The morning after landing in Kuwait, Andrew Pedry felt like he was in a moonscape.
The horizon was endless, the wind ferocious.
Pedry was serving with the U.S. Marines in Okinawa on Sept. 11, 2001. His second deployment would be in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which came between March 20 and May 1 that year.
“(Our lieutenant) kind of gave us this pep talk about being ready and strapping our helmets on. It was almost like we were landing in a hot (landing zone). We landed in Kuwait International Airport, which is anything but. We all just got off the plane and collected our things,” he said.
The U.S.-led operation to depose Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein began a conflict that lasted more than a decade and still continues against remaining pockets of Islamic State forces in the northern part of the country.
Now a teacher at Riverside Military Academy, Pedry uses the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts as a starting point before jumping back in history. Iraq is a “cautionary tale in a lot of ways,” he said.
“I believe that America had enough moral and legal justification to invade Iraq after a long decade of violating UN resolutions, shooting at American aircraft, not to mention (Saddam Hussein’s) own crimes against his people,” Pedry said. “The broader thought that we could invade a country, hand the Iraqis democracy in a three-ring binder and leave and expect that to work is preposterous. An understanding of how many times that has failed in history should have given the American public greater reason to pause and reflect before going in.”
With 15 years removed from the invasion, Pedry said he believes it is a proper time to reflect on the invasion. He was then a 23-year-old man thinking through the moralities of the mission he was sent to accomplish.
“As a Christian, as someone who tries to be a moral person, the taking of life is a great responsibility. It’s one of the greatest responsibilities a society can give to a person is the right to take life on that society’s behalf,” he said.
A year later, Marine Lt. Col. Scott Ballard was deployed to Iraq as an operations officer tasked with a civil affairs unit.
“We helped them re-establish their local city government and city council by helping them host meetings in the building we were at. It really culminated for us on Jan. 30, 2005, when the first elections took place,” said Ballard, now retired.
Though there are some things he wished he hadn’t seen or had been a part of, Ballard said he has fond memories of working with his fellow service members.
“I can’t tell you honestly how the Iraqi people have been able to adapt and overcome and still live in a democracy. They still have challenges there. I think they will have for some time,” he said.
Part of the reason for this is the tribalism present in Iraq, Ballard said.
“It’s really not well-suited for our brand of democracy, as it were. But I think looking back at that time, I think the work that we did was meaningful probably because I was working with the civil affairs unit. You get to work with the local population. You get to sit down at the table with them and have tea and discuss with them what their desires are, what they need,” he said.
During the invasion, the most loyal and equipped troops stayed closest to Saddam while the least among them took the outer perimeters. A considerable portion of the population felt “he was not worth dying for,” Pedry said.
“When we first crossed into Iraq the first days that we encountered Iraqi troops, they were quite literally walking miles across the desert in order to surrender to us,” he said.
On April 9, 2003, the statue of Saddam in central Baghdad was toppled. President George W. Bush gave a speech May 1, 2003, on the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner.
“When that fear and totalitarian oversight become the unifying factors of your nation (and) when that is suddenly removed, you have a vacuum and you have a very small window to manage that vacuum,” Pedry said. “That didn’t happen in Iraq. We ended up with sectarianism, with terrorism, with foreign states getting involved. Personally, I believe that a lot of that has to do with the fact that we didn’t have enough troops in the invasion.”
For this generation of veterans, Pedry has seen an increased desire to get involved in public discourse. He said he considers the Post 9/11 Veterans Education Assistance Act of 2008 to be one of the biggest boons to the military community since the original G.I. Bill.
In July 2014, Hall County started its Veterans Court as a way to assist veterans and their families. Coordinator Danielle Gunn said about 25 percent of participants are from the Iraq and Afghanistan era.
“I’m seeing a lot more (post-traumatic stress disorder) and (traumatic brain injuries) and those kinds of things, which really impact their anger issues, their ability to communicate (and) their social interactions,” Gunn said.
Participants in Veterans Court have group meetings as well as individualized services. Gunn said there is also a large focus on getting additional help and benefits through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.