Iraq War stories: Veterans share memories, perspectives 10 years later

Tim Skillern

Robert W. Philbrook grew up playing war.

As a boy, it seemed simple: In games of hide-and-seek, he and his friends sneaked between buildings, guarded their “forts"—and shot the “bad guys” before they shot back.

Years later, Philbrook enlisted with the California Army National Guard a few months after the Sept. 11 attacks. Shortly before he left for Iraq in 2005, a question from his then-6-year-old son Ryan stripped bare the reality of war. In Philbrook’s words:

Sitting in the car that day, he looked at me and said, "Can I ask you a question, Daddy?"

I told my son, yes, he could ask me anything. After a moment, he said: "You said you might have to kill someone in the war, right?"

I nodded and said to him that is what soldiers sometimes have to do.

He looked at me with his big blue eyes and muttered, "Will any of them be a daddy like you?"

His question was devastating. I didn't know how to tell him that the answer could well be "yes." I thought for a moment and then reminded him about Mom and Dad's rule [that] he and his brothers shouldn't be mean to each other and that Daddy didn't like it when they fought over toys. I told him I was going to Iraq to try to keep the Iraqis from fighting and being mean to each other and doing bad things. That if they listened and got along, I could come home soon. But if they didn't, I was going to have to fight them until they stopped. This seemed to make some sense to him, but to this day his question haunts me.

While he was in Iraq, his wife and three sons (ages 13, 6 and 4 in 2004, when he was mobilized) dominated his thoughts, so much so that he kept a detailed journal of his time in case he didn't return home.

“If I was to die overseas, I wanted them to know someday why their father left them to fight an often unpopular war and about my role and experiences during it,” Philbrook, of Palm Springs, Calif., wrote in a first-person account for Yahoo News this week. “I didn't want the media, the military, or anyone else, for that matter, speaking for me or writing my history of that conflict.”

He also prayed: "Don't let me get any of my fellow soldiers killed, don't let me kill anyone who doesn't have it coming and get me back home to my wife and children."

He said he was successful on the first two counts. “God did his part on the last,” he said.

Philbrook’s story is one of dozens that Iraq War veterans and their families shared with Yahoo News this month, the 10-year anniversary of the start of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The perspectives were diverse, ranging from baby-faced Army privates serving straight out of high school to veterans who re-enlisted because of 9/11. Many said they believe history will judge the United States justly for its role in shaping Iraq’s future; others offered a more fatalistic view and said the campaign was doomed from the start.

By the time the war ended on Dec. 15, 2011, 4,409 Americans were killed in Iraq and 31,926 more wounded in action. (The number of Iraqi deaths are estimated at 122,000 through today.) Behind those numbers lie personal stories of service members and their families. We’ve shared a few more of them below. If you served in Iraq, or have family who did, and are interested in writing your story, learn more here.

Making a difference, but paying a steep price

It took a while for the war to sink in for Frank Coots.

“Nothing can really prepare you mentally for being in a war zone,” the sergeant in the Indiana Army National Guard wrote in his account.

The Iraq War seemed harmless, Coots said, until bullets riddled his Humvee on his first convoy-security mission. Then came the IEDs. It was 2008, and insurgents were repeatedly using the roadside bombs to derail U.S. operations.

“It got real pretty fast,” he said.

Coots, who was a specialist, deployed to Mosul in northern Iraq and guarded convoys of food, supplies, mail, water and fuel. These missions, he said, showed him how far Iraq had transformed after Saddam Hussein’s fall. He watched the progress of the U.S. military training Iraqi army and police forces. He noted how Americans turned over the security of roadside checkpoints to Iraqis. He listened to his Kurdish interpreter, whose family was executed by Saddam’s troops, extol U.S. efforts at freeing his people from tyranny.

“It was a time when I really felt I was making a difference and doing a good thing for others,” he said.

But he paid a personal price.

“Coming home and returning to civilian life was a challenge, to say the least,” Coots said. “It's hard to go from serving your country in a war zone to making $11.75 an hour in a Vincennes, Ind., auto parts store. It's hard to get used to not grabbing a rifle and pulling security every time you're startled by a loud noise. It's hard to understand why everything seems so different, even when you realize the concussions and head traumas caused by explosions has altered the way your brain works. It's hard to go in a restaurant or bar and not sit with your back in a corner and consider everyone a possible enemy.”

Coots, 32, who moved on to being a tractor mechanic at a John Deere dealership in Vincennes is engaged to a woman he described as “wonderful, supportive, patient,” and who helps him through his post-traumatic stress disorder. With assistance from the Veterans Administration, he’s returning to what he calls “normal life.”

But his thoughts still turn to Iraq. He wonders whether Iraqis are ready to govern. He worries insurgents will rise again. He fears American sacrifices may be moot if violence returns.

“I very much hope I'm proven wrong about this,” Coots said.

‘What doesn't kill you makes you walk with a limp’

If not for war’s most devastating and rewarding outcomes, said Brittney Linville, she wouldn’t be the same today.

Now a mom to a 6-year-old girl and wife to a fellow Army veteran, Linville entered basic training at 18 in January 2003 and quickly saw combat. She served in Baqouba, Iraq, as a military police soldier and found herself thrust into the worst parts of the war.

“While many don't think that females see combat, I have pulled security for more raids than I can count, have lived through countless mortar attacks on the base in which I lived, and faced the roads of Iraq never knowing if it might be the last one that I would travel down,” she wrote in her story. “I have faced days without sleep, weeks without a shower, and months without knowing if I would ever see home again.”

But without that adversity, she said, she couldn’t measure what she’d gained. She described herself as being immature and selfish before she served, but said Iraq changed that. “It was a time in my life when I quickly learned that I was more capable than I had imagined.”

She also met her husband, Matthew Linville, in Iraq. They married, and she transitioned out of the service. But Matthew was deployed again, and this time and IED blast sent shrapnel tunneling through his leg, lodging a hunk of metal behind his left knee.

“That day that he was injured was the worst day of our lives. We have faced our challenges since that day, but it made our bond stronger,” she said.

With a severed nerve, Matthew is permanently injured and needs a brace to walk. Brittney battles PTSD daily.

Still, she said, she chooses "to be stronger than PTSD and that serves as my motivation."

Her husband coined a phrase: "What doesn't kill you makes you walk with a limp.”

“Iraq might have been tough," Brittney added, “and left its lingering effects, but it will not hold us back or prevent us from accomplishing anything.”

Stories from war and the home front

Read more veterans' accounts and perspectives about their service in Iraq.