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Through Their Eyes

Words by Patrick Williams
Video by Jacob Byk

Veterans of the War on Terror reflect on growing terrorism in the regions they fought to protect.

About an hour southeast of Baghdad along the Tigris River stands Suwayrah, Iraq. Another 15 or 20 minutes into the desert lies an abandoned air force base bombed out from Desert Storm that belonged to Saddam Hussein. In the spring of 2008, R. Jay Wilkinson, then an M249 submachine gunner with the U.S. Army, was staying there. He remembers the abandoned airplane hangars. He remembers the Russian tanks blown up on the side of the road, their parts missing because locals had taken them for scrap. He remembers the barriers and razor wire the U.S. Army set up and the Olympic stadium he could see from one of the guard towers that seemed so out of place.

From there, Wilkinson moved to southern Baghdad, where the bomb-makers hung out, and then to Baghdad, where his platoon ran 5:30 a.m. patrols. The Iraqi people slept on the floors of the local bazaars. Sometimes 20 of them would be packed into a single, small storefront. From behind a .50 caliber rifle atop a Humvee, Wilkinson watched them, these people who lived in a world of chaos.

The U.S. War in Iraq ended in 2011. Its purpose was to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime and to create an autonomous, democratic government. Hussein was captured in 2003 and executed in 2006. The U.S. instituted a democracy, widely considered to this day to be an utter failure. Meanwhile, U.S. troops fought al-Qaida and other terrorist groups and insurgencies.

The Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, formed out of al-Qaida during the War in Iraq, but the two groups have since severed ties. The Islamic State made international headlines in June for capturing key Iraqi cities and have since seized large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria, the latter of which has been engulfed in a civil war since 2011. In an attempt to create a caliphate, or Islamic state under a strict form of sharia law that restricts certain behavior and appearance, the Islamic State has carried out beheadings of U.S. and British citizens and continues to threaten the U.S. It has recruited fighters from all over the world, including the U.S., Britain and France. The U.S. has armed resistance groups, such as the Kurdish peshmerga, and President Obama has formed a multinational coalition to conduct airstrikes on the Islamic State.

Veterans of the Middle East wars and Kent State students have taken time to reflect on their tours and the profound effect those experiences have had on their views of current rising tensions.

“It makes your stomach turn a little bit because I dedicated a good portion of my life toward this,” Wilkinson says, “and then [you] sit here in the news and you see these guys running through Iraq.”

A background

Wilkinson and Logan Vance have been best friends since they met in Kindergarten in Ashtabula County, Ohio. There weren’t many people in Plymouth, where they lived about two miles from each other. They rode four-wheelers and dirt bikes and worked for Wilkinson’s father’s excavation company together.

After high school graduation, they went to basic training together in Fort Benning, Georgia, in 2006.

Wilkinson remembers one day when the soldiers trained at the hand grenade range. That night, when many of the drill sergeants were off duty, he sneaked into Vance’s room, where soldiers were throwing socks at each other, pretending they were grenades.

Wilkinson, second from right, and fellow soldiers sat outside at COP Meade. The generators had blown, and the soldiers were taking their cots outside to cool off.

Vance, 26, was deployed to Afghanistan in 2007 with the U.S. Army 2nd ranger battalion. He was in the country for four months, carrying out combat and search and rescue missions and was shipped off to Iraq in 2009, where he completed a five-month tour with Headquarters company and the recon element.

Vance, now a senior integrated social studies major, spent most of his time running intel at Camp Speicher in Tikrit. The Islamic State took the camp in June of this year, and Iraqi forces took it back in July.

Vance says he was closed-minded when he joined the army. He was smart, athletic and confident. He wanted to kill people. Then he realized just how many good people there are in the world.

“There’s civilians that have no part of this at all, and they’re getting beheaded and drug out into squares and shot and hung and trampled over, just because they’re there,” Vance says.

Wilkinson, who graduated from Kent State with a marketing degree in August, was in Iraq for 14 months.

U.S. soldiers—good people—were killed for doing nothing wrong, Wilkinson says. They could have been just sitting in the backseat of a Humvee on their way to a mission.

As of September 25, the U.S. Department of Defense counted 6,836 combined U.S. casualties and another 52,239 wounded in action between the War in Iraq, War in Afghanistan and related operations.

The goal to increase security measures in Iraq was supposed to fall largely on U.S. troops, who were ordered to train Iraqi army and police forces that would in turn take control when U.S. forces left.

“It was supposed to be all good and gravy,” Wilkinson says. “It looked good probably in some politician’s office in Washington.”

But Iraqi army and police forces abandoned posts many times because terrorists had threatened them and their families, Wilkinson says.

Joshua Stacher, associate professor of political science who specializes in studies of the Middle East and North Africa, attributes weak links in Iraqi army and police forces to the U.S.-led regime change, which forced former officers to leave their jobs, replaced by ones with less experience.

“In any society, people gravitate toward different professions,” Stacher says. “What you’ve done with that is you’ve taken those people who have done that and you’ve pushed them aside and now you’re dealing with other people.”

Middle Eastern countries are weak, largely due to colonial rule by western countries, as well as the subsequent state development processes and plans set up, Stacher says. Saddam’s Iraq was relatively stable, and the U.S. destruction led to the creation and strengthening of terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State.

“It is kind of a state-building project, in the sense that they’re acting like a state,” Stacher says. “They have territory, they have an army, they are trying to punish people in full view of other people to make people submit to their authority, they have a way to administer taxes, they’re running an oil economy, they’re selling oil on the open market.”

Vance says the United States failed to leave Iraq with a cohesive government or national identity, allowing the Islamic State to take territory with ease. They also took advantage of the civil war in Syria.

“Even the quote unquote ‘freedom fighters’ or whatever you want to consider them that are in Syria, they don’t even like each other, know each other, and they’re fighting amongst themselves,” Vance says. “So it was just kind of the perfect storm for them to really take hold.”

Wilkinson sees the toppling of Hussein’s statue as a key event in the loss of infrastructure in Iraq, in which the U.S. had a definite role.

“[Iraqi citizens] pretty much decided there’s no rulers, they’re not scared or nothing, and that’s when they started going and tearing apart all the government buildings,” Wilkinson says.

Wilkinson was in Iraq during the advent of voting. Many people were happy to be able to vote for the first time, but others were enraged by the idea of women voting. These infuriated citizens, many of whom weren’t necessarily linked with terrorist organizations, killed soldiers in Wilkinson’s battalion for aiding women in the voting process.

Catherine Hofer, 32, a senior nursing major who was stationed in Bagram, Afghanistan, from September 2007 to September 2008 and outside Kabul from September 2013 to February 2014, says she saw huge differences between women’s roles in the U.S. versus in Afghanistan.

Women in Afghanistan are looked down upon by men, afforded less rights and, as punishment for certain acts, are killed by stoning.

“I could go out and do whatever I want, minus murdering someone, and I’m still not going to get stoned to death for it,” Hofer says. “I’m going to get sent to prison for it. I’m not going to stand in a stadium full of people and get rocks thrown at me until I’m dead. So I definitely appreciate the freedoms that I have as a female here.”

While they constantly face doubt and uncertainty, Middle Eastern citizens are more politically aware now than ever, Stacher says.

“They understand exactly and precisely what the game is in terms of how they’re repressed and who’s repressing them and what the red lines are,” Stacher says.

They are also calling for democracy in larger numbers, but the transition from an authoritarian government to a democratic one is a long process, Stacher says.

A September 2013 poll of Muslims worldwide showed that 67 percent of respondents were concerned about Islamic extremism. Only four percent of respondents to a July poll of Syrians conducted by Opinion Research Business support the Islamic State.

At the same time, Iraqis as a whole are incredibly weary of welcoming U.S. occupying forces back, says Patrick Coy, director of Center for Applied Conflict Management and professor of political science.

In response to a 2007 poll of Iraqis conducted by the BBC, ABC and NHK, about 70 percent of Iraqi respondents said that U.S. forces in Iraq had worsened security.

Steven Hook, political science professor who specializes in U.S. foreign relations, says the recent increase in the numbers and activities of terrorist groups, including the Islamic State, have revealed the weakness of the United States’ foreign policy and its incapacity to create stable governments.

“I would say this is the most turbulent period in world politics I’ve seen since I became a foreign policy specialist [in 1993],” Hook says.

What should be done?

Terror groups not only threaten local populations, but they constitute a potential threat to the U.S. and action needs to be taken against them, Vance says.

Vance lives off campus with his girlfriend Jessica and their 3-year-old daughter. He is enlisted in the Pennsylvania National Guard, a job that could require him to fight if ground troops were sent back to the Middle East.

Having studied world politics both in school and in his free time, Vance observes that a war in Syria against terrorists could potentially bring the fight to Bashar al-Assad’s regime there, which would cause backlash from its allies, including Iran and potentially Russia.

“You never get out of this circle of war,” Vance says. “That’s not what I want for my daughter. That’s not what I want for the future of this country.”

Vance does support airstrikes against the Islamic State, as long as they are controlled.

Hofer, who is now enlisted with the Ohio National Guard, doesn’t want to leave her kids—she’s a single mother of two—but she would if she had to.
“I do as I’m told,” Hofer says. “I follow orders, and I do as I’m told. Whether I’m against it or for it, I do as I’m told.”

Wilkinson says the U.S. has to take some form of military action against the Islamic State.

Wilkinson held up ammo within a few days of arriving at COP Meade near Suwayrah, Iraq. He and other soldiers were storing supplies in the base at the time.

“You take care of them now, while you can, compared to just letting them sit there for 10 years and just run [Iraq] and build camps and train up hundreds and thousands of soldiers,” Wilkinson says.

Numbers provided by the CIA in mid-September estimate there are roughly 20,000 to 31,500 Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria.

One potential plan of action that needs to be addressed is woven deeper into Islamic societies, Vance says. Islamic religious leaders, or imams, need to step up and calm the hostility between the religion’s denominations, Vance says. Members of the Islamic State are Sunni, while the Iraqi government is largely Shia. Assad’s Syrian government is made up of people from the Alawite religious minority.

Stacher says the main difference between Sunni and Shia is Sunni believe leadership positions should be based on consensus and Shia believe they should be based on heredity.

“The Sunni and Shia part of Islam is really just one identity that when an overarching identity, like Iraqi nationalism or Iraq, gets blown to smithereens and blown apart, people have to rely on other identities,” Stacher says.

Vance says he believes religion is an excuse terrorist groups use to meet their own agendas.

World leaders have issued fatwas, or proclamations, against the Islamic State, claiming their actions go against Islamic principles.

Vance remembers an Iraqi explaining suicide bombing to him. The man told Vance that shrapnel flies out when a bomb is detonated, and if the bomber is a true believer in Allah, then the shrapnel will turn into rose petals and fall at his feet and kill the nonbelievers.

Vance says he looked at the man and asked, “Well, what about the suicide bomber? He’s a true believer, right? Why does he get torn apart by an explosion and shrapnel? Shouldn’t it just be rose petals at his feet?”

“Well, that’s a good point,” was how Vance says the man responded. “I don’t know.”

Understanding the conflict

Veterans and experts agree there is no easy solution to the Islamic State problem. But it helps to understand the United States’ role.

“These aren’t one military intervention after another military intervention,” Stacher says. “No, we have to see these as a linked event. This has now become one long war, and it’s not going to stop.”

People think ideologically about things they don’t see on a day-to-day basis, Stacher says. Camels and pyramids often come to mind when Americans think about the Middle East, for instance, yet they have very detailed perceptions of their own society. Stacher urges students to begin thinking less ideologically and more about the roles that people and institutions play in the world.

***

Wilkinson and Vance returned home around the same time, in 2009, and they spent a lot of time together.

“He got a little more serious,” Vance says of Wilkinson. “He was the class clown. He was never very serious about anything, and then he got serious about stuff.”

Wilkinson says he and Vance have talked at length about their war experiences, and Hofer says people in the military form incredibly strong bonds with each other.

“There’s nothing like it that you can find where you go experience something in your life that you’re never going to do,” Hofer says, “and only a certain amount of people can ever relate to you.”

Left: R. Jay Wilkinson, U.S. Army M249 submachine gunner in Iraq.
Right: Logan Vance, U.S. Army 2nd ranger battalion in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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