‘They trained us to be killers. What happens when we get home?’: US veterans and families on the Iraq war | US military

At the peak of the Iraq war, there were an estimated 170,000 members of the US military in the country. To maintain that level of force required not only long-serving members of the military but also army and navy reserves and a nationwide recruitment drive. Twenty years after the war, veterans and their families discuss what they have experienced.

Angel Collins, 62: ‘For our family, your best day is your worst’

LCpl Jonathan Collins, son of real estate agent in Crystal Lake, Illinois. Collins was killed in action in Iraq on 8 August 2004, aged 19

It was the middle of the night when we got a call from Jonathan to say he was OK. His unit had recently been ambushed and nine Marines killed. It was April 2004 and the first time we’d heard from him since he’d gone to Iraq two months before.

Usually, if anything was going on with one of our four children, it was a car or plane ride away. But this time, I was helpless. I couldn’t sleep, I was having stress headaches. I often cried, alone. I lived for email updates from the parents of other marines. I listened to all the news I could. I knew there were no weapons of mass destruction.

Jonathan was an incredibly confident kid. He loved being in theatre. He did silly things like go to school dressed up like he was going to play golf. He was always quick to say, “I can do that.” When his brother went to college a four-hour drive away, he insisted he could run there.

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‘Jonathan was an incredibly confident kid.’ Photograph: Courtesy Angel Collins

He was 15 on September 11th. Then when we went into Afghanistan, a kind of cowboys and Indians ideology was out there with the kids. I was surprised when he said he wanted to join the Marine Corps. But school wasn’t his forte and he saw it as an opportunity to figure out what he wanted. Military recruiters came into the schools and looking back, I think he’d been talking to one.

After that first call from Iraq, we were able to communicate more. We sent him a digital camera and laptop. He always told me it was fine. It was dusty, it was dirty, but he would never say if he was afraid. Later I read in the journal I gave him: “We’re getting scared. We’re being told to get insurance policies out on ourselves.”

The higher-ranking officers started telling the marines to stop telling their parents what was really happening. They couldn’t control the flow of information and they didn’t have anything in place to handle the number of deaths.

Our daughters were 12 and 14. I never left them home alone during that time, because I didn’t know if someone was going to show up at the door. Jonathan was due back in September and by August, I thought he was safe. One day, I finally decided to take my dad to visit his brother when my older daughter called and said: “Mom, there’s a marine at the door.” I was in the car and threw my phone and just screamed and screamed and screamed. My husband and I both drove a hundred miles an hour to get home. The whole time I thought, “Maybe he’s injured. Don’t tell yourself he’s dead.” Another part of me knew they only came to the door for one reason.

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‘Jonathan was due back in September and by August, I thought he was safe.’ Photograph: Courtesy Angel Collins

The marine told us Jonathan had been killed. We found out later, when we met his platoon, that he’d been on watch on a rooftop when a sniper shot him in the head.

As mothers, we know we’re the ones who have to put our family back together. Even if we’re grieving, we have to figure it out. That to me was allowing the children to cry, scream, letting them know they can come home from school when they need. Grief for children changes as they develop. When my younger daughter turned 18, she called me crying and said: “At the funeral I wasn’t paying enough attention. I was playing with my friends.”

For our family, your best day is your worst. Because it means the person who we all loved is not here to share it. And it does not go away. And I don’t want it to go away. I don’t want Jonathan to go away.

Shenise Spann McRoberts, 53: ‘I felt like we would have hell to pay’

Atlanta entrepreneur and performing artist. Served in Iraq as a captain in the US army in 2003

I’m an artist. For me, joining the military on the ROTC (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) scholarship allowed me to do a theatre degree while being a cadet. My mom was on and off drugs, and I really wanted to advance in my life. The agreement was that I gave eight years’ service as an officer afterwards. In 1992, I graduated as a second lieutenant but because there was a surplus of soldiers, I remained in the reserves.

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‘Leaving my children for 12 months was the worst part. I don’t know how I made it.’ Photograph: Courtesy Shenise Spann McRoberts

At 23, I had a son and got married. For my full-time job, I became a theatre teacher. My part-time reserves job was in a hospital unit that I really liked. I got promoted to finance officer, personnel officer and didn’t end up quitting after eight years like I thought I would. The money was good and it wasn’t stressful.

Then 9/11 happened. There was a shortage of active duty officers; February 2003, I was told that in 30 days I would be deployed in the name of Operation Iraqi Freedom. My son was 11 and I’d had a daughter who was three. Leaving my children for 12 months was the worst part. I don’t know how I made it.

We landed in Kuwait at the beginning of the war. Reserve units like ours didn’t have the tools and vehicles that active duty units had and we had to borrow stuff.

I was attached to another unit where I didn’t know the people I was leading. I’m a 4ft 10in Black woman from the metro Atlanta area and the people in my unit were from Rome, Georgia – a place where a lot of white people haven’t really cared for Blacks, especially not having a Black person as a superior. I could feel pushback from some soldiers not wanting to salute me. I will say that over time with many of my soldiers, we were able to build a bond.

My most challenging memory is the convoy from Kuwait to Iraq. I didn’t know what I was getting into and I led my company of 60 soldiers on a 13-hour journey by myself. There were a lot of small bombs in Burger King bags by the road. When we got to Fallujah, one of the big conflict areas, I remember sleeping in a bombed-out movie theatre. We set up at Baghdad international airport, which became our base camp for several months.

Being in that region was eye-opening. For me as a Black woman, it was different. I just didn’t have anger towards the people and these are people who look like me. I know they show more light-skinned people on TV, but these people looked like Africans. When they saw me on the street, they’d be like: “Hey, sister.”

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‘Being in that region was eye-opening.’ Photograph: Courtesy Shenise Spann McRoberts

What I saw made me sceptical. I’m not saying I’m not proud to be an American, but we sometimes talk about other people, other countries, being brainwashed, and I started to wonder if maybe we were the ones who were brainwashed. I asked myself, “Are these people really that upset about Saddam Hussein? I don’t see that.” And we’re over here tearing up their country. If we bombed out a castle, there would be some soldiers relishing in it, taking photos. I felt like we would have hell to pay.

But at the end of the day, however I felt, I was going to fight for my individual life. I got to the point where if a little kid comes to the gate and it looks like he has a bomb, I’m going to light him up. To be able to say that, that’s survival talking.

During that time they had the slogan “the army of one”, and I thought: “Yes, I really do feel alone. I am the army of one. I don’t feel supported or togetherness. This is all thrown together and I’m here.”

John Buffin, 58, Texas: ‘We all thought we were going to die’

Special ops military trainer in Texas worked in Iraq as a personal protection officer for the US government from 2003-2004

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‘We felt duped.’ Photograph: Courtesy John Buffin

I fought in the Gulf war in 1990 and the feeling around that was so pro-American. There were no second thoughts that we were doing the right thing. We would get letters from second-graders saying: “Kill Saddam.” I was in the most highly trained reconnaissance platoon and we were really good at working in the difficult desert conditions.

Fast forward to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and I was working in Afghanistan as a protection officer, which is doing close protection of people that are of high value. We were making a difference and freeing oppressed people. It was all rebuild, rebuild, rebuild, get girls in school, all the good things that true Americans stand for. When I came back between contracts, I was treated like a rockstar. I didn’t want to leave Afghanistan but I got surged to Iraq because they needed protection officers there.

We don’t question orders, we just go and believe what we’re told. But we were sent to Iraq on false information. And in spring 2004, it all went to hell. Nobody could drive on the roads and people were shooting at us in the daytime. We all thought we were going to die. And we felt duped.

I hit three IEDs [improvised explosive devices] in that time. The worst was one morning when we had a mission in the green zone, which was meant to be safe. We were two cars going down this six-mile stretch of road and I was driving a Mercedes G500 that screamed: “Kill me, I’m very important.” We got to this area where the state department had been hit and I looked at my partner and said, “If we’re going to get it, this is where,” and boom. The blast hit my side. The car spun three times down the road. We were OK but the car wouldn’t drive.

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‘Overall, I think I’m doing pretty well.’ Photograph: Courtesy John Buffin

I got out and saw some guys driving towards us with AKs. I engaged them and eliminated that threat. My partner then had other threats that he took out. The car driving with us backed up and we all left the scene. I still have the keys to the G500.

The whole incident messed with my head. I kept having this Alice-in-Wonderland type dream about it and it was so real that I fought going to sleep every night.

I didn’t decompress before I came home in 2004. When I returned, everyone was going anti-American and I just couldn’t listen. I wasn’t the cool kid any more. I felt like the things I’d done were disregarded even when I still felt they were noble; I was keeping people alive. I went back to school and got kicked out of class because this hippy kid was talking about waterboarding, and I said, “You have no idea what you’re talking about. You want someone to waterboard you? I’ll waterboard you.”

I definitely have some PTSD issues. I’m kind of starting to see people for it. Overall, I think I’m doing pretty well. My job involves teaching risk analysis, mindset and evasive driving. I’m happy living on a ranch with my horses and dogs, a cat, and my wife.

LaNita Herlem, 55: ‘I still hear his laugh’

Staff Sgt Bryant Herlem, husband of Martinsville, Virginia, veteran, was killed in action in Iraq on 28 April 2006, aged 37

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‘He’d never vote Democrat or Republican because he said, “The president is going to be my commander-in-chief and I don’t want to have bad feelings towards them.”’ Photograph: Courtesy LaNita Herlem

My husband, Bryant, was never political or into the news. He’d never vote Democrat or Republican because he said, “The president is going to be my commander-in-chief and I don’t want to have bad feelings towards them.” But one day, he was standing in front of the TV watching a news report from the Iraq war and he looked at me and said, “I really don’t want to go there. I’m not sure I believe in it.” I was shocked. He came from a family of veterans where there was so much honour in service. I wanted to believe we were there for the right reasons but I’m a news junkie and a lot of questions were being asked.

I took down the Christmas tree the day he left for Iraq. It was only 5 December but it wasn’t going to be Christmas without him. We had been married 16 years and we had a close connection. We were both 37 and had been trying to get into a fertility programme, but every time he got deployed, we had to start over. I was in the system to start treatment when he got back.

When Bryant got to Iraq, we both had cameras on our computers and spoke every morning and night. He didn’t talk about his job much but he told me that what he was seeing had changed his mind and that we needed to be there. He said he’d tell me about it when he came home in June.

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‘I took down the Christmas tree the day he left for Iraq.’ Photograph: Courtesy LaNita Herlem

One Thursday evening for me, Friday morning for him, we spoke while he was getting ready to meet a community leader. I went to bed and had this weird thing happen in the night where I woke up freezing cold, which was strange because Texas in April is warm. The next morning he didn’t message. I usually worried when that happened, but for some reason I didn’t. Around 1pm there was a knock at the door. I thought it was the mailman with some books I’d ordered from Amazon. It was two soldiers in green uniforms. I mighty cussed in front of that chaplain.

Bryant had been killed by an Iranian bomb, along with his gunner, Sgt Jose Gomez. Around them, kids were playing. A five-year-old Iraqi boy, called Mostafa Wahop, was taken to the army hospital and died. An Iraqi girl and adult also died; I tried to find out their names but couldn’t.

That Monday morning I called the fertility programme to have my name taken off their list. Apart from telling our families, it was the hardest thing I had to do. A friend of mine, Nadine, was with me. She looked at me and said, “You didn’t just lose your husband, you lost your kids.”

I was angry at President Bush. Hated the man. I had the opportunity to meet him, but didn’t go because I was afraid of what I’d say. I regret that; I admire him now because he does so much for soldiers.

I used Bryant’s life insurance to pay for our house. His GI bill helped me go to school. I majored in history but was obsessed with the Middle East and trying to understand terrorism.

It’s a long time since I’ve talked about it. I have military widow friends who have kids and they’re like, “What gets you up in the morning? I have to get up for my kids.” I saw not having children as a blessing; I can’t imagine raising a child without Bryant. I don’t hear his voice any more, but I still hear his laugh.

Stacy Bare, 44: ‘We glamourise war too much’

Grand Rapids, Michigan, parks and outdoors advocate served in Iraq with the US army as a captain from 2006-2007

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‘Joining the military was all I knew.’ Photograph: Courtesy Stacy Bare

Joining the military was all I knew. I grew up with GI Joe fighting Cobra, Top Gun and Red Dawn. I heard so many stories from my grandpa who fought in world war II and my aunt who travelled the world with the Women’s Army Corps. The military was my opportunity to leave the midwest.

When I got to Iraq in May 2006, I was relieved. I remembered how guilty my dad had felt for not going to Vietnam and this was my turn in our generation’s war. I believed we were there to support global democracy.

By then it was a few years into the war and the army needed people so desperately that before we left the US, they asked me if I needed to “wait” a day or so to do my drug test. They were bending the rules to get as many people there as possible. The majority of soldiers out there were really great Americans wanting to do the right thing. But there were a few who bragged about barely passing military training. I see some of them on social media now complaining about America not being patriotic enough and I’m like, “Man, you couldn’t maintain your weapon in a deployed zone and you took advantage of your interpreters.” But nobody wants to talk about that. It’s uncomfortable. We only valorise our veterans.

My team, though, was awesome. Every day at exactly 8pm we would play this one song and dance around like we were riding on donkeys. And there was so much compassion. I held guys when their best friends were killed. I got held when my friends were killed. We watched grainy Skype calls together of sons and daughters graduating back home. And I met so many great Iraqi people. We had two awesome interpreters who we were able to get back to the United States.

But it’s double-edged. When I came home, I had to fill out paperwork for PTSD. It required me to write the name, rank and serial number of the service member I saw killed. There wasn’t a place to write if your PTSD was due to the death of an Iraqi. In the US, we’ve paid little attention to the Iraqi people who were affected.

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‘We’re expected to be happy and unafraid and wave at sporting events.’ Photograph: Courtesy Stacy Bare

A lot of us weren’t well prepared to re-enter the civilian world. The army trained us to be killers but what does that mean when we get home? We’re expected to be happy and unafraid and wave at sporting events. It’s no surprise that there are high rates of alcoholism, domestic abuse and suicide among vets.

I was angry for a long time afterwards. As veterans, we want the horror and memories to be justified somehow. I missed the adrenaline. I felt like I’d missed out on normal life. I went to graduate school but did a ton of cocaine with my student loan money. I spent a few nights sleeping outside because it was less scary than being in a building.

I now work in outdoor recreation and promote the usage of parks. For years, I felt that time outdoors was valuable because it replicated the positive aspects of war, but I’ve learned that war feels good because it replicates the positive aspects of time outdoors. I actually returned to Iraq to ski.

PTSD did give me the chance to engage with my feelings, learn how to heal and break cycles of generational violence that I would never have done otherwise. And I learned a lot from reading the writer Ursula K Le Guin. She said we shouldn’t use metaphors of war, it’s too othering, too binary. I believe that now. We glamourise war too much as a society.

( Information from politico.com was used in this report. Also if you have any problem of this article or if you need to remove this articles, please email here and we will delete this immediately. [email protected] )

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