Home for the Holidays: Local Soldiers Return from Iraq

Categories:  Features    News & Politics
Wednesday, December 14th, 2011 at 8:00 AM
Home for the Holidays:  Local Soldiers Return from Iraq by Cory Vaillancourt

From March 20, 2003 until today, the Sun rose 3,191 times over the Atlantic Ocean.

The Sun, that same Sun, perforated the Eastern sky and warmed us every morning during those 456 weeks. That same Sun, our Sun, decorated the Western sky and calmed us every night during those 105 months. Our Sun, everyone’s Sun, watched this shiny blue marble circle it eight and three-quarter times since March 20, 2003, and every one of those 3,191 days, that Sun, that same Sun, our Sun, everyone’s Sun, shined unrelentingly on American soldiers in Iraq.

During the past 3,191 days, the United States has spent at least $757.8 billion prosecuting the Iraq War, according to Brown University. Initially, it was thought that $80 billion would cover the cost, but with a current price tag approaching ten times the original estimate, this 3,191-day war has now consumed enough cash to completely fund the Pennsylvania of today for 10 years and send a $60,000 check to all 12,000,000 Pennsylvania residents.  For U.S. taxpayers, that $757.8 billion breaks down to more than $2,500 for every single one of the 307,000,000 Americans alive today, which is $287 per year for each American, or under 80 cents apiece for each of those 3,191 days.

This stunning financial impact still pales in comparison to the human toll of this war. Iraqi combatant casualties range from 28,000 - 37,000 but do not include Saddam Hussein, owner of multiple palaces, who was found hiding in a hole in the ground and shortly thereafter, hung from the neck until dead. 

Add civilian casualties – which could be as high as 113,000 – to that total, and that equals almost 46 deaths a day, for eight and three-quarter years. Each one of these deaths cost every American less than two cents each, per day, during that time—proving yet again the value of human life.

Sadly, more than one American soldier died each day, every single one of those 3,191 days. As of December 5, 2011, the United States Department of Defense says that grim total is 4,421. Sadder still, the impact of this war cannot fully be measured in this statistic alone, nor can it be measured by the 32,000 Americans wounded, or the 51,000 Americans injured.

The true toll of the Iraq War can only be measured in moments – billions, maybe trillions of precious family moments missed by our soldiers overseas – from Christmas, Kwanzaa, and Hanukkah celebrations to simple, Sunday summer sunsets. Now, as the Sun sets on 2011, the Sun also sets on America’s involvement in Iraq. The brave Americans who put themselves at risk over those eight and three-quarter years are coming home for Christmas.

Ours is not to reason why; ours is but to do and die.
- Tennyson

Back in 2002, when the sabers first were being rattled, not everyone believed we should be risking American lives in Iraq. Unfortunately, the naysayers turned out to be right – once the light of day reached the darker corners of American foreign policy, the case for the Iraq War was exposed as a total sham, a house of cards built on a shifting foundation of shady premises.

In February 2002, the Central Intelligence Agency sent a career diplomat named Joe Wilson to Niger. His mission? To investigate concerning allegations that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq illegally attempted to purchase yellowcake uranium, presumably for nuclear weapons.

Backdropped against the mania of a new, post-9/11 world, such purchases were more than just a violation of international sanctions levied against Iraq in the wake of the first Gulf War. These allegations, if proven, were tantamount to a death warrant for Hussein; he knew that a slumbering giant had awakened that crisp September Eleventh, angry, eager, and not too particular about which direction that anger and eagerness was aimed. Then-President George W. Bush was itching for a fight against the guy who tried to kill his dad.

Joe Wilson returned from his fact-finding mission with information that displeased his superiors, all the way up to President Bush. In May 2002, Wilson authored an op-ed in The New York Times entitled, “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” referring to the non-existent proof of Hussein’s attempted acquisition.

Around the same time, the so-called “Smoking Gun Memo” appeared amongst the British intelligence community. This document noted President Bush’s desire to use the nascent “War on Terror” as an excuse to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein, who was by then greatly weakened by more than a decade of UN-implemented sanctions. The memo went on to state that while Bush searched for casus belli, just like Joe Wilson he found none, but he resolved to massage the facts to fit his personal policy anyway.

Then, in a performance of puppetry that would make even Geppetto himself blush, President Bush dragged his moderate, highly respected Secretary of State, Colin Powell, onto the world stage in February 2003. Still scrambling for any justification short of a bona-fide false flag operation, Bush paraded this articulate son of Jamaican immigrants before the United Nations where, relying on Bush’s manufactured evidence, Powell asserted that there was “no doubt”  that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and also retained the ability “to rapidly produce more, many more.”

Powell later told Barbara Walters that his Pinocchio act before the U.N. was a permanent “blot” on his distinguished years of service to our nation. He continued by saying, “It will always be a part of my record. It was painful. It’s painful now.”

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

A few weeks later, the world waited and watched on cable news networks as the United States-led “Coalition of the Willing” prepared to spearhead an attack on Iraq. And just as they have done for more than two centuries,  America’s fighting men and women heard their call and unquestioningly answered. They left behind friends, family, loved ones, and all the comforts of a life in the greatest country the world has ever known, to do what they thought was right. 

Just after St. Patrick’s Day 2003, the world finally witnessed the implementation of the Coalition’s “Shock and Awe” strategy, which was indeed shocking and awful. First, an unprecedented and unceasing aerial assault paralyzed any hope of efficient Iraqi resistance by severing command and communication infrastructure. Then, a mechanized war machine, the likes of which the world had never seen, swept through Iraq nearly unimpeded. Baghdad fell less than three weeks later, prompting Bush to famously and erroneously proclaim, “Mission accomplished!” just three weeks after that. Sadly, he mistook a rising Sun for a setting Sun;  over the next 6 years in Iraq, American soldiers missed moments mundane and magnificent, along with the minutiae of our daily lives that we all take for granted. Grass, for example. Lazy afternoons. Video games. Cars. Birthdays. Anniversaries. Weddings. Funerals. And holidays. However, the sacrifice of these Americans in uniform has never been forgotten, and this year, many of them will receive the greatest holiday gift of all – a Christmas season spent at home, here in Erie.

And homeward turn’d his soften’d eye.
- Poe

Josh Szczesny was born and raised in Erie. After two years of college, he enlisted in the United States Army during August 2006. A military policeman, Szczesny shipped out for the Middle East the day after President Barack Obama’s election victory in November 2008; he did not return until the third week of October 2009. His calm, honest reflections on spending nearly a year in Iraq illuminate the sense of isolation many soldiers overseas feel.

“It was very weird being that separated from my friends and family,” he said. “Imagine you have one DSL line for 50 computers and everyone’s on Facebook. It’s not horrible; it could be worse, but it’s certainly not pleasant.”

Similar to the age-old military tradition of “mail call,” Facebook is no longer some trivial toy that allows those stationed overseas to tend their virtual farms – it has become the go-to bridge that spans the gulf between the home front and the real front. Many soldiers I talked to cited Facebook’s importance to their sanity, and Josh underscored this point. “They [the Army] try to make it as good as they can for you, but they can’t do much. Everything’s run on generators.”

Matthew Sanfratello, also born and raised in Erie, enlisted in the United States Army in June 2010. He echoed Josh’s sentiments; deployed to Afghanistan on January 1 of this year as a member of the 101st Airborne Division, he served until he was wounded in action by indirect fire from a mortar round while serving as a turret gunner on a Humvee, which earned him a Purple Heart.

“For the most part, we were in a really bad area, so we couldn’t have a lot fun,” he said, of holiday festivities in Afghanistan. “There are a lot of places that won’t see any action – not one bullet. They can have more fun. We were in a red zone.” This red zone – and it’s more peaceful sibling, the green zone – has little to do with Christmas; it denotes the amount of danger present – green meaning little and red meaning lots. “We were getting attacked all the time,” Matthew said.

These attacks did not subside with the holiday, either. Afghani scrooges took full advantage of the holiday, and it was not to spread peace on Earth nor goodwill towards men. “The Afghans, a lot of people think they’re stupid; they’re not,” Matthew laughed. “They knew about Christmas, and they would attack us extra hard – mortars, RPGs. They may be terrible marksmen, but they’re not stupid.”

There was, however, one thing Matthew did enjoy about his time overseas during holidays. “The food over there was fantastic,” he gushed. As for other positives, “There’s nothing really positive about it, other than getting a phone call from home, maybe.”

Matthew then mentioned Facebook, but portrayed it as more of a mixed blessing. Imagine, if you will, that every time Marty and Tracy from The crooked i post a beer special, or a notice of a killer band, you must watch and yearn from thousands of miles away.  “We get the Internet, which is great. The sucky part about it is, when you get on Facebook and see all the fun people were having that you can’t experience at all.” 

In Iraq, Josh preferred to soothe his brain rather than his stomach. “The dining facility did something [for Christmas] but I pretty much spent the whole day working. Not many people were in the office, and I had a lot of paperwork to file.”

Not that there weren’t options available to him. “There were a few church celebrations depending on your denomination, but mostly everybody kept to themselves. I actually called my family when they did their gift opening on Christmas Eve.”

And the hardest part of being away from loved ones during the holiday season?

“A lot of us were very adjusted to the idea of it; when you join the military you’re well-aware of the potential to be deployed,” Josh said. “I was single at the time, I didn’t have any kids, and I moved around a lot when I was younger, so I was kind of accustomed to not spending holidays with my family. But seeing your friends with wives and kids and families hurting over missing that holiday experience – that was the hardest part for me, seeing them unhappy.”

Returning to the United States was “kind of a mixed bag” for Josh – demonstrating that it’s not like they’re sitting on the airplane home, preparing to hit the ground, and rushing right back to the bars and clubs on State Street. “I wasn’t coming back to anything in particular, and I adjusted very well to life over there. Overseas you work 7 days a week, 14 to 16 hours a day. I had a lot of trouble here sitting in the barracks doing nothing for three months.” 

However, Josh did miss certain things about Erie, certain things we all have taken for granted over the past 3,191 days. “I missed hanging out at the library, and I loved the Brig Niagara,” he admitted. “I like the weather; I like how Erie is a big town with a small town mentality. Everybody seems to know each other somehow.”

Josh remembers when it finally hit him that he was truly home, and it was one of the little things that reminded him. “When I turned my cell phone back on and saw that I had service, I said, ‘Oh my God, I’m back in America.’”

Matthew also missed life in the states, as is clear from his recollections upon returning. His favorite moment was “Just seeing the land. Just seeing grass. The atmosphere here is so different. Stepping back on America, you have no idea what it feels like to see regular cars!” He was most eager to “hang out with family and friends and party it up,” and recalls looking forward to the little things. “Going to my friend’s house in the morning to play some Xbox, or going to my uncle’s house to have a family dinner, you know. Stuff like that.”

Everyone’s Sun, our Sun shined on us over those eight and three-quarter years, 456 weeks, 105 months, 3,191 days, just as it shined on Matthew and Josh and every other member of the United States Armed Forces. That Sun rose every day when there was nothing to do here in Erie; the Sun also set on us when we were bored here in Erie – and as that Sun set on Iraq each night, it also rose over the Atlantic Ocean, on it’s way to Erie. Matthew’s final statement should shine some light on an oft-repeated refrain around these parts.

“Everyone’s always talking there’s nothing to do in Erie, and how boring it is. All that stuff that used to be annoying, but it’s truly the little things. I came close to not coming back. I don’t take that for granted.”

Send a soldier a letter or care package this holiday season. Visit http://www.give2thetroops.org/ to learn more.

Tags: iraq

Erie Reader: Vol. 6, No. 21
Now Available — Pick It Up Today


HBO's newest series as viewed through the lens of the Serial Gamer

Your 2016 Election Day preview 

Curious creatures at home and abroad 

The dollars and sense of lakeshore wind power 

A meeting of the minds to move Erie forward


Your 2016 Election Day preview 

Curious creatures at home and abroad 

The dollars and sense of lakeshore wind power 

A meeting of the minds to move Erie forward

Experience world cinema in a local setting.

Local cups compete to benefit the St. Martin Center.

 Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem’s American Spiritual will satisfy those corners of the soul.

It’s impossible to overstate how perfectly Return to Love opens.

Public health and the health of local budgets are both at stake throughout Pennsylvania.  

Drew Farrell: artist