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America at War

On 5th Anniversary of Iraq War, Memories of the Occupation

Krissy Clark

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Autograph Accomplished
(Luke Frazza/AFP)
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As we near the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War, this weekend people are marching and holding vigils from Chicago to Rome.

A lot has happened over the past year.

Last spring Congress lost its fight to put a deadline on troop withdrawal. May was one of the bloodiest months U.S. forces have faced since the invasion. September of 2007 brought us the Blackwater scandal, where a private security guard allegedly fired on Iraqi civilians. By that point the troop-surge was in full effect. And since then, US deaths have slowed over all, despite a number of violent bombings in the past few weeks.

All that took place in Iraq over the past year. Meanwhile, back in America, life goes on.

So what has that same time frame meant for civilians here at home?

This time last year, the war was a nagging but quiet fact for a real-estate agent from the Pacific Northwest named Tom. You'll understand in a moment why he didn't want to use his last name.

"Of course I had friends that have their children there [in Iraq} and who are fighting in the war," he says. "And of course I had that on my mind. And of course it's on the news all the time too."

But frankly, like most Americans, Tom's defining moment last spring was not related to the war, or its anniversary. For Tom, last spring was all about a banquet he threw for 30 of his friends. At first, no one knew why he'd thrown it.

"It was kind of funny because everybody thought I was getting married, or starting a new company," he laughs. "One person, she goes, 'You won the lottery.'"

That person was right. A few weeks before, he'd won more than two million dollars.

"That whole day was just a whirlwind," he remembers. "I think I drove around the block 50 times. I got in the car, decided I needed to go some place, and then realized I didn't have any place to go. And then I'd get in the car and do it again."

And that was the beginning of Tom's first year as a multi-millionaire. Though he only gets a fraction of the money each year.

He says the biggest changes in his life since last year are the daily phone calls he now gets from junk investment companies and motor-home salesmen. He still works his real estate job, and he says the Iraq war still comes up, in little ways in his life.

"I deal with clients. I just actually dealt with another one yesterday who's getting ready to sell their house and is getting moved over there. I certainly wish that we didn't have to have our kids over there."

***

This time last year, Lillian Eirene Case was about to celebrate her fourth birthday, which is March 22.

Lillian is the same age as the Iraq War. But last year, when I talked with Lillian and her mom, she had no idea what that meant.

I asked her if she knew anything about the Iraq war.

"No," she said.

"Do you know what war is?" I asked.

"No," she said.

"Do you know what peace is?"

Again, the answer was "No."

Her mom chimed in, trying to help: "Do you know what soldiers do?"

"No," said Lillian. And then she went back to playing with her little sister.

That was a year ago. Over the last 12 months, Lillian has grown about six inches. She's getting more interested in reading and she's really into princesses. Her mom says they still don't talk to her much about what's going on in Iraq. But when I talk to Lillian, something's changed.

I remind her of our conversation, a year ago. "I asked if you knew what war is. Do you know what war is?" I inquire.

"No," she says.

"Do you know what peace is?" I try again. "What does peace mean?"

After a pause, Lillian says, "Stay together."

"What about soldiers, do you know what soldiers do?" I ask.

"Fight," she says. That one seems easy for her. I ask Lillian why soldiers fight.

She thinks for a moment. "Because," she stops. "They're trying to fight because... each other's worlds doesn't," she pauses again, then continues.
"Each other's worlds is not all the same. And they're fighting about who's is right and who's is wrong."

***

This time last year, Phillip Carter was sitting in his office at a corporate law firm in Los Angeles, still processing his recent tour in Iraq. He'd served about nine months there, advising the Iraqi police in the violent city of Baqubah. And he was still blinking at his new civilian life, his nine-to-five job, his weekend afternoons at Starbucks.

He told me that one afternoon, "I looked around Starbucks and saw everyone sort of just enjoying their life, and doing their thing, and I thought, you know, these people are completely oblivious to the fact that 140,000 of their countrymen are fighting and dying and being blown up."

A year since Phil said that, he has moved from LA to New York, and the one-time Republican has started volunteering for the Obama campaign. He reads the death tolls every day, to see if he knows anyone. He tells me that he's thankful he hasn't lost any of his U.S. military friends this year. But a number of his Iraqi friends have been killed.

"There was one in particular who liked to come on to our little compound in downtown Baqubah," he says, "because we had ice cream, and he used to take ice cream home for his family." Phil says it was especially hard to hear the news of this man's death halfway around the world, and not be able to go to his funeral. "Very, very nice guy. Very good guy. Definitely a loss to the city and to the people."

Phil is conflicted about what the U.S. should do in Iraq now. He tries not to lose touch with the realities of the war he once knew so intimately.

"But you know there's a chance that I will be one of those people someday sitting in a Starbucks, without a clue about what's going on."

He says he's not sure if that's a tragedy, or a luxury.

  • Music Bridge:
    Tony One
    Artist: Sack and Blumm
    CD: Shy Noon (Gefriem)
More stories from our America at War series

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