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As we just heard, the Iraqi government is battling an al-Qaida-linked group for control of the city of Fallujah, and that is stirring up painful memories for thousands of Americans who served in the military there. More than 1,300 U.S. service members died in Fallujah and the province around it, over the course of the war.

Now, veterans are starting to ask hard questions about the meaning of that sacrifice, as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Fallujah was the largest set battle of the Iraq War.

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UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #1: Hey, Sgt. Lee!

LAWRENCE: In November 2004, I recorded this for the BBC.

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UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #1: Hold on!

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #2: Whoa!

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #1: Hey, we've got you covered!

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER #2: All right.

LAWRENCE: I was running behind Lt. Will Walsh, on the western edge of the city.

WILL WALSH: My name is Will Walsh. I served in the United States Army for five years.

LAWRENCE: Walsh got out of the Army a few years ago. Today, he was traveling on business in Richmond, Va., but keeping an eye on the bad news out of Fallujah.

WALSH: The question I have to ask myself is, was that effort in vain? You know, was all of the work that we did, all of the sacrifice that we had, what is the benefit?

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

KAEL WESTON: 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.

LAWRENCE: Kael Weston spent years in Fallujah for the State Department. Since the weekend, he's heard from Marines - generals to corporals - all gutted by the news. He has also gotten emails from Iraqi friends in Fallujah, desperate for help. Weston says there's no clear American solution now, despite real achievement in the past. For a time, Fallujah was stable.

WESTON: I don't think it was all in vain, but in the big picture, the American legacy there is now being subsumed by more violence.

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

ELIOT ACKERMAN: We were fighting for the same reason guys have always fought, which was, you know, for each other, and for a sense of - that we were bound to an obligation to serve our country in a time of war.

LAWRENCE: Ackerman says sometimes his Marines would half joke about coming back to Fallujah someday as a tourist, if things went well for Iraq. 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 he knew many Marines in Fallujah. Szoldra now writes for Business Insider. His last piece was titled "Tell Me Again, Why Did My Friends Die In Iraq?" It's gone viral among veterans.

PAUL SZOLDRA: It's a painful reality to face. Nobody wants to think that the death of a military service member was a pointless thing. Nobody wants to say that, or put that into words.

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

SZOLDRA: I get an email every time someone is killed in Afghanistan. And, you know, I feel so bad for the family of that soldier, Marine or sailor. But my second thought is, why are people still dying there?

LAWRENCE: Each time Szoldra gets one of those emails, hears that someone has died in Afghanistan, it reminds him of Iraq and his friends who died there.

SZOLDRA: Cpl. Steven Renamaki(ph), Cpl. Eric Gehrut(ph), Cpl. Eric Leaken(ph) and Staff Sgt. Jason Ramseyer(ph), along with Lance Cpl. Franklin Sweger(ph) - they're no longer here. They were good guys, and I miss them.

LAWRENCE: Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

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