January 8

Reversals in hard-won Iraqi city vex veterans

The city’s recent fall to al-Qaida-linked forces has touched a nerve for the service members who fought and bled there.

By Allen G. Breed And Julie Watson
The Associated Press

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FILE - In this Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2004 file photo, soldiers with the 82nd Airborne Division spread out documents and other objects on the floor while looking for evidence during a raid on an Iraqi house near Fallujah, Iraq. The owner of the house is suspected of being responsible for attacks on coalition forces. In 2014, the city’s fall to al-Qaida-linked forces has touched a nerve for the service members who fought and bled there.

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“As a war fighter and Marine veteran of that battle I feel that our job was to destroy our enemy. That was accomplished at the time and is why our dead will never be in vain. We won the day and the battle,” said the 28-year-old, who now studies filmmaking in Portland, Ore. “If Marines were in that city today there would be dead Qaida all over the streets again, but the reality is this is only the beginning of something most people who have been paying attention since the war began knew was going to end this way.”

Lowry says the U.S. “abandoned” the region’s Sunnis, paving the way for a Shiite-led government that has “gotten into bed with the Iranians.” He adds: “There is a polarization returning between the Shiites and the Sunnis ... and it’s spreading.”

Catagnus and others say the situation is more nuanced than that.

A sergeant and scout sniper with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, Catagnus was gearing up to go out when insurgents detonated the improvised bomb about 8 feet away. Despite a concussion and shrapnel wounds to his face, he never left the line.

Now an assistant professor of history at Valley Forge Military Academy & College in Wayne, Pa., Catagnus feels the battle has taken on an almost disproportionate importance in the American mind.

“If you watch ‘NCIS’ or anything that has a Marine ... they always say, ‘Oh, I was in Fallujah,”’ says the Purple Heart recipient, who left the military as a staff sergeant in 2006 and is now studying for a doctorate in military history. “For the new generation, it’s because everybody keeps mentioning it. And that is the battle that really made a warrior a warrior.”

And while he concedes that the battle changed doctrine for urban warfare, he thinks Fallujah has become politicized – especially here at home. “There’s a lot of fiery language around it,” he says.

For some veterans, the reversal of fortunes in Anbar, while unfortunate, is hardly surprising.

David R. Franco survived a roadside bomb blast outside Fallujah in 2005. The retired Marine suffers from back pain, traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and other ailments that send him to doctors and psychologists regularly.

“To me, it was just a matter of time for it to happen again and for al-Qaida to go back in there,” said the 53-year-old veteran of Moorpark, Calif., who retired as a sergeant major. “It’ll be a constant thing.” Still, Franco – whose son was also wounded in Iraq – says it was worth it.

So does Nick Popaditch.

On April 7, 2004, Popaditch’s tank was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade as he rolled through the city. Shrapnel tore through his sinuses and destroyed his right eye. The gunnery sergeant’s actions earned him a Silver Star and Purple Heart, but cost him his career. The San Diego-area man is studying to be a high school math teacher, and he refuses to second-guess the recent events in Iraq.

“There’s a lot of downtrodden people there who got a shot at a free life, at freedom,” says Popaditch, 46, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2012. “And if the bad guys come back into control, that’s not something I can control 8,000 miles away here. I’m just proud of the fact that when it came time to stand and fight for those things, those concepts of freedom, liberty, human rights ... I’m glad my nation did it.”

Dr. Harry Croft, a former Army psychiatrist in San Antonio who has evaluated more than 3,000 Iraq veterans for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said news reports of the unrest may trigger strong emotions in combat veterans.

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