dangerous area. This Iraqi was able to divert any hostile attentions towards himself and away from the American until they could get to safety.
And yes, Iraqis and Americans have even died together. Aug. 11, 2005, an Iraqi citizen was buried at Arlington Cemetery, a first in the history of Arlington. He was an Iraqi Air Force pilot who was killed with American Airmen. They died together fighting for the same cause — peace and freedom — and now they are buried together. This Iraqi is the same officer who protected the American Airman only a few months prior. The young Iraqi pilot was married and left behind two young children. Like most Americans, his family was sad for the loss, but very proud of what he was fighting for.
There are many other stories like this that you don’t see on TV or read in the newspaper. Every day, Americans and Iraqis are working together, helping one another, helping the local civilians, building schools, providing medical support, etc. It is important that people understand there is more going on than just the terrorists’ acts of violence and killing.
We constantly hear the stories of death and destruction, but rarely hear the stories of success and friendship. More and more, these successes are continuing to accumulate. The number of terrorist acts have dramatically decreased as more Iraqis are trained and as the responsibility for security transitions to their forces.
So, why are we in Iraq? I can’t answer for you, but I know why I am honored to be here and away from my family, yet again. It is because we are fighting for good people who just want the same peace and happiness that we tend to easily take for granted. We’ve started this mission and I’d like to see us finish.