I crossed the border from Kuwait into Iraq with the main invasion force at 11:30 at night on March 21, 2003. I had turned 25 years old that week, and I was in command an infantry platoon in the 101st Airborne Division. It was my second combat tour.
I remember everything leading up to the border crossing: The nauseating, helpless fear caused by the distant thuds of incoming Iraqi al Samoud missiles as we left Camp New Jersey, the eerie buzz of outgoing Tomahawk cruise missiles flying overhead as we sat in the dark, not far from the border, and, finally, two days of sitting on a blinding, hardpan, desert floor, only spitting distance from Iraq, digging "ranger graves" and taking pre-invasion photos.
Hours before we crossed the border, I had a conversation with a Lieutenant Colonel that I later wrote about:
"You know," he said, "everybody keeps talking about how all the Iraqis are gonna surrender, and how this is just gonna be a walk in the park. But I'm not so sure. People don't like being invaded. They don't like being bombed, and they don't like tanks in their streets--even if they do live under a dictator. That's just reality. I think there's always gonna be that guy who's out to fight for his country no matter what. He doesn't care about the politics. He just knows that we're invading his country. And he knows he's gonna do everything in his power to stop us."
I thought about it and just said, "Sir, I hope you're wrong."
That night we crossed the border with little fanfare.
Six years later, we all know how that turned out. In the time since, sometimes I've felt like the narrator in Fight Club who sums up the combat experience like this:
Yes, these are bruises from fighting. Yes, I'm comfortable with that. I am enlightened.
Other times I relate more to Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse Five when he mentions "how useless the Dresden part of my memory has been." Either way, it's been the defining event in my life, and it's shaped everything I've done since--from my writing to my work in politics at VoteVets.
I spent nearly one year fighting the war in Iraq, and I've spent most of the last five years fighting to end it. And finally, this year, for the first time I feel like we've made progress. And when I say that, it's not simply because President Obama has decided that we'll be out in 16 months. Honestly, I feel more vindicated by his decision this week to engage an "enemy" of the United States--Iran--through diplomacy--and not with missiles, bombs, and an invading Army. That, I think, is the real victory of the last six years. Because it ensures that the United States is now back on the right path of not starting wars unless they're absolutely necessary and we've exhausted every other option first. It means that we're far less likely to ever make the same mistake again.
It's been a tough few years for all of us who've been touched in one way or another by the war in Iraq, and while it isn't over yet, I think there's finally cause for cautious optimism.