Some Milwaukee-area veterans are watching with heavy hearts as sectarian violence spreads throughout Iraq.
“You feel for the people that are going through it right now because you’ve been in that situation, you’ve felt the fear, you’ve felt the anger and the frustration. So seeing it happen again is really disheartening,” says Tom Voss.
“To think that we were gonna be able to come in there and say like, everyone get along now, I think is just incredibly backwards thinking,” says Anthony Anderson.
“The problem’s always gonna be there. We’re not fighting just a uniform enemy. It’s a religion. And how do we address this as a world?” says Dan Buttery.
Tom Voss, Anthony Anderson and Dan Buttery are now on the sidelines, watching terror descend on people and places they helped.
Voss’ job in Mosul in 2004 and 2005 was to scour areas for bombs or snipers before a larger unit moved in. Militants linked to al-Qaida recently took the city.
“As soon as we heard Mosul had fallen, that was the first thing and all of my buddies that I deployed with kind of had the wind taken out of us because of the sacrifices and the hard work that was put into doing our job there,” Voss says.
While U.S. troops conducted combat operations in Iraq, Voss says most units also had diplomatic missions. He delivered books to schools, and worked to build trust with local mayors.
“We helped this mayor kind of lock down his village and make sure his village was safe and that there wasn’t any insurgents coming through. They even went as far as, there’s a huge painting of Saddam, they even put up a ladder and painted over his face and I have pictures and videos of that,” Voss says.
Insurgents killed the mayor not long after U.S. soldiers left the village.
“So you know you have these relationships that are important to you because you want the people to have what you have back home, so you take personal stake in it and when you see stuff like that happen, it really, it touches you,” Voss says.
Part of Capt. Dan Buttery’s mission was also to win the “hearts and minds” of local Iraqis. In 2003 and 2004, he led combat engineers whose job was to scope out roadside bombs. But Buttery says his unit also helped villages rebuild power grids and sanitation systems, and even construct a college.
“There are a lot of great people in that country and they’re really no different than us. They want peace, they want freedom. Their form of democracy is always going to look very different that ours just because you’re talking different people and cultures, but they’re there. There’s hope, and so it’s not all negative, but it’s a difficult mission. It was then and it continues to be,” Buttery says.
“Everything we did while we were there, we did to the best of our ability,” says Anthony Anderson, who volunteered twice to go to Iraq with the Wisconsin National Guard.
He was on security detail during his first deployment; the second time, he escorted civilian contractors, who transported everything from ice to fuel throughout the country.
“We had to roll with every political change that would undermine what we were doing. Everything that would put us in jeopardy, you know, that one day you could do something and the next day you couldn’t. So when I look back on my time in Iraq, I don’t regret it,” Anderson says.
But Anderson says he wants the sacrifices U.S. soldiers and their families made – the horrors suffered, to mean something in the end. He feels the U.S. must take some responsibility for the current problems in Iraq, but admits there are no good options.
“If we just go and we just bomb, right? You bomb an area, everyone in that area just dies or leaves. What happens when you stop bombing it? They come right back. I don’t want to commit troops. I think we never should have been there in the first place but we do have to do something because these people are just being murdered. They’re just being murdered in the streets,” Anderson says.
Dan Buttery and Tom Voss gave their thoughts on possible renewed U.S. intervention in Iraq, such as air strikes or troops on the ground.
“If a brigade isn’t being matched by 50 other countries, you know, 20 of which are Arab countries, I would have a real problem with that, I would have a real problem with that because then we’re not finding a global solution,” Buttery says.
“And we haven’t even learned from the past,” says Voss.
Despite Iraq’s current unraveling, the three veterans says it does not diminish the pride they feel in having served their country.