Local veterans recall war-time experience
On Tuesday and Wednesday, more American soldiers were killed during skirmishes in Iraq, pushing the total number of U.S. casualties to more than 1,000. The number includes not only the fatalities suffered by soldiers, but civilians as well.
Those that have been to Iraq over recent months say there is no conventional way to look at the enemy. They say fatalities are just as likely to occur via suicide bombing or sniper fire as they are through standard warfare. When you live in a war zone, veterans say, there is no safe area and every face not recognizable is a potential enemy.
"They're not fighting fair and that's the biggest challenge," said Tony Rider, a sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves, who spent seven months in the Middle East in 2003 and a tour before that in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm.
"We're sensitive, but we have to treat everyone as a potential threat."
Curtis Hogue, a sergeant in the Army's 129th Transportation Company, said there was a 50 percent chance harm could occur during his unit's jaunts through Iraq.
"We went through all the bad towns," Hogue said. "We were in harm's way every time we were in Iraq."
The veterans say it's difficult to explain war unless you've been there. It's difficult for Americans at home to comprehend a building or town standing one day and seeing it smashed to pieces the next.
Without the first-hand background, it's near impossible to accurately convey to civilians the danger soldiers face while serving their country.
Below are excerpts of the experiences from three local veterans who have served overseas during Operation Iraqi Freedom and have since returned someplace they are grateful to be -- home.Time to bring them home
For Josh McCoy, a 1999 graduate of Bonner Springs High School, the military's mission in the Middle East was simple: remove Iraqi boss Saddam Hussein from power and find the weapons of mass destruction. Although it appears the later may never occur, U.S. forces have successfully liberated the Iraqi people from their brutal dictator.
McCoy said because of that, he feels it's time for the U.S. to pull stakes from the region.
"We took out Saddam and now it's time to send (the troops) home," said McCoy, who for 13 months helped run convoys of heavy equipment and machinery back and forth between Kuwait and Baghdad. He added that troops in Iraq are being "used for the wrong reasons" and should be brought home to safeguard America from a more severe threat to national security -- terrorism.
Today, McCoy is a student at the University of Kansas, studying communications. However, for more than a year he served in the Army's 129th Transportation Company. He said his wartime experience makes him more appreciative of the freedoms found at home.
"I think I learned to appreciate everything at home because it's so desolate over there," McCoy said. "I'm so glad to be home. It was chaos. I'm so glad our country isn't in the shape Iraq is. They have nothing."
McCoy was originally slated to serve four months in the Middle East. The short stretch turned into more than a year.
"It was a lot uglier than I thought and it lasted way too long," he said.
His belief that troops should be brought home may put McCoy in the minority among veterans and he understands those views may ruffle the feathers of some. However, he makes clear his distinction between opposing current military operations and his support for the troops, a notion McCoy shaped during his year of service.
McCoy said opposition and protests to the war infuriated him at first, but now that he's had time to consider and digest his experiences, he understands why someone would hold that particular line of thinking. But, to fully understand the complexities of U.S. involvement in Iraq, it's best to have been there.
"Being over there has swayed my opinion," McCoy said. "It's just been drug out way too long."
Looking for an ambush
Next month will mark the one-year anniversary of Tony Rider's return home from a seven-month tour in Iraq.
Rider, the owner of Mr. Goodcents Subs and Pastas in Bonner Springs and Kansas City, Kan., and a community figure in Bonner Springs, Basehor and Shawnee, said the transition of going from a desert war zone to the creature comforts of home wasn't always an easy adjustment. Rider, a platoon sergeant in his Marine unit, helped supply military installations and secure convoys into Iraq.
"The biggest challenge was realizing I was home," he said. "I had to keep telling myself I was in America. I had to tell myself it's OK.
"Driving was hard. I kept looking for an ambush."
Rider, who's been a vocal supporter of America's efforts in the Middle East, said he doesn't mind opposition to the war as long as opponents are educated on the situation. "We live in a place we can do that (speak our minds)," he said. "We have freedom."
Rider re-enlisted for military service shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He said he did so because he wanted to help protect the safety of his family, friends and loved ones. Rider and his wife, Traci, have two daughters and are expecting another child very shortly.
"Would you rather fight these terrorists here or over there?" he said. "For me, it's easy. I believe what we're doing is right. I could care less about weapons of mass destruction."
There's a possibility Rider could be sent back to the Middle East. It's a prospect he craves as a patriot but dreads as a father and husband.
"As a patriot, I would go back in a heart beat," he said. "As a father, that makes it more difficult."
Half want help, half don't
Like McCoy, Curtis Hogue, a 1998 graduate of Basehor-Linwood High School, also served for 13 months in the 129th Transportation Company, running missions between Kuwait and throughout Iraq. Also like McCoy, Hogue thought his stint in the Middle East wouldn't last as long as it did.
"We caught Saddam and we thought everything might be over," he said.
McCoy and Hogue's unit didn't arrive back in Kansas until May. Hogue, now a student at Kirkwood Community College in Iowa, said the world he lives in now couldn't be more dissimilar from the one he resided in before coming home.
"It was an experience," Hogue said. "It was something not everybody (goes through). You get to see different ways of life. When you look back, you're glad you did it, but every day wasn't fun."
Hogue said he found the Iraqi people split between those grateful to American soldiers for liberating their country, and those who wanted U.S. forces off their holy land immediately.
"A lot of the Iraqi's were begging for food," he said. "They didn't have anything. (Others) were glad they were freed but now they wanted us gone.
"To me, it looked like it was split. Half wanted help, half didn't want anything to do with us."
Hogue, who is planning to transfer to the University of Iowa soon to study civil engineering, has one year of inactive duty remaining on his enlistment.
He said there is a chance he could be sent back to Iraq if his turn in the deployment rotation comes before the war ends.
How long the war will last is a question Hogue, like the American people, want to know.
Hogue's recollection of a conversation between himself and an Iraqi citizen may surmise the plight of citizen soldiers like him across the country.
"I had an Iraqi ask me flat out 'when are (U.S. forces) going home,'" Hogue said. "I told him I don't think anyone knows."