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Iraq Vets reflect on a War Americans have largely tried to put behind them

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq gripped America's attention 20 years ago. There are still U.S. troops there, but the war officially ended in December of 2011. Today, for many Americans, U.S involvement in Iraq is either unfamiliar or a fading memory. As NPR's Quil Lawrence reports, that's something veterans of the Iraq War wrestle with.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: After what seemed like a quick victory, the war changed almost every year.

SCOTT COOPER: In April and May of 2003, thinking, this is something exciting, that things went so fast.

ALLISON JASLOW: Every year of the war or every phase of the war was very different.

ALEJANDRO RODRIGUEZ: I think it was a big mistake, and I do not dwell on it because one tries to not dwell on things.

LAWRENCE: These are the voices of Iraq vets Alejandro Rodriguez, Scott Cooper and Allison Jaslow.

JASLOW: I was deployed from 2004-2005 and then again in 2007-2008 during the surge.

COOPER: And then, of course, going back for several subsequent tours, you're a little heartbroken.

JASLOW: Very quickly, we learned that it wasn't necessarily a just war. But then, we broke it, so then, we had to fix it.

COOPER: Not for lack of effort, but it didn't turn out as we'd hoped.

RODRIGUEZ: Well, I came back as a more serious, more cold person, and I lost people in the past that were very dear to me because of who I became.

LAWRENCE: They are just three of the millions who served. Retired U.S. Marine Scott Cooper is co-founder of the Veterans and Citizens Initiative, which released a survey this week showing that only 3 in 10 Americans have talked with an Iraq veteran about the war.

COOPER: A lot of my fellow Americans don't even rank it as important. They see, like, oh, thank you for your service. That's sincere and well-meant, but that's as far as it goes. And so I'm happy to have a conversation with you. I think we'll both come away better.

LAWRENCE: Cooper says he's encouraged that almost 8 in 10 Americans say we need to learn more about the Iraq War.

COOPER: That gave me a little bit of hope. How do we learn more about this?

LAWRENCE: Former diplomat Emma Sky has the same question.

EMMA SKY: I served in Iraq from 2003-2010.

LAWRENCE: Sky had been against the invasion, but then got deeply involved in trying to rebuild Iraq. She spent years as political advisor to the top U.S. general in Iraq. She now teaches at Yale.

SKY: My students today weren't born when we invaded Iraq, and for them, it's ancient history.

LAWRENCE: And history is not kind to the Iraq War, she says, or its effect on America's prestige or its effect on politics here at home.

SKY: We live with the ghosts of the Iraq War, the Middle East, the changes in the balance of power in Iran's favor, and the spread of terrorism, and the impact that the Iraq War has had on American and British societies. The U.S. did a lot to undermine the image of democracy, and its own democracy has also really taken a bashing.

LAWRENCE: Alejandro Rodriguez, who was a combat medic in Iraq, says he felt that when he came home to an increasingly polarized country, where he didn't always feel safe.

RODRIGUEZ: Well, certain states that I would like to travel through - and I would have to wear a U.S. Army shirt or wear an Army shirt or wear, like, a veteran hat just to get some kind of respect. 'Cause I'm a brown guy - I'm brown, I have to wear something that says that I'm a patriot, that I'm an American patriot. And that's not cool. It's not a good feeling.

LAWRENCE: Rodriguez is now settled in his native Puerto Rico, where he's in the business of renovating and managing apartments. And 20 years after the war, he's moving on. That's true for many vets of the Iraq War just like it is for the rest of the country. Allison Jaslow, who we heard from earlier, now leads IAVA, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

JASLOW: Not everyone, but many veterans, have come back. They've gotten the chance to take advantage of the GI Bill. They have settled into their post-military careers. And our wartime experience is something that we carry with us and will always carry with us. But there's - for many vets, they've spent more time out of the military than in it and in adulthood, building another life.

LAWRENCE: Jaslow says she's looking forward, not back, and she's optimistic about what veterans of the Iraq War will do as they start to become leaders here at home, bearing the lessons of a war they fought faithfully but mostly now agree was not worth fighting. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.