A local reservist says the U.S. should have left Iraq after Saddam's capture.
By WILLIAM K. ALCORN
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
"At first, I thought it might be a movie," said Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Milani, as she watched the terrorist attacks on New York City's World Trade Center on television the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
"I was never so scared and angry," she said, remembering.
Milani said the 326th Quartermaster Detachment, her unit at the time, was put on alert that night. But it was not deployed for another 15 months when Milani and six others from the 326th -- who became known locally as the Magnificent 7 -- were sent to Kandahar, Afghanistan.
"That was the most frustrating thing ... wanting to help so badly and not being able to. I had to wait for orders," she said.
They arrived Christmas Day 2002. The 326th, a water platoon, was attached to the 82nd Airborne Division.
Milani and two other area reservists who served multiple tours in the Middle East since Sept. 11 shared their views on the effectiveness and correctness of America's military actions.
Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Paul Lutumbuez, assigned to the 423rd Quartermaster Battalion at Kunkel Army Reserve Center in Lordstown since March 2006, served one tour in Afghanistan and two in Iraq as a medic with the 673rd Medical Co. Originally from Puerto Rico, he came here from California.
Milani and Lutumbuez said they think the U.S. made significant progress in ethnically diverse Afghanistan, in both rooting out the Taliban rulers and winning over the people.
Milani's plane arrived in Afghanistan at night, so it was morning before she got a look at the landscape.
"It was like nothing I had ever seen before. It was brown, hot and flat ... no green," she said.
"I felt every emotion possible. I was scared and excited. And then reality hit. I realized I was going to be here, and I might not come back," she said.
Milani said she worked 12 to 14 hours a day at her job, and participated in four humanitarian missions while in Afghanistan.
"I worked at the hospital in my off time and saw a lot of things. It was disturbing to see how the children lived, some without hands and legs ... toddlers carrying infants. It was very devastating and heartbreaking. The images keep popping up in your mind," she said.
Even so, she said "they were so welcoming and receptive."
Respect for cultures
"I respect their culture, after being in Afghanistan and Iraq. But it's so different from ours. I couldn't understand how, religiously, they could treat the women like second-class citizens," she said.
For example, the women had to walk behind the men with their heads down, and received medical treatment last, she said.
Nonetheless, Milani said, "We did a lot of good over there. I think, I hope, we've made a good impression on the Afghan people."
"It's more the children. Maybe when they grow up, they will remember what we tried to do, and maybe it could change how they view Americans," she added.
"Every soldier has his own experience. But when I left Afghanistan, I had such a deep sense of pride that I had helped accomplish something that contributed to the war effort," Milani said.
Lutumbuez said he supports the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. "We have no choice but to remove every threat," he said.
But Lutumbuez said the aftermath of the wars are different stories. "The Afghans welcomed us. The Iraqi people do not welcome us, and it is primarily the fault of U.S. policy after the capture of Saddam," he said.
Lutumbuez said the war in Afghanistan was legitimate, and ousting the Taliban from power was the tangible result. Lutumbuez said progress also was made in winning the support of the Afghan people because once the enemy was removed the United States left the Afghan institutions in place and replaced the Taliban with Afghan officials.
He said that is not the case in Iraq. Once Saddam was captured, there was no Plan B.
"If we had taken the same path in Iraq as we did in Afghanistan, we would not have the same level of insurgency now," Lutumbuez said.
"We can't ask the Arabs to live like we do. We can eliminate the atrocities of Saddam, but we can't turn Arabs into Americans. What works for them is fine, but it is not a democracy like here," Lutumbuez said.
"We should have concentrated more efforts and troops in Afghanistan to get al-Qaida," he added.
As for Iraq, he said he thinks that the United States should pull out and that there should be no shame associated with a withdrawal.
"We didn't get weapons of mass destruction, but we did get Saddam and his sons. That was our victory," he said.
"We didn't have to occupy the nation," he said. "It's a waste of resources, both manpower and money."
The United States had its own fight for independence with the British. He said history teaches us the difficulty of occupying another country and winning a war there.
"The U.S. had help from the French against the British, but it was still the locals who decided how things were going to be," Lutumbuez said.
"It is the same in Iraq. The fact is that we are fighting an invisible enemy. How are we going to win?" he said.
Air Force Reserve Chief Master Sgt. Troy Rhoades, of Canfield, was security forces manager at a base in Qatar from February 2002 through June 2002, from which missions were flown into Afghanistan.
In February 2003, he received a special assignment with the Army doing vulnerability and threat assessments at U.S. military installations in Kuwait and Iraq. He was part of an organization that provided escorts and risk assessments for the original interim Iraqi government put into place after the United States had gone into Baghdad in April 2003.
Rhoades said he thinks what the United States is doing in the Middle East is right.
"Being there and meeting the good Iraqi citizens, it is no different than when our country began. They want to live and make their own decisions," Rhoades said.
In the long run, it's truly in the best interests of America that Iraq or Afghanistan survive and have democratic goals, Rhoades said. "I don't think we want to build 'little America,' but I think it's been proven that countries that have become democratic have been good for the world, not just for the U.S.," Rhoades said.