Personal Stories of the Iraq War While arguments rage over troop increases or withdrawals, for millions of Americans and Iraqis the war is a family issue. The mother of a recent enlistee, the father of four U.S. servicemen, and two Iraqis talk about how they are directly affected by the war in Iraq.
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Personal Stories of the Iraq War

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Personal Stories of the Iraq War

Personal Stories of the Iraq War

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Amid the debates over Iraq, there are many thousands of Americans and millions of Iraqis directly affected by the war. For these people, the war is a family issue. They flinch at every news report of a car bomb or IED because they have a loved one on patrol in Ramadi or living in Mosul.

They hear the arguments about politics and policy, tactics and diplomacy, about an increase in U.S. troop levels or withdrawal, and wonder how it might affect their son or daughter, their aunts, their cousins.

Today, our main focus is Iraq as a family issue. We'll hear from two Iraqis living in exile here in the United States and from two American parents who face the challenges of children in the military.

Later in the program, Political Junkie Ken Rudin. If you have questions about the various resolutions in the United States Senate, about the war, the two brand-new presidential campaigns, Mike Huckabee and Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton's trip last weekend to Iowa or her visit this coming weekend to New Hampshire, or other issues in electoral politics, you can send them to us by e-mail now. The address is

But we begin with families and Iraq. If you have relatives in the war, call and tell us about staying in touch, about worrying, about the strains of the long war. Our number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is

Joining us now on the phone is Larry Sieverson. He knows what it's like to have loved ones in harm's way. He's had four sons in the military, three of them currently on active duty. He's also on the board of Military Families Speak Out. Larry joins us from his office in Richmond, Virginia. Nice to have you today on TALK OF THE NATION

Mr. LARRY SIEVERSON (Board Member, Military Families Speak Out): Oh, thank you. Good afternoon.

CONAN: Your family has experienced a total of five tours in Iraq. Your youngest son, Bryce(ph), just got back from there. How's he doing?

Mr. SIEVERSON: He seems to be doing well. He had trouble with PTSD on his first tour, so that now coming back from his second tour he had seen a psychiatrist and psychologist because of his problems with PTSD. So he is using the skills that they've been telling him how to handle it when he - after the first tour that he used to try to get back into society after his second tour.


Mr. SIEVERSON: …in November.

CONAN: PTSD, of course is post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Mr. SIEVERSON: That's correct.

CONAN: And it can be a debilitating problem.

Mr. SIEVERSON: Yes. Bryce actually developed PTSD - he's stationed in Germany, and on New Year's Eve after his first tour when he heard the fireworks going off, the shoot-shoot-shoot, it reminded him of incoming mortars and he started with PTSD. His personality changed. He had trouble remembering things. He started having trouble controlling his anger, and it changed him so much that his wife talked about divorce because he was no longer the man she married.

And then because she was considering - you know, they were considering getting a divorce, and he went into depression and then later started contemplating suicide. So it was extremely debilitating to where - all this was happening in 2005 - and in August 2005, he had a mental breakdown in Germany and was airlifted to Walter Reed in Washington, D.C. and put under suicide watch in the psychiatric ward. And he ended up being in Walter Reed in the psychiatric ward for about a month.

My wife and I, Judy(ph), were lucky enough that we live about 100 miles south of Washington, so we were able to see Bryce about four times during his hospitalization there.

CONAN: And I wonder, Larry Sieverson, what is scarier - a son on suicide watch in Walter Reed or a son on patrol in Fallujah?

Mr. SIEVERSON: How about a son that has problems with suicide and is on patrols in Ramadi? After Bryce left Walter Reed in September 2005 - he was supposed to get out in November 2005 - he was subject to a stop-loss and could not get out, and his obligation to the Army was moved back to February 2007 to allow for deployment to Iraq.

And in August 2006, he went into Ramadi. August 2005, he was on a suicide watch in Walter Reed. August 2006, he is in Ramadi, heart of the Sunni triangle, with a loaded weapon. So to say one or the other, how about if it's both at the same time?

CONAN: How do you and your wife cope? I mean, none of your sons are currently in either Iraq or Afghanistan, but nevertheless you've had a lot of experience.

Mr. SIEVERSON: Yes. After five tours, we have. I have become very vocal against the war, and I am a board member of Military Families Speak Out, a group of about over 3,200 military families that are opposed to the war.

CONAN: Right.

Mr. SIEVERSON: And I am very active in that it helps me vent. My wife, however - recently, Judy retired. But while she worked for a bank it just built up inside her to where she ended up being hospitalized for stress-related intestinal problems and missed four weeks of work. And then she had a breakdown at work another time, crying uncontrollable, went home for three weeks.

So in just that one year she missed seven weeks of work completely related to the early part of the war. And I should say that during that time period, Brandon(ph) was in Tikrit on a Abrams tank, and Bryce was in Baghdad on a Bradley fighting vehicle. So during that time period we had two sons as ground troops in Iraq.

CONAN: Does it help at all that, given modern technology, it's much easier to stay in touch with your kids overseas than it certainly was when we were their age?

Mr. SIEVERSON: Yes. At the beginning of invasion there wasn't much communication. It was a few letters coming in. But once things got kind of established, we would receive e-mails. And I have to admit they were a godsend because when you received an e-mail, it was instantaneous and you knew at that one moment in time that your loved one was safe. It - I can't stress how - what a relief it was when you would receive that e-mail.

CONAN: We're talking today with people who see the war in Iraq as a family issue in addition to a strategic, tactical and political issue. We're speaking right now with Larry Sieverson, who's got four children in the armed forces, three of them currently. And if you'd like to join the conversation: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is And Keith(ph) joins us now. Keith is with us from Baltimore, Maryland.

KEITH (Caller): Good morning, and thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

KEITH: I've got a son and a daughter-in-law that have both served in Iraq, and I'm very fortunate to have them both back home at this time waiting for new orders to go forward. But I would say for me it was faith. Me and my wife are both Christians. It was quite difficult, painful, many nights filled with grief. But it was my faith, my Christian faith that has brought me this far.

CONAN: I wonder, Larry Sieverson, faith, has that been an element of this experience for you?

Mr. SIEVERSON: Yes. I don't think I've ever prayed so much in my life as when a son, one of my sons was on tour. I find it was very comforting.

KEITH: I would have to add absolutely the prayers of my friends, as well. I believe they too have strengthened me and my wife, Charlotte(ph). And I do - my heart goes out to the man who's on the program today who's had four at one time in harm's way. God bless you, and I just pray for you.

Mr. SIEVERSON: Thank you very much.

CONAN: OK, Keith, thanks for the phone call. We appreciate it.

KEITH: Thanks for taking me.

CONAN: OK. And I wonder, we think that as we listen to news stories and bulletins from Iraq - can you listen to the news anymore?

Mr. SIEVERSON: Well, during the - when I have a son in Iraq, I don't watch the news. I find it too distressing to watch the news and all of a sudden - they all of a sudden start showing clips from Iraq. I just can't handle seeing the violence on the ground. What I do is when I'm able to find out about the news, I go online and will pick the newspaper articles. I can't take the unknown of the TV, not knowing what's going to be shown.

CONAN: Well, Larry Sieverson, we wish you, your wife and your sons the best of luck. Thank you so much for being with us today.

Mr. SIEVERSON: Thank you very much. And I'd just like to add that the best support right now that Congress can give our troops is to vote against this upcoming appropriation bill and de-fund the war and bring the troops home.

CONAN: All right. We'll have more on that later in the program on the Political Junkie, so thanks. Larry Sieverson has three sons on active duty in the military. He joins us today by phone from his office in Virginia.

With us now - excuse me, with us now is Katrin Michael. She's an Iraqi writer who lives in Virginia. She fled Iraq nearly 20 years ago after surviving one of Saddam Hussein's chemical attacks against the Kurdish people, and she left many family members behind. She joins us her in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for coming in today.

Ms. KATRIN MICHAEL (Iraqi Expatriate): Thank you for having me.

CONAN: You have siblings and other family members in Northern Iraq. Do you talk to them often?

Ms. MICHAEL: Yes, I do.

CONAN: Every day?

Ms. MICHAEL: Almost. I got e-mail or I got phone calls from them. If one day I don't get from them anything, I got very worried because I know they are not in a really safe area.

CONAN: Yet Kurdistan of course is much quieter than most of the rest of Iraq.

Ms. MICHAEL: They are going to university (unintelligible) in Mosul, which is very, very dangerous.

CONAN: Of course, that's the city where Saddam Hussein's sons were (unintelligible).

Ms. MICHAEL: Yes, yes.

CONAN: And so yes, a battleground from time to time, which must make you sick with worry.

Ms. MICHAEL: I am very worried and really very sick. And I'm very worried sick and worried and tired from this situation that we have it right now in Iraq.

CONAN: It seems like a long war to Americans after all this time, yet as we mentioned, for Iraq's Kurds it has been a very long war.

Ms. MICHAEL: Yes, it was a very long war. And thank God in Kurdistan we have a better situation. In spite, we have some big problems with the electricity, with power, with the (unintelligible), with kerosene, with gas. We have some problems, but still the situation much, much better than the south.

CONAN: Let me ask you the same question I just asked Larry Sieverson: Do you watch the news?

Ms. MICHAEL: Of course, every single minute.

CONAN: And if you hear something about a bomb going off in Mosul, it must make you - I can't imagine.

Ms. MICHAEL: I get actually crazy until I get something from my family telling me that we are safe. I said oh, thanks God. They are safe. And they know when something happened to Mosul, immediately they contact us or they e-mail me telling, oh, we are safe, don't worry. And they are - really they don't go out and they are mostly just going - students going to university and comes back home.

CONAN: All right. Stay with us. We're going to have to take a short break. When we come back we're going to continue talking with Katrin Michael about the issue of Iraq as a family issue. 800-989-8255 if you'd like to join us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Many families with sons and daughters, husbands and wives deployed in the U.S. military find themselves holding their breath at the daily news reports. For them Iraq is a family issue. Today we're talking with families of those service members and with Iraqi expatriates who worry about what's happening to their families who live in Iraq.

Later in the program, the Political Junkie joins us to talk about the week in politics. You can send e-mails now with questions for the Political Junkie to And of course you're welcome to join this conversation as well: 800-989-8255. Again the e-mail address is

Our guest right now is Katrin Michael, an Iraqi writer, a Kurd, who lives in Virginia. She left the country - her country - 20 years ago after surviving one of Saddam Hussein's attacks on Kurdish villages with chemical weapons. Let's see if we can get a caller on the line. And this is Marty(ph). Marty's with us from Green Bay in Wisconsin.

MARTY (Caller): Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

MARTY: Right before we went to war I was carrying a sign with my 5-year-old son that said: The longest inspection is better than the shortest war. And the next day, my oldest son called and said: Mom, I'm going to join the Marines to help the women and children in Afghanistan. And right now, he is cross training with the Army in Louisiana and I believe he's going to be part of the surge. And every waking moment is how to stop this war. It's about the oil. And my daughter doesn't even want me to even talk about it. I just came back from the march in Washington - 500,000 people saying stop it now.

But what upsets me the most is there is a - we're trying to strong-arm the Iraqi parliament to sign a production sharing agreement that for the next 40 years they give 75 to 100 percent of their oil…

CONAN: Oil production in Iraq is - excuse me, excuse me. Marty, excuse me, oil production in Iraq and how it's being shared out - different subject for a different day. We're interested in talking about family issues. And I was wondering if asking - Katrin Michael, what do you think when you hear the debates in this country over the future of the war. And obviously, Marty's a big part of that too.

Ms. MICHAEL: First, let me just correct. I'm not Kurdish. I'm Chaldean living in Kurdistan. This is just for (unintelligible).

CONAN: I apologize for that.

Ms. MICHAEL: It's OK. Second, what she said - she have all right to be worried about her family, about American soldiers. All right, they have all American to be worried about that. And meantime, and I have right to be worried about my family, and really they being persecuted - we being persecuted for freeing the Kurds. Until this moment, we are persecuted from the (unintelligible) of terrorists and - but I want to mention here, we are here - Iraqi people - we are on a frontline fighting terrorists in all the world. If American will be failed in Iraq, America will be down politically on major issues in all the world.

Second, now there is very high theocracy in the Middle East. So this theocracy is going to take Middle East down very much and make these people, uneducated people what's going on in the world. So to keep this situation Middle East in the same level as they are, maybe more down, so that terrorists is going to become more, more strong. So we are all together - American and Iraqi - fighting terrorists, and it's a big battle. It's a ideological battle. It's not a battle with Iraqi people.

CONAN: OK, let's bring another voice into the conversation now - Kathleen Galligan. She was with her son when he enlisted in the army earlier this year. She wrote an op-ed about the experience in the Detroit Free Pres last week. And she joins us now from the studios of Member Station WDET in Detroit. Welcome, nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

Ms. KATHLEEN GALLIGAN (Reporter, Detroit Free Press): Thank you very much.

CONAN: And I understand your son Shawn(ph) left early this week for training.

Ms. GALLIGAN: He left yesterday for training and he arrived late last night around 11:00. I haven't heard from him yet.

CONAN: You must have mixed emotions.

Ms. GALLIGAN: Yeah, I'd say it's a real emotional grab-bag right now, especially after the news at the top of the hour and listening to Larry and Katrin speak earlier. I think my overwhelming emotion right now is pride in him and the reasons that he made the decision.

CONAN: At the same time, you oppose this war?

Ms. GALLIGAN: Yes, I do. I oppose us having gone in in the beginning, but we're there now and the situation is an absolute mess. We've left a real power vacuum and anyone and everyone is jumping in. And I think we have an obligation to do something about it.

CONAN: You yourself were in the Army, but as you pointed out in your op-ed, during peacetime. You joined the Army - you signed up for the Army. You said your son signed up for the war.

Ms. GALLIGAN: Yes, he did. And, you know, ironically, I was in 20 years ago and I remember I was a medic and they would show us footage of the Kurds - of chemical weapons being used in the Kurds. So I really - I feel for Katrin and her family. These things are - they're real issues. I mean, I don't feel like our time there is completely wasted.

CONAN: Is it difficult to support your son in his decision at a time when there's been so much criticism of the war?

Ms. GALLIGAN: No, I don't - I think like any parent I would support any decision he made rationally. You know, he's been sitting watching people be deployed over and over and over again and there's a level of frustration that nobody's stepping up to help. They are just watching the same families suffer. And he wanted to do his part. He wanted to do something noble and maybe give a family some relief. And also he's hoping that he may be part of a solution.

CONAN: And let me ask you, Katrin Michael, do you understand the distinction when Americans talk about, well, we oppose the war but we support the troops?

Ms. MICHAEL: Yes, I know - I really give credit and I appreciate that very highly. This is a high-level understanding of the situation. These people, they understand what they are doing there and they appreciate a lot their troops. They are - and we Iraqi also appreciate American troops, what they're doing and how they're suffering in Iraq. Highly appreciated American troops before and highly appreciate it sacrificing to be far from their families and they face death every single day.

CONAN: Katrin Michael, I wanted to thank you so much for joining us today. We appreciate your time. Katrin Michael is a Chaldean - I stand corrected - from Northern Iraq, who lives here now in the United States and was back in Iraq last fall to testify against Saddam Hussein…

Ms. MICHAEL: Correct.

CONAN: …in his trial in Baghdad. She joined us today in Studio 3A.

Kathleen Galligan, I wonder with your son now going away, how do you think that's going to change your life?

Ms. GALLIGAN: Well, the war is very, very personal now. I mean I am a journalist and it's been something that I've had some emotional distance with. It's become far more emotional and far more personal. But I'm going to continue to keep informed, obviously.

CONAN: Sure. Now let's get another caller on the line, and this is Ellie(ph). Ellie with us from Tucson, Arizona.

ELLIE (Caller): Hi.


ELLIE: I have a brother who's a Marine and he's been over there three times. And the last time he was shot and now he's home for good. But it was really hard because he's a Marine and we didn't know - he's a combat engineer and we had no idea where he was going and what he was doing. And he couldn't tell us. And my brother in particular is very bad at keeping up e-mails and letter writing, so we just really had no idea where he was and what he was doing.

CONAN: I wonder, Kathleen Galligan, have you drilled into your son: Write every day.

Ms. GALLIGAN: I don't think I need to. I have a feeling I'm going to hear from him all the time.

CONAN: Really?

Ms. GALLIGAN: Yeah, I don't think he's going to get a whole lot of sympathy from his drill sergeant. So if he wants any, he's going to be calling mom.

CONAN: And I wonder, with your experience yourself in the Army - and again, very different conditions in peacetime - you must have some idea what he's going to be going through.

Ms. GALLIGAN: I have some idea. I don't think what I went through is nearly what he's going to go through. He's Airborne infantry. But yeah, I do have some idea.

CONAN: Airborne infantry? Really going for it.

Ms. GALLIGAN: Yeah, he went with the intention of going.

CONAN: Ellie, as you wait for news from your brother, this must be awful.

ELLIE: It is, it's terrible and it's awful. And, you know, now that he's home I don't - I still don't watch the news. I don't - I love NPR, but I turn it off when the news comes on because it's just so stressful to think that every time a car bomb goes off or every time somebody gets shot it could be him. And now even that he's home, I just - it just carries over to everybody else that's there and it's just really painful to listen to.

CONAN: Well Ellie, we wish him and you the best of luck. Thanks very much for the call.

ELLIE: Thank you.

CONAN: And Kathleen Galligan, I know you have to leave us at the bottom of the hour. We wanted to thank you for your time today.

Ms. GALLIGAN: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Kathleen Galligan, a photographer with the Detroit Free Press. She joined us today from the studios of our member station in Detroit, WDET. And let's turn now to another Iraqi expatriate. Raed Jarrar is an Iraqi architect and a blogger who now lives in Washington, D.C. And he's joined us here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for being with us on the program today.

Mr. RAED JARRAR (Director of Iraq Project, Global Exchange): Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Your family used to live together in Baghdad, but as I understand it you're now scattered to the winds.

Mr. JARRAR: Yeah, we are spread all around the world now, I guess.

CONAN: Whereabouts?

Mr. JARRAR: My immediate family - my mother is living between Baghdad and Amman, Jordan. My dad is based in Amman, Jordan, and one of my brothers is living and studying in the south of Jordan. And the other brother is in American University in Cairo. And I am here in the U.S.

CONAN: And is this a result of the war?

Mr. JARRAR: Yeah. But my bigger family in fact, my uncles and aunts, they're even spread around Europe and Australia and New Zealand, Emirates and around the country. The vast majority of my colleagues, friends and family has fled the country. Most of the people who can afford to leave the country have left.

CONAN: And this again, mixed feelings. Yes, your family, much of it, is safe. On the other hand, you're Iraqis.

Mr. JARRAR: Yeah. Because we tried to participate in the post-war reconstruction. We stayed in Iraq, at least I stayed for a year and some few months and took a part of some reconstruction projects around the country. But then the situation started getting really bad. I was kidnapped personally and I had to leave the country after that.

CONAN: Kidnapped for political or for monetary?

Mr. JARRAR: For I think, like, just for political reasons in the south of Iraq when the political parties started to try to prove that they are taking control over the area. So they started kidnapping anyone who comes from outside their cities. So I mean they left me the next day, thankfully.

But my brother got kidnapped after that by the new Iraqi regime, and he was kept for some weeks in the Ministry of Interior where people were getting tortured. And I didn't know where he was. And my mother was attacked by gangs.

So it started getting very unsafe for us and we can afford to leave. And that's why, I guess, my immediate family left. My mom still goes back to our house every now and then. But our friends who still live there and don't have a choice other than staying in Baghdad are living the hell of everyday life there. And our hearts are with them, and our hearts is with Iraq.

When we heard the news that it was about explosions and these bad things, always that it was about tragic political news about dividing Iraq or passing the new oil law that will open, you know, the PSAs. All of these things hurt us. And, like, we can't really see the light at the end of the tunnel and the day that Iraqis will be given the chance to rebuild their country unless we, like, you know, Iraqis are given their country back.

And, you know, all of us hope that this day where Iraqis are given the authority and the chance to rule their country by themselves and rebuild their country by themselves would come as soon as possible so that we can start rebuilding the destruction that was caused by this war.

CONAN: Raed Jarrar is our guest. He's an Iraqi architect and blogger who currently lives here in Washington, D.C.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And this is - excuse me, wrong button there - this is John. John's with us from Michigan. John, are you there?

JOHN (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

JOHN: Yeah. My son is doing his second tour over in Iraq. And we communicate when he can. You know, gets on the computer, you know, by e-mail or once in a great while I'll get to make a phone call. My whole understanding of this war is I really don't, I don't have one. I know that the terrorists attacked us from Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and we're over in Iraq I think more for personal reasons than for anything. We're not going after the people that attacked us on 9/11.


JOHN: I certainly don't think it's all for oil. I personally think it's a vendetta, a payback from the very first Iraqi invasion with the first president.

CONAN: Yeah, and his son. But let me ask you, do you talk to your son about that while he's in Iraq?

JOHN: No, I don't.

CONAN: Do you talk about…

JOHN: He's been in for like 15 years. He's a career guy. He's going to make a career out of it. He has mentioned a couple of times he doesn't really understand why we're over there. Weapons of mass destruction, even if there were, none of it was tied to 9/11. 9/11 all happened from Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden, who we all seem to have forgotten about.

I personally think a lot of it is a payback from the first invasion…

CONAN: Which you said already, John, but…

JOHN: Which Saddam Hussein put a bounty on President Bush back then. And I think a lot of this is personal and I find it very disgusting.

CONAN: And would you feel better if your son was serving in Afghanistan?

JOHN: Well yeah, at least he's in the right neighborhood.

CONAN: OK, John.

JOHN: At least the whole reason we went to war, according to President Bush when he was standing there in New York, we're going to get these guys. Well, we're in the wrong country.

CONAN: All right. John, thanks very much for the call and we wish your son the best.

JOHN: Well, thank you, sir, and you have a good day.

CONAN: You too. And Raed, again, what do you make of the arguments that you hear amongst Americans about the pro and anti-war?

Mr. JARRAR: I don't think that there is a big argument now according to the latest polls. I think 89 percent of Americans are against the surge. And people voted some few months ago, they voted the Republicans out of the Congress because they wanted this war to end.

And so when you look at the Iraqi and American side, there are some few people who are still for ideological reasons, they want to continue the war, they want to continue like some ideological or religious mission from both sides. But the vast majority of Americans and Iraqis want to work to end this war as soon as possible. Give Iraq back to Iraqis.

CONAN: If American troops left in a year, would you feel safe? Would you go back to Iraq?

Mr. JARRAR: Yeah, of course. I would feel safer. According to polls, one percent of Iraqis feel safe around the coalition troops. And the situation is really bad. But the first step in dealing with the Iraqi situation is pulling out the foreign intervention and giving Iraq back to Iraqis so that Iraqis will start working on huge issues.

There is a long list of issues that have to be worked on - reconciliation and reconstruction - and it's all the responsibility of the Iraqis. We can, you know, support them by the international community, but it's their responsibility.

CONAN: Raed Jarrar, thank you very much for being with us today. We appreciate your time. Raed Jarrar currently works as director of the Iraq Project for Global Exchange, an international human rights organization here in Washington, D.C. He was kind enough to join us today here in Studio 3A.

When we come back from a short break, our weekly visit with the Political Junkie. If you have questions for Ken Rudin on the latest presidential campaigns, the political war over the war in Iraq, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail:

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