Time will tell if Iraqi people pick up the freedom ball

By William K. Alcorn



Local Iraq War military veterans, to a man and woman, are proud of their service in that war-torn country.

But the jury is still out on whether they helped accomplish something better and lasting for the Iraqi people.

Ten years after the U.S.-led invasion, Iraq is still a broken country. Its government is democratically elected, but nearly everyone sees it as dysfunctional, and many observers wonder whether the country can hold together and function as a normal state.

“I don’t think the people will let themselves go back to not having a voice again. I didn’t waste my time there. I had a purpose and was productive and gave the Iraqi people hope ... a chance. They have to want freedom themselves. Now it’s up to them,” said Army Sgt. Tom Ericksen, a former ROTC instructor at Youngstown State University and now in the same capacity at Kent State University awaiting deployment to South Korea in July.

Ericksen, a 17-year veteran, served three tours in Iraq in 2003-04, 2005-06 and 2007-09 as an armored reconnaissance specialist, decorated with two Bronze Stars.

“I initially joined the Army for college money, then I found out I enjoyed it. The first time I crossed the border into Iraq I saw an entire family living out of a dump truck. I’ve had buddies come home in boxes, but I don’t believe I could say it was all a waste.

“A fair share of vets may have that attitude, but I wouldn’t trade any of that. I have a purpose ... and part of something bigger than myself. You can’t say no to the orders, but I could have walked away. If I get called again, I’ll go in a heartbeat,” he said.

In 2008, John Brown, then national commander of AMVETS, spent 10 days in Iraq visiting troops.

“I saw the highest quality. The soldiers in today’s military are unbelievable. They were very dedicated and wanted to make a difference for the Iraqi people,” he said.

Susan Skrzynski of Boardman, a service officer for the Mahoning County Veterans Service Commission, was operations sergeant with the Ohio National Guard’s Co. C, 216th Engineer Battalion, out of Ravenna when it was deployed for 16 months from December 2003 to March 2005 in Iraq.

“We built churches and medical facilities and rebuilt bridges and were glad we were doing something for the Iraqi people. Sometimes the bridges were blown up the next day and it was kind of disheartening. But we did the best we could with what we had,” said Skrzynski, who retired in 2007 as a sergeant first class.

“I think it was worth it from a military standpoint. We went there because we were called up to do a job. We hoped we were doing something for the people by attempting to establish some order; but looking at it now, it’s still not a democracy.

“There were so many lives lost, but whether the purpose of the war was accomplished or not does not diminish the contributions of those who went to the Middle East and did their jobs. They were proud to serve and had the support of the people back home.

“Even today, I wear an Iraqi War patch on my motorcycle vest, and complete strangers come up and thank me. It makes you feel good,” she said.

“Some of the Iraqi people didn’t want us there. The same kids we gave candy to would then throw rocks at us,” said Anthony Nagle of Struthers, also a service officer with the Mahoning County Veterans Service Commission.

Nagle served four years on active duty with the Marine Corps from 2002-06 including eight months in Iraq in 2005 as a tank gunner supporting ground troops and clearing main routes of roadside bombs.

“I’m the type of a person who does whatever my country tells me to do. I had a baby three days before I left. I said if I don’t come back, at least I died a hero. Everyone knows the risk. We were there to fight al-Qaida. They brought the war to us and we took it there,” Nagle said.

“Where I get p----- off, we left. I saw my brothers and sisters die. Troops are not involved in the politics ... you do what you’re told and shut up. A war was going on. I knew what I was getting into. If you join now to get an education, it’s the wrong time. I have friends who have been over there four or five times. I volunteered to go three times. They won’t take me back into the Corps because of a shoulder injury. I was war fighter, not a politician,” Nagle said.

The Iraqi people are better off than they were under Saddam Hussein — he was a brutal dictator, said Ohio National Guard Lt. Col. Jason Reckard of McDonald.

“They are also learning that democracy is hard and complicated. They have three distinct groups trying to form a democracy. It will take years, but the people better off without Saddam,” said Reckard, a State Farm Insurance agent in Canfield.

When Reckard was in Iraq, he was the provost marshal of the Ohio National Guard’s 583rd Law and Order Military Police Detachment out of Austintown, which was in charge of law enforcement at Camp Victory in Baghdad, the largest U.S. base in Iraq. The base had 110,000 people from all branches of the military, U.S. civilians, third-country nationals from all over the world and Iraqi nationals.

The overarching mission was to free the Iraqi people from a dictator and give them a chance to determine their own future, he said.

“Our own government is about compromise. The whole concept is new to them. It is difficult, and it will take time. We provided the framework and at some point we had to let them go. ... We can’t be there forever. It was time for the Iraqis to take the reins. It is up to the people to make the best of it and I hope they do,” he said.

“I think it will be interesting to see what happens over the next 10 years, but I know they are better off without Saddam. I am proud to have been a part of the team from Youngstown that was a part of history,” Reckard said.

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