Iraq War veterans around the region are watching with dismay as a Sunni insurgency takes back territory where U.S. troops fought and died.
The militants’ latest movements are discussed over coffee at local restaurants and in flurries of emails and phone calls.
“I’ve thought about it a lot,” Dale Beatty, 36, of Statesville said of the insurgency. “And others have asked me about it. It’s terrible.”
An infantry squad leader with the N.C. National Guard’s 30th Brigade Combat Team, Beatty lost both legs below the knees when a mine detonated through the floor of his Humvee in northern Iraq in 2004.
Fellow soldier John Gallina, also of Statesville, was driving the vehicle and suffered brain trauma. The two men are co-founders of the nonprofit Purple Heart Homes, which provides housing assistance to veterans.
As Beatty monitors the current chaos in Iraq, he looks back on the time he spent in the country.
“I feel proud of my service there,” he said. “We had a good relationship with the people. I feel we helped connect with them as human beings. I don’t feel my work was in vain.”
Fighters with the radical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria are rapidly pushing south toward Baghdad. The Associated Press reports that Iraqi army and security forces continue to abandon their posts whenever confronted by the Islamic State and that the collapse of central authority was also evident in Baghdad.
Despite the crisis in Iraq, “there are still more good people than bad guys blowing things up,” Beatty said.
Gallina said the sacrifices of U.S. troops in Iraq “planted the seed of democracy. We fought for freedom.”
He hopes the young people he worked with there will “one day stand up and demand democracy. It’s not something we can give or teach.”
Between 2003 and 2011, the Iraq War claimed the lives of nearly 5,000 American military personnel, and thousands more were wounded.
“Most who fought there served honorably and with distinction,” said Richard Kohn, emeritus professor of military history at UNC Chapel Hill. “They’re professionals, and we need them to do the job. They’re proud of it – and they should be. We’re lucky people to have folks willing to do that.”
President Barack Obama announced on Thursday he was sending 300 U.S. Green Beret special operations advisers to Iraq to help quell the insurgency. Initially, the deployments will be limited to several teams of about a dozen soldiers apiece who will operate mainly at various Iraqi military headquarters.
The military advisers will join up to 275 U.S. forces that Obama previously announced would be positioned in and around Iraq to provide security and support for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and other American interests.
As Jon Morris, 46, of Rowan County keeps up with the insurgency, “it makes me sad for the people we liberated.”
In 2006-07, he was with the 194th Infantry training Iraqi police and Army personnel. Seriously injured in an ambush by a rocket-propelled grenade, he’s now disabled.
The insurgency steamrolling through Iraq doesn’t surprise him.
“It’s what we thought was going to happen,” Morris said. “As soon as we left the country, we thought there would be a vacuum.”
He thinks what’s going on now in Iraq was unavoidable because “we pulled out too early.”
“We had a good thing going in 2009,” Morris said. “We had the trust and cooperation of the Iraqi army, police and the people. But we left them on their own. We should have left some special forces or other ground troops behind to keep training the army.”
On Tuesdays, Morris joins other veterans for coffee at Thelma’s Home Cooking in Salisbury where they talk about what’s going on in Iraq.
“It’s killing us,” Moore said.
Former Gaston County Commissioners Chairman Donnie Loftis served in Iraq with the N.C. National Guard’s 505th Engineer Battalion in 2005. News about the current insurgency has included images of militants surging down the main north-south highway. Some called the road through the heart of Iraq “Route Tampa.” Soldiers in the Gastonia-based 505th battalion called it I-85.
“You never knew what was waiting for you over the next hill,” Loftis said.
He remembers the battalion’s efforts to rebuild Iraq as he watches the current crisis unfold.
“It’s very disheartening,” Loftis said.
Kent Hyde, 46, of Belmont, was an Army major serving as an adviser to the Iraqi army in 2006-07. He called the insurgency “a mess.”
“Unfortunately, a lot of innocent people are going to suffer,” Hyde said. “It’s very disappointing and heart-wrenching. It’s really a shame to see a lot of the country reverting back to sectarian violence. ”
Part of an 11-member team, he lived and worked in an Iraqi army compound, calling it “a really rewarding experience.”
“The soldiers were quite good,” Hyde said. “There’s a different standard from the one in the U.S., but they were quite effective in their own way.”
He’s worried about an Iraqi brigade executive officer he got to know and who later visited Hyde in Belmont at Thanksgiving.
“He’s back in Baghdad with his wife and two small children,” Hyde said. “He’s a great guy and a great leader by any standard. I’m concerned about him.”
In Concord, 101st Airborne veteran Cory Collins tries to avoid watching news about Iraq, where he was wounded in 2005 when his Humvee ran over a roadside bomb.
He lost a lot of good friends in Iraq.
Three fellow soldiers in the Humvee with Collins died in the blast. The only survivor, Collins suffered 30 broken bones in his back, pelvis and left arm. Doctors later amputated his left leg.
The turmoil in Iraq is disturbing, but it doesn’t change anything for Collins.
He did his best while there.
“At the end of the day, we’re soldiers,” Collins said. “We had a job to do. We did everything we could – and we did it the right way.”