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Coming Home From Iraq: Military Community Responds

MICHEL MARTIN, host: This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up: As cholera epidemic grips Haiti, we'll hear about new efforts to fight the disease and the challenge of getting medical care to all who need it, and we'll also hear about a musical group with roots in the Haitian diaspora that is wowing critics and audiences around the world. That's all coming up later in the program. But first, an announcement that many Americans have been waiting for, for years, that U.S. troops will be leaving Iraq by the end of the year.

President Obama gave the news on Friday. Here's a clip.


President BARACK OBAMA: I can report that as promised the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year. After nearly nine years, America's war in Iraq will be over.

MARTIN: That will bring a long and costly chapter in the nation's military history to a close. Since the Iraq war began in 2003, more than 1.5 million Americans have served there, more than 4,400 have lost their lives there. We wanted to talk about what the announcement means to those who have born the burden most, members of the armed services and their families. So we've called upon Ed Dorn. He's the former undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

He now serves as a professor of public policy of the University of Texas at Austin. Also with us is Leo Shane. He is Washington bureau reporter for the independent military publication Stars and Stripes. They're both here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome back to you both. Thank you for joining us.

ED DORN: Thank you.

LEO SHANE: Thank you.

MARTIN: Leo, to the degree that you can tell us this, given that the new announcement just came on Friday, how are service members reacting to the announcement? And I think a lot of people would be interested in the question of whether members of the military see this as a victory.

SHANE: Yeah, we've had several reporters in Iraq – Eric Sladen(ph) was one who just came back and, you know, what he heard just a couple weeks ago was a lot of folks saying that they were frustrated, that they're sort of done with the war. We had the younger folks who were looking for combat situations and looking for some action who are looking to Afghanistan, where that's happening, and the folks on their third or fourth tour who were just looking and saying everything's done here.

Everything's, you know, it's time for us to go. So I don't know if they would declare it a victory. You know, we're talking about folks who don't have the long scale look of a lot of this, but a lot of them are looking at it as something that's essentially complete now. The training mission is something that they can do in Kuwait, can do in other countries.

The, you know, when we're looking at what they can accomplish and what's left for them there, it's pretty much over.

MARTIN: I think - I want to hear a little bit more in a minute about how the mission has evolved over time and what the mission will look like in the next couple of months, but first I want to turn to Professor Dorn. You know, Professor Dorn, in the early years of the war a lot was made of the lack of adequate preparation for the post-invasion period.

Now, presumably the leaders of the Pentagon have had time to think about what a drawdown will look like. Could you just tell us a little bit of what are some of the considerations right now about preparing for the drawdown? What has to happen?

DORN: A lot of equipment has to be moved out, but that's been going on for the past year, Michel, and just as our military is pretty good at moving stuff into position, it's pretty good at moving stuff back. One detail, a costly detail, is that when that equipment is moved out of Iraq, it has to be cleaned very carefully. You don't want to bring Iraqi soil back to the United States.

So, that's a pretty arduous process; they know how to do that, and we don't have that many people or that much equipment left. We also, of course, are going to leave a fair amount of stuff there for the Iraqis, and that's part of the training and equip mission that we've been on for the past several years.

MARTIN: What about the human side of it? Personnel was a big part of your job when you were at the Pentagon. What about the human side of it? I mean, I would imagine that there are not many people there who are there for the whole nine years of the conflict, but there has to be feelings. You know, I'm just I'm wondering about that.

DORN: Sure, people have been back and forth, and as Leo said, there are a lot of soldiers who've been there three or four times. They are more than eager to get back to the United States, get on a regular training regime, spend a holiday with their kids for a change. So I don't think that's a major concern. The real human concern has to do with the relationships that these soldiers have developed with Iraqis. Particularly with their translators, other people with whom they've worked closely, and they are very aware that they are leaving these very helpful Iraqis behind and at some risk.

MARTIN: Now, Leo, what about that? Talk about that if you would. In fact, there's been a lot of reporting in your publication and others about the mental health needs of people after such a long conflict. Can you just talk a little bit more about what you think some of the requirements will be of people who are transitioning back after such a long conflict?

SHANE: Absolutely. We've just started to hear from a bunch of veterans' groups since the announcement, saying, you know, hey, this war isn't over for a lot of the returning vets. There will be a lot of PTSD issues, TBI issues, health issues that'll go on for years. I think the operational costs so far has been about 800 billion in Iraq. There's a couple estimates out there that'll say it'll balloon up to three trillion when you take into account the long term recovery and health costs, so...

MARTIN: And translate if you would, PTSD - I think most people know post traumatic stress disorder. What's TBI?

SHANE: TBI is a traumatic brain injury and that's one of the signature wounds of this war too, was the shell shock, the slight trauma to the brain that can have long term effects for memory and cognitive function.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about how the service members are responding and their leaders are responding to the Iraq troop withdrawal. Our guests are Leo Shane, Washington reporter for Stars and Stripes. That's an independent publication that covers military issues. Also with us, Professor Ed Dorn of the University of Texas at Austin. He's a former undersecretary of defense. Leo, talk a little bit, if you would, about how the mission has evolved over the course of the conflict. And Ed Dorn, in a minute, when Leo tells us that, I'm going to ask you to explain what lessons do you think we learned from this.

I'm sure this is a subject we'll be talking about for quite some time, but how has the mission evolved?

SHANE: So in just the last year we've evolved from a combat mission to a train and equip mission. Last - I believe it was last September was the official end of the combat mission and the real start to bring large numbers of troops home. So at that point we've shifted from troops going out on patrols, troops trying to get bad guys, so to speak to training Iraqi soldiers, getting working with them on how to plan missions, working with them on how to work equipment, and providing logistical support to them, a lot of air support, and just basic supply movement.

MARTIN: Is there still - do I have this right - about 40,000 troops there?

SHANE: About 41,000 as of, I think, two weeks ago, so...

MARTIN: And I'm interested in how people, civilians in the Iraqi – in Iraq - are responding to them. Or are they mainly - in Iraq (unintelligible) at this point?

SHANE: Yeah, they all are. I mean, and one of the complaints that we do hear from troops is they're confined to those bases, those foreign operating bases, so they don't get to go out as much anymore. When they were out on patrols you'd see a lot of interactions with local marketplace folks, local homeowners, developing some of those relationships.

Now it's really almost a garrison mentality. Folks are staying on base and just working with other military folks from Iraq.

MARTIN: So Professor Dorn, what about this question of what do you think the military learned from this very long conflict that had so many iterations, even in the same country?

DORN: I think what the military learned is the importance of sharing with civilian leaders what you know. The military folks knew from the get-go, the generals understood from the get-go that you have to prepare for what happens after you've won the war. It was the civilian leaders in the Pentagon and in the White House who said don't worry about that, a democratic Iraq will emerge instantaneously. You guys will be out of there within six months.

And that clearly was wrong. I think the generals knew it was wrong, but they were brow beaten into going into Iraq without a plan for stabilizing the environment, so I think this has given the colonels, the lower ranking generals who observed this, more determination to push forward their own ideas about how you fight a war.

MARTIN: Leo, what do you say about that?

SHANE: You know, it's had a tremendous effect on the whole military culture. I mean, when you even look at stuff in terms of military equipment, we're no longer talking about Humvees. We're talking about these larger vehicles to protect against roadside bombs. You've heard Secretary Gates and some of the other defense leaders talk about rethinking the wars of the future, these more guerilla-style wars. How will we respond?

And the engagement in Libya - you know, what's going to be the U.S. role moving forward? Is it this traditional large scale war or is it the, you know, joint, you know, partial war sort of relationship there?

MARTIN: And finally, before we let you go, you know, in recent years, you know, we are fighting – we are fighting two wars. There's Iraq and there's Afghanistan. In earlier points in the conflict, the Afghanistan campaign was first, but many people subsequently started to feel that they were the forgotten conflict.

And now, with the Obama administration placing more emphasis on Afghanistan, I'm wondering whether Iraq - persons serving in Iraq and those veterans feel that they are the forgotten ones.

SHANE: Yeah. When I was in Afghanistan in 2006, that was a major complaint - was that they had been completely forgotten. We haven't heard that to the same extent in Iraq because it's been more of a draw down there. I think that there is some concern that they've been forgotten. Fifty U.S. troops have been killed this year in Iraq and I don't think most members of the American public know that, but there - you know, they've been shifting towards drawing down. So it's not the same level of, hey, we're still fighting here. It's - hey, there is still a presence here, but we're moving towards an end.

MARTIN: And finally, Professor Dorn, I'm interested in your view of what you would like those of us at home - what should we thinking about as these – as this conflict winds to a close, at least in this phase of it, this active phase in Iraq? What do you think we should be keeping in mind?

DORN: First of all, Michel, we need to be very grateful to the men and women - the more than a million men and women - who served in Iraq over the past eight or nine years. And when we pass them on the street or in an airport, we need to say thanks for your service.

Second, we need to insist that in future our political leaders think real carefully about what they're getting us into.

MARTIN: Well, talk more about that. You have a couple seconds left.

DORN: It is very clear that some very smart and experienced people in the previous administration made some really dumb decisions and they were allowed to make them because the American public and leaders in Congress were not asking the right questions.

MARTIN: Ed Dorn is a professor of public policy of the University of Texas at Austin. He's the former undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. He served in the Clinton administration. He was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio, along with Leo Shane, Washington bureau reporter for the independent military newspaper, Stars and Stripes.

I thank you both so much for your perspective today.

DORN: Thank you.

SHANE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.