20 years after the Iraq War, Arkansans look back on their time in the conflict (2023)

20 years after the Iraq War, Arkansans look back on their time in the conflict (1)Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/MICHAEL WOODSMembers of 3rd Battalion Charlie Company take cover just before an EOD detonation in Baghdad's Adhamyiah district Saturday afternoon. 11/20/04

“I think it's hard to contextualize and conceptualize time. Especially with something like [the Iraq war]. And the memories you have of that event are still so visceral and real. It still feels close and immediate in many ways.” — Maj. Gen. Jon Stubbs, Arkansas Military Secretary and Adjutant General of the Arkansas National Guard on March 22, 2023.

According to the history books, America's second war in Iraq - also known as "Operation Iraqi Freedom" - began on Wednesday, March 19, 2003.

At that point, at 7:00 p.m., President George W. Bush's 48-hour ultimatum to Saddam Hussein and his sons to leave Iraq or face the war at “our choice” ended. TC.

Some time later, in the early hours of the morning, an arsenal of 40 Tomahawk cruise missiles and 2,000-pound bombs, known as joint direct attack munitions, were dropped on the capital, Baghdad.

Within 24 hours, coalition forces began crossing the Iraqi border en route to Baghdad.

The Iraq War that claimed the lives of 4,598 American soldiers andHundreds of thousands of Iraqis, according to Brown University, would not be officially declared closed for eight years.

However, for some Arkansas involved in the conflict, their personal role in Operation Iraqi Freedom began well before March 2003 and ended years before 2011.


How long ago was 2003?

Just check out Michael Strawn's About Me Books.

There are two folders with three rings full of certificates and photos documenting his first deployment to Iraq from March 2003 to January 2004.

49-year-old Strawn flips through a photo folder during a break from her full-time job at Camp Robinson as part of medical readiness for the aviation unit.

The world of 2003—when Strawn was a medic with the Arkansas National Guard's now-defunct 296th Ground Ambulance Company—was a world where physical film was still regularly used to document everyday life.

Some of Strawn's photos have the bright red dates in the lower right corner - like one documenting an apocalyptic-looking sandstorm on May 14, 2003 - that say, "You had to be there."

There are many moments that are not captured in Strawn's folder.

As is your vivid memory of the week of January 18, 2003.

At the time, he was working in the Pulaski County Sheriff's Office.

On January 15, Strawn's wife, Melanie, gave birth to their first child, Jacob. A few days later they pulled into his driveway at North Little Rock.

While Melanie worked to get a car seat, Strawn went to check the mail.

He found a letter addressed to him from the Arkansas Military Department.

"I remember seeing that letter and kind of had an idea before I even opened it of what was going to be inside as she struggled with the car seat," Strawn recalled. "That's how it started."

Within weeks, Strawn was on active duty.

By the time the 296th Ground Ambulance Company crossed the border from Kuwait into Iraq, Strawn's unit was several days behind the initial invasion.

However, the moment is still "very eventful, very scary".

They arrived in ambulances loaded with personal gear.

"We were like the Beverly Hillbillies, we had stuff strapped to the roof of the ambulance and everywhere we could so we could still use the back of the ambulance," Strawn said. "There was anxiety, but you really were too busy to think about it too much."

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Once his part of the convoy was on the Iraqi side, "there were kids everywhere" crowding the vehicles as they passed at 40 mph.

A child managed to snatch Oakley sunglasses from a train driver in the Humvee in front of him.

"He lost his fancy sunglasses within the first minute in Iraq," Strawn recalls.



In the week that Operation Iraqi Freedom began, Searcy's Jon Stubbs was far from a modern battlefield.

He and his family were in Williamsburg, Virginia for spring break.

"Obviously I was very distracted," Stubbs recalled as he sat in his office at the Arkansas National Guard Headquarters in North Little Rock. "I had some friends there, friends who were on active duty who were part of the first raid, people I knew. So I was really, really distracted and had a hard time concentrating for the holidays, but I definitely remember that."

In 2003, Stubbs was a 30-year-old captain in the Arkansas National Guard's 39th Infantry Brigade and commander of Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, based out of Walnut Ridge.

He had never seen a fight of this magnitude.

"We knew [Iraq] was going to be a practical endeavor, and we knew it wasn't just going to be a quick thing," Stubbs said.

That summer his unit attended their annual training at Fort Chaffee in Fort Smith and believed they would attend the Joint Readiness Training Center the following year.

"But toward the end of that training period, we got hints there that, 'hey, you might not be going to JRTC next year. They could be somewhere else'."

On the weekend of July 27thwas the 3,000-strong 39th Infantry Brigadesaid to be ready to be sent to Iraq. On 09/27received his marching orders.

The brigade would spend a year in Iraq.

After a month of training at Walnut Ridge, the inevitable happened on November 1 when Stubbs boarded a bus bound for Fort Hood, Texas.

"It's one of those things you never forget," Stubbs said. "The reason I don't do it is because I remember trick or treating with my daughter. She was 7 at the time. And we were in Pocahontas, Arkansas. That was our last night together before we left.”

Stubbs' first "No Kid Mobilization" was in full swing.

Five months later, on April 8, 2004 - Stubb's 32nd birthday - he crossed from Kuwait to Iraq as a "principal element" in one of the first convoys of his battalion.

“As you enter Iraq, as you approach Baghdad, the intelligence reports show that the troops are in contact and there are casualties and there is a crescendo where all the training and all your experience and all your education that you have up to going through now...at that point it sort of culminates and then you realize, OK, you're getting ready to put all of this into practice.


Unlike Strawn and Stubbs, Brig. Gen. Riley Porter had already seen action in the Middle East when the Iraq war began.

A former Mayor of Helena with 20 years of National Guard experience, Porter served in a command position with the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing at Ganti Air Base, Kyrgyzstan, in 2002 as part of support for Operation Enduring Freedom.

When he received the call to deploy to Iraq, Porter was a commanding colonel of the 189th Airlift Squadron at Little Rock Air Force Base.

Also unlike Strawn and Stubbs, Porter spent only four months in Iraq, from July to October 2003.

Operating alone, Porter was the first Arkansas Air Guard to invade Iraq. He would command about 2,000 Airmen in the 332nd Expeditionary Air Wing at Tallil Air Base in southern Iraq.

At one point, Porter's mission was to ensure C-17 military transport aircraft could reach Balad Air Base, a former Iraqi base 40 miles north of Baghdad that was in "total chaos".

That set the stage for a surreal experience when Porter was first drafted into the army.

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"I had to show up there at night for security and we didn't have any protection flying there," Porter recalled.

Upon arrival, he was ushered into a small room just as mortar fire was aimed at the base.

In the room sat a career army general, "just a grumpy old man," and two colonels of Porter's rank.

"I went in there and kind of captured the ice that was in the air," Porter said.

As mortar fire "pounded outside," the General asked Porter for his orders. Porter took it out of his army green bag, which he called his "bag," and spread it out.

After reading them, the General told Porter to "tell me what you are going to do here".

Halfway through Porter's tirade, he began saying, "...I hope I have an easy life..."

"Halt," the general ordered.

"We don't use the word 'hope' here," he said. "We have designated someone to be responsible for making this happen."

Porter thought to himself, "What have I gotten myself into?"

Porter continued his speech and said, "Let's get this stuff ready for our customers..."

"Halt," the general repeated. "Soldiers are not customers. Customers have options. Soldiers don't."

Finally, Porter told the General, "If you have a problem with my orders, you can call General Buchanan and discuss the matter with him."

The general relented and said, "At least you have your [army bag]".

"You mean my purse?" asked Porter.

"Soldiers don't carry purses!" the general exploded. "You're lucky I don't have you on the floor doing push-ups!"

"It really didn't start well," Porter said.


20. November 2004.

It is remembered by Stubbs as the Halloween night he spent with his daughter and the birthday he celebrated upon entering Iraq.

"I'll never forget that," says Stubbs. "I think about it every November 20th."

That day marked the heaviest combat the 39th Infantry Brigade had seen in its first eight months on the ground. Located near an Iraqi police station in the Adhamiyah district of Baghdad, it began just after dawn and lasted all day. Eight roadside bombs and two car bombs were found or detonated near Stubbs' unit, Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 153rd Infantry.

According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette story at the time, the attack was in apparent retaliation for a previous day's raid on the Abu Hanifa Mosque -- the oldest Sunni mosque in Baghdad.

"It was just a complex neighborhood attack that started with one of my squads attacking a large group of insurgents near the police station and led to me deploying another squad," Stubbs recalled. “We had a neighboring unit that was involved in the fighting. They had one killed in action. ...and it included dismounted insurgents, machine guns and propelled grenades and an IED attack [car carried] against one of my platoons...had several casualties. It was just a really intense, intense day that basically lasted all day. Looking back on it, it was probably the most intense day I had there.

Strawn's worst day in Iraq didn't include his next phone call, but it's "the main thing I think about a lot".

It took place in the Ramadi/Fallujah area, where a group of five or six ambulances linked to different units were sent.

Ambulances may be attached to a unit for a few days or a month before being reassigned.

"My ambulance has been with this unit for quite some time and we are preparing to move to a new base," Strawn recalled. “The company commander went to patrol the area and was blown up.

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"I should be in the car with him. But due to some last minute changes, I wasn't."

"I often wonder that," Strawn said. "If I had been in the truck, what would have happened? would I have survived I would have been there to maybe help him because he couldn't."

Porter's next call came in a missile attack that could have been worse.

One day he was on his way to the canteen when insurgents started firing "some rockets" at his base.

"Back then we had never had a missile attack."

Porter recalls hearing an Army officer shout "Down! Down! Down!" and four rockets hitting nearby.

"One of them hit me close enough to blow me up and push me against... a large concrete barrier" meant for protection.

Porter was knocked unconscious and injured his shoulder.

Unfortunately, four army soldiers were killed.

"I consider myself very, very lucky," said Porter. "We found out the next day, I think it was...they had eight rockets set up...They kind of benched them, tilted them to fire...Four of them went off and four of them they did." not."


The process of leaving Baghdad and eventually Iraq after a year was "very, very surreal" for Stubbs.

"If you cross the border and start dumping all your ammo, you deliver all your ammo to Kuwait and you run out of bullets," Stubbs recalled. “You go from essentially a year of over-vigilance, locked and loaded, to a slang term to deliver your ammunition. And I remember that in a way it was almost shocking.”

Stubbs recalls being caught in an SUV in a coalition staging area.

"I get out of my combat vehicle, away from the [military] radios, away from all those things and you get into an SUV with a radio and air conditioning and a CD player and ... civilisation. It's a very strange feeling. That's when you realized, 'Hey, I'm coming home'."

Finally back in the States, Stubbs returned home from Fort Sill, Oklahoma. He was greeted by his family with a huge welcome party.

First thing Stubbs ate? Okra.

"I love gumbo, so my dad made me...homemade gumbo," Stubbs recalled. "There's no doubt that I've gotten into a binge eating when it comes to good food."

Even after the celebrations, the transition from serving in the Middle East to returning to Arkansas was harrowing.

"One day you'll be in Baghdad," Stubbs said, clenching his fist to emphasize his point and also closing his eyes briefly, probably recalling that passage in the spring of 2005. "Three days later, or maybe two days later 'You're in Kuwait... Then maybe five days later you're back in the States and a few days later you're back in your living room.

Stubbs "fought a lot" after returning to the US.

"I'm not ashamed to share that," he says, recalling three or four months of the struggle, "bonding with my wife or my daughter at the time, willing to talk about it. I hadn't fully processed it."

Strawn, who was granted a two-week vacation last fall, experienced many of the same feelings. Except that he lost almost all of his son's first year of life.

"I joke that I miss all the big diaper changes and I can't sleep at night," Stubbs says. "Staying on edge was hard and it took a while, you know every little noise everyone is used to [would] make you think about it for just a minute."

Stubbs and his wife Jane were counseled to help with the reintegration process after being separated for a year and a half.

Stubbs acknowledges that as an active Guardian, he had access to resources that likely made the transition easier than others.

"I was very blessed to continue to wear uniform, so it wasn't like I went back and had to reintegrate into civilian employment," Stubbs said. "I went back to work at Camp Robinson ... I still had access to that environment. Think about our traditional guards, they came back, same experiences as me... But they came back and left, they went back to a civilian career or went back to school or maybe didn't have a job and you think about how difficult this transition was.

"Much harder."

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Overall, Stubbs estimates that it took about six months for things to return to normal.

But normal is short-lived in your area.

Stubbs noted that five months after returning home, many Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans would be called upon to respond to a disaster at home in August and September 2005.

"I know it sounds kind of crazy, but ... a lot of OIF veterans got caught right in Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans," Stubbs said, noting that the aftermath of the Category 5 hurricane was "a very chaotic, surreal setting in itself." ".

"It's not too far away to be implemented."


Stubbs, who turns 51 in April, reclines in an office chair, hands clasped in his lap, and exhales as he stares at the ceiling and ponders the question.

"When I think of the Iraq war, what image comes to mind?"

Stubbs' eyes move a little as he remembers the war, at least the war he experienced.

"I don't know, it's just my soldiers' faces," Stubbs replies after about 20 seconds. "This is the picture. The faces of those I have served with.”

Stubbs sees some of these faces every day.

There is a shadow box on the wall opposite your desk.

On it is a small American flag that he bought in Kuwait before entering Iraq and put in his armor where it stayed throughout his trip. Above the flag is a photo of Stubbs and three of his lieutenants posing in Baghdad.

"What made the experience was the people," Stubbs says. “You have ministered with extraordinary people doing extraordinary things, heroic things. These are people, these are our Arkansans, who have done extraordinary, heroic, incredibly brave things. Who only live in relative darkness in our communities. Nobody knows. These are people . who just came back here and got back to work."

According to the Arkansas National Guard, 23 of its soldiers died in Iraq between 2004 and 2008.

Of the men and women who formed the Arkansas Army and Air National Guard in March 2003, 830 remain in uniform today. That's 10% of the roughly 8,500-strong force Stubbs now commands as his adjutant general.

What Stubbs witnessed 19 years ago was a "key event."

"It was monumental, transformative," Stubbs said. "It really showed the importance of good coaching and good leadership."

He added that “it kind of puts everything into perspective; it's not just training for training's sake. What we do has consequences if you don't do it right.”

One of the 830 Guard members still on duty 20 years after the war is Strawn, but his time is limited.

The day he looked at his "Books About Me" at Camp Robinson, including the photo of him smoking a Cuban cigar with a friend after an ambulance ride, Strawn was 52 days from retiring from a military career that began the 1990s began. . .

During a phone conversation a few days earlier, Strawn was unsure of what his future held.

"I'm in," Strawn said. "Lately I've been into a lot of hobbies, laser engraving, and I just bought a 3D printer."

As for Operation Iraqi Freedom, it feels like less than 20 years has passed for Strawn.

"When I talk to my friends who were there, it feels like 10 years ago," Strawn noted. "I don't think about the why [why we went to war] and particularly the casualties as much as I do what I did there and see the good changes that came out of it."

When Porter was asked to compare his time in Iraq to Afghanistan, he called it a "strained question."

"Both were completely different motivations," Porter noted. “I felt honored to minister in both places and with all people. I felt that the trip to Iraq was very rewarding for me personally because of what was achieved. I had a feeling that the [war] in Afghanistan would drag on forever. .. Whereas Iraq... I could see that what we were doing could definitely come to an end. Of course I didn't call that very well, did I?"

Although major combat operations were declared over in 2011, the United States remains present in Iraq.

(Video) PBS NewsHour full episode, March 29, 2023

Twenty years after the first bombs fell and veterans like Strawn came to the country,about US$2,500Military personnel are still reporting for duty in Iraq.


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