Sam Gross recalls seeing pictures while serving in Afghanistan that looked like the movie “Grease.”
When those pictures were taken, Afghanistan was a modern, Western-style country with women in skirts and classic cars on the streets.
“When I got there, it was a bunch of mud huts and people raising a few goats for milk and that’s it. Even the capital had rolling blackouts all the time,” he said.
The Biden Administration announced this week the war in Afghanistan is ending and all American troops will be out by the end of August. In Iraq, the wind-down will be slightly less dramatic, with most of the 2,500 troops remaining but combat operations finishing by the end of the year.
The News-Review asked local veterans and current service members who served in those countries about their reactions to the news.
Gross served 14 years in the Army, rising to the rank of captain. After growing up a poor kid in Roseburg, joining the Army gave him a chance to change his stars, he said.
He started as an infantry private and then went to school and returned as an officer. In 2006, he volunteered for the tour in Afghanistan.
He was excited about the mission of the provincial reconstruction team.
As part of that team, he was stationed at the main military base in Afghanistan and took care of logistics, supplies, armament and everything else they needed to complete their mission.
The American military worked hard to put a good face on the Afghan government, he said. Afghan contractors were used for projects like building wells.
Now, with American soldiers pulling out, the Taliban is expected to take over many of the places where they had been pushed out.
Gross said he’s saddened by the recent news that American troops are leaving.
“I don’t believe that anybody had a plan for long-term success there, and so at this point they were probably just delaying the inevitable, but it doesn’t make it any less sad,” Gross said.
Manny Annear served 36 years in the military, starting in the Navy and then later serving in the Naval Reserve and then finally joining the Oregon Army National Guard.
Annear said the thing he has the most pride in is his service in Iraq as an infantry weapons squad leader on his first tour there, and later as an infantry platoon sergeant first class.
He was stationed in downtown Baghdad. On his first night there, his group was ambushed while crossing a bridge into the city.
“I noticed as we went up over the bridge that the city was full of lights to our left and everything to our right was dark,” he said.
He was just commenting on that to his platoon sergeant when bombs went off and suddenly thousands of rounds were being fired at them from their right.
“We responded. We dropped buildings on people,” he said.
The strange thing was, hardly any bullets hit their vehicles. They counted four bullet hits and a rocket-propelled grenade, which caused their first casualty. It wasn’t a death, but a team member lost his leg.
There would be more combat ahead for Annear, including fighting in the Battle of Najaf.
When he returned from Iraq, he served as a casualty assistance officer, taking care of the children and widows and parents who had lost family members to the war.
The recent news about an end to combat operations reminds him of those losses.
“All of it’s disappointing because of the sacrifices we’ve made, the blood and treasure as they say,” he said.
What America did was depose a brutal dictator in Iraq, he said.
“We took a bad guy out, and for the time that we have been there and occupied that area, it is not the training ground that it was for bad people,” he said.
But once we leave, he thinks it will become that training ground again.
“I think in Afghanistan, once we pull out, the Taliban will take over again. It will be right back to where it was before we went in there,” he said.
He also said he mourns and is angry at the loss of many Iraqi translators who helped the Americans. They and their families were killed because they assisted us.
Dan Loomis served in the Army for 23 years, first as an enlisted soldier performing maintenance work on aircraft and then as a warrant officer managing aircraft maintenance.
He served in Iraq in 2004 and later, in 2013, went to Afghanistan for 13 days as a civilian working for the Department of Defense investigating aircraft crashes.
He said the pullout from Iraq over many years has been like slowly pulling off a bandage.
“We could stay there 150 years and when we pulled out, we’d still feel like there was stuff undone,” he said.
He recalled during his time in Iraq meeting a man named Wahleed, who had been an engineer for former dictator Saddam Hussein. Wahleed’s wife had said something insulting about Hussein and the Republican Guard publicly executed her, their children and threw Wahleed in a prison cell with walls painted red for five years.
America put an end to that regime and gave the Iraqis the opportunity to rule in a more benevolent way, Loomis said.
Loomis said there are two sides to the story of the recent announcement about winding down in Iraq.
“The amount of work and effort that service members put into helping Iraq and Afghanistan, every veteran would say we don’t want to see that all undone,” he said.
However, he said, “there has to be a time when that country that you’ve helped while you served overseas has to take on those responsibilities for themselves.”
The last time Eric Riley was deployed to Iraq, back in 2009-2010, a drawdown was starting, so it’s been something that’s ebbed and flowed, he observed.
It’s all part of the plan, he said, even if he doesn’t get to hear the strategic reason behind it.
“I like having closure, and if it’s time for us to be out of Iraq, then I feel good about it,” he said.
Riley was the highest-ranking officer The News-Review spoke to for this story. He’s a brigadier general in the Oregon Army National Guard and serving as the assistant adjutant general.
Riley has been an infantry officer for 28 years since he graduated from college.
He was deployed twice to Iraq.
The first time was in 2004-2005 as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was a captain then, commanding an infantry rifle company that patrolled the streets in downtown eastern Baghdad.
“It was a shooting war still at that point,” he said.
On his second trip, in 2009-2010, he had risen to the rank of major and was an operations officer for an infantry battalion whose task was escorting large convoys carrying supplies up and down the country. It was a less exciting, quieter assignment, but it still “was not a safe vacation destination, for sure,” he said.
Riley said he hopes we have left the infrastructure and systems in place for Iraq to continue forward.
But he was positive about the recent news that combat operations were ending.
“To me personally it feels good. Our job is done there,” he said.
Dawnetta Loomis, Dan Loomis’s wife, served three tours in Iraq. She had a 24-year career in the army, from 1985 to 2009, and was a human resource manager.
She served in Operation Desert Storm in 1990-1991. She served also in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003-2004 and then again from 2006-2008.
It was her job to make sure the right soldiers were in the right job at the right time. She made sure the unit had what they needed to complete their mission, that the soldiers had their paychecks, awards and promotions, and that casualties were verified and the right people were notified.
Dawnetta Loomis said as long as the country is stable, the recent announcements about scaling back make sense.
“They have a different way of living and I believe we’ve gone over there, we’ve done what we were supposed to do and we should let them go back to their way of life,” she said.
She believes the American public has already moved on and believes it’s over.
“I just think that not another American life should be lost,” she said.
John McDonald served in the Army during Operation Desert Storm back in 1991. He was an intelligence analyst in the 1st Infantry Division.
“Honestly all I did, it was so fast, the ground war was over in four days. I didn’t have a lot to do beyond trying to keep up with the tanks that were just rolling the Iraqi Army,” he said.
He didn’t have the chance to do much analysis. He just hoped he’d stay alive.
These days, McDonald serves as a judge advocate for the Oregon Army National Guard.
This week’s news is difficult, McDonald said, because everyone wants to see a solution to the problems that brought Americans to Iraq in the first place.
On the other hand, he said, he applauds the decision and feels it’s long overdue.
The plan to pull troops out of Afghanistan and end combat operations in Iraq had bipartisan support, he said, and the Biden Administration’s plans are the fulfillment of a Trump Administration promise.
“I’m sad because I don’t think we accomplished what we set out to do, but bringing home our service members is long past due,” he said.
He wishes Afghanistan and Iraq were stable, and a bit more peaceful than when the Americans arrived.
Rusty Lininger’s reaction was this: “It’s about damn time, honestly.”
Lininger joined the Army in 1998 and reenlisted after the Sept. 11, 2001 attack. He served as active duty infantry and was sent to Iraq twice, first from 2003-2005 and then again in 2006-2007. He recalled seeing what he called the military industrial complex at work while there.
“At O dark stupid in the morning you work out in one of the major supply routes, there’s miles and miles of oil trucks escorted by Halliburton and whatever contractor (former President George W.) Bush and (former Vice President Dick) Cheney had in Iraq and it’s like oh yeah, that’s why we’re here,” he said.
He said he doesn’t regret his time in the Army, but he does think America could spend its dollars and lives in a better direction than pouring them into Iraq and he’s glad to see it come to an end.
“It’s been a garbage dump for feudal warfare since the beginning of time over there,” he said.
He said America could have been out of Afghanistan a long time ago, too.
“Trump wanted us, he was going to have everybody out, wheels up and back home. I think March was the original plan but our current administration sees fit to extend things out ‘til September,” he said.
It’s better late than never, he said.