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How the war in Iraq touched Oregon


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Mike Francis, The Oregonian Mike Francis, The Oregonian

Even if most Oregonians weren’t paying attention, the war in Iraq touched the state in many ways. The eight-plus years of military occupation were marked by courage, tedium, good deeds, sacrifice and sorrow. The Oregon National Guard sent about 5,300 people to Iraq, with many of them deploying more than once. And 111 troops with strong ties to Oregon and Southwest Washington died in Iraq or as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The legacy of the war was felt at various times in every part of the state, from the smallest towns to the biggest cities. And for those who came home changed by the war, the effects will continue to be felt for years.

The first Oregon casualty in Iraq occurred March 22, 2003, when Army Reservist Brandon Tobler of Portland was killed when his 18-ton cargo truck collided with another vehicle in a nighttime convoy heading north toward Baghdad.

One day later, a small detachment of soldiers including Sgt. Donald Walters, who grew up in Salem, and Private Jessica Lynch was ambushed in Baghdad. Walters was among those killed — fighting to the end, Lynch later testified — and others were captured and held prisoner for 22 days. The survivors were freed in a raid by Special Operations forces. Walters was awarded the Silver Star posthumously.

After the March 2003 invasion, a contingent of Oregon National Guard soldiers were assigned to protect KBR contractors rebuilding a water plant at Qarmat Ali. While there, they where exposed to a free-floating particles of a carcinogenic compound called sodium dichromate. Some were sickened. They sued KBR, arguing that the contractor knew it was exposing the soldiers to health risks. KBR denies it and the litigation continues to this day.

June 4, 2004 was one of the worst days in Oregon military history, as a chain of explosives planted on the edge of Baghdad’s Sadr City took the lives of First Lt. Erik McCrae, Spc. Justin Linden and Sgt. Justin Eyerly, along with two New Jersey soldiers. Back in Oregon, Gov. Ted Kulongoski pulled out of a trade mission to Japan so he could attend the funerals, as he did with almost every Oregonian killed in the wars.

On June 29, 2004, a squad of Oregon Guard from the 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry Regiment forced their way into an Iraqi Interior Ministry compound, where a group of immigrant detainees are being beaten and, apparently, tortured by Iraqis. The Oregonians disarmed the Iraqis and rendered aid to the detainees. But they were ordered to leave the compound by their own higher command, as their foray occurred on the first day of official Iraqi sovereignity. The incident became political, with elected officials praising the troops and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs finally joining in.

Acting Oregon Guard Adjutant General Ray Byrne caused a stir when he told “60 Minutes” in October 2004 that he thought some Oregon troops have been forced to operate in inadequately armored vehicles. The complaint was echoed by elected officials in Washington, D.C., and Salem. In time, the unarmored Humvees were replaced by the fully armored variety.

In November and December 2004, Oregon soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry fought alongside other troops and Marines in what became known as “The Second Battle of Fallujah.” The military describes it later as “some of the heaviest urban combat” for Marines since 1968. Filmmaker and historian Gary Mortensen documents the Oregon troops’ involvement in a movie “This is War.” In January 2011, 30 members of the 2nd Platoon of Bravo Company were honored with the Presidential Unit Citation, an honor not awarded to an Oregon Guard unit since World War II.

The wars leave many severely wounded, surviving explosions and shootings that would have killed troops in earlier wars. Traumatic brain injury, often caused by explosions that rock military vehicles, becomes known as the signature injury of the wars. It is invisible and frequently hard to diagnose. Many other troops are forced to adjust to a postwar life with artificial limbs.

In June 2006, one soldier was killed in an ambush south of Baghdad and Pfc. Thomas Tucker of Madras and Pfc. Kristian Menchaca of Houston were captured. Later, troops found their mutilated bodies. An Army investigation faulted the command that sent them alone in one vehicle to guard a bridge for 36 hours.

Then-Sen. Gordon Smith became the first leading Republican to speak out against the war in Iraq, declaring in a floor speech in December 2006, “I, for one, am at the end of my rope when it comes to supporting a policy that has our soldiers patrolling the same streets in the same way being blown up by the same bombs day after day. That is absurd. But, we have no business being a policeman in someone else’s civil war.” By so saying, Smith joined the criticisms of such Democrats as Gov. Kulongoski, who said in October 2006 that the Iraq war was “out of control” and “I don’t think this is good for America.”

The Tigard-based 41st Brigade was sent to Iraq for a year in 2009-2010. At 2,500 troops, it was Oregon’s largest deployment since World War II. The troops spent the year running convoys and guarding military facilities.

Oregon’s most painful inheritance of the war in Iraq may be its aftereffects, many of which are hidden from public view. A rash of divorces, cases of substance abuse, employment problems, financial difficulties, emotional damage and suicide forced the military to grapple with a hard-to-understand toll from the war. The Oregon National Guard formed a reintegration team that now works around the state in an effort to anticipate and prevent the most serious problems. But it can’t catch everything.



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