Fallujah Veterans Ask Hard Questions About Their Sacrifices

A U.S. Army soldier guards the remains of a burned-out military ammunition truck after it was attacked in Fallujah, Iraq, on Oct. 19, 2003. Fallujah and its surrounds were the site of some of the bloodiest fighting for U.S. troops during the Iraq war. i i

hide captionA U.S. Army soldier guards the remains of a burned-out military ammunition truck after it was attacked in Fallujah, Iraq, on Oct. 19, 2003. Fallujah and its surrounds were the site of some of the bloodiest fighting for U.S. troops during the Iraq war.

Khalid Mohammed/AP
A U.S. Army soldier guards the remains of a burned-out military ammunition truck after it was attacked in Fallujah, Iraq, on Oct. 19, 2003. Fallujah and its surrounds were the site of some of the bloodiest fighting for U.S. troops during the Iraq war.

A U.S. Army soldier guards the remains of a burned-out military ammunition truck after it was attacked in Fallujah, Iraq, on Oct. 19, 2003. Fallujah and its surrounds were the site of some of the bloodiest fighting for U.S. troops during the Iraq war.

Khalid Mohammed/AP

Will Walsh got to know the Iraqi city of Fallujah while running across its bridges in the middle of the night, under fire, looking for IEDs. That was nearly 10 years ago.

Last weekend, the former Army captain heard the news that Fallujah had fallen, again, to al-Qaida-linked groups.

"The question I have to ask myself is was that effort in vain?" he says now. "Was all the work that we did, all the sacrifice that we had, what is the benefit?"

Will Walsh fought in Fallujah in 2004. He says he has thought about it every day for the past 10 years. i i

hide captionWill Walsh fought in Fallujah in 2004. He says he has thought about it every day for the past 10 years.

Quil Lawrence/NPR
Will Walsh fought in Fallujah in 2004. He says he has thought about it every day for the past 10 years.

Will Walsh fought in Fallujah in 2004. He says he has thought about it every day for the past 10 years.

Quil Lawrence/NPR

Walsh's platoon lost one man in Fallujah. Hundreds of Americans were killed or wounded there. It was 2004. Al-Qaida had taken control of the city, and most civilians had fled. Fallujah was: house-to-house patrols, snipers, alleyways and American bombs shaking the earth. Walsh says he has thought about it every day for nearly 10 years — and he's not alone.

Kael Weston spent years in Fallujah for the U.S. State Department, embedded with the Marines.

"A lot of Americans want to forget about it, but there are thousands and thousands who don't have the luxury of forgetting about it," Weston says. "We're all gutted."

Since the weekend, Weston has heard from Marines, from generals to corporals. He has also gotten emails from Iraqi friends in Fallujah desperate for help.

"First, the Iraqis didn't ask to be invaded by us. We invaded and occupied badly," he says. "But on top of that, I'm angry our policy never matched the sacrifice, especially of the Marine Corps."

Weston says there's no clear American solution now, despite real achievement in the past: For a time, Fallujah was stable.

"I don't think it was all in vain," Weston says. "But in the big picture, the American legacy there is now being subsumed by more violence."

Troops who fought there knew Iraq always had a good chance of returning to violence. Former Marine Eliot Ackerman, who received a Silver Star for valor in Fallujah, says his Marines talked about liberating Iraq — but only rarely.

"We were fighting for the same reason guys have always fought: for each other, and for a sense that we were bound to an obligation to serve our country at a time of war," he says.

Ackerman says there was a fantasy that maybe some of the Marines would come back to Fallujah someday as tourists — if things went well for Iraq.

U.S. Marines deploy in the town of al-Nasr Wa al-Salam near Fallujah on March 28, 2004. i i

hide captionU.S. Marines deploy in the town of al-Nasr Wa al-Salam near Fallujah on March 28, 2004.

Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. Marines deploy in the town of al-Nasr Wa al-Salam near Fallujah on March 28, 2004.

U.S. Marines deploy in the town of al-Nasr Wa al-Salam near Fallujah on March 28, 2004.

Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images

Now the collapse of Fallujah has veterans debating what the war in Iraq was even about. Paul Szoldra served as a Marine in Afghanistan but knew many Marines in Fallujah. Szoldra is known by veterans as the editor of a satirical military newspaper, the Duffel Blog, but his last piece was serious, titled "Tell Me Again, Why Did My Friends Die In Iraq?"

It's gone viral among veterans.

"It's just a painful reality to face — nobody wants to think that the death of a military service member was a pointless thing," he says. "Nobody wants to say that or put that into words."

Szoldra says it's hard to look at Fallujah and not think the same thing is going to happen in Afghanistan, where combat troops are scheduled to leave by the end of this year.

"I get an email every time someone is killed in Afghanistan. I feel so bad for the family," he says. "But my second thought is why are people still dying there?"

Szoldra says he got a storm of responses to the article — much of it supportive, some of it critical. He says a national discussion is starting about the meaning of the recent wars. He hopes the discussion will be a civil one —even if it's a painful one.

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