The shadows of the Iraq War have long stretched far across the world, but this week that chapter finally came to an end. Though the conflict was ongoing for the entirety of my young adult life, in the early days I never thought that it would strike close to home. I was just a high school junior when the war began with the U.S. military’s invasion of Iraq on March 20th, 2003. Never did I imagine that eight long years later, I would be standing at the flight line on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, watching a C-17 bring home members of Hawaii’s 25th Infantry Division, who were some of the last troops out of Iraq.
There is a name that has stood out for me since 2004, when my grandfather was interred in a niche at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl Crater. Before that, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were merely scenes on the television and words in news articles to me, as I had no real personal connection to the military aside from my World War II veteran grandparents. After losing my paternal grandfather in December of 2003, and my maternal grandmother in January 2004, I became a frequent visitor to Punchbowl, especially after moving to Oahu to begin college during the fall of 2004. The courtyard of niches was new at the time, and upon each visit, more and more names would appear on the white marble slabs, though the birth and death dates revealed that most of these were veterans and spouses who had lived full lives. One day though, merely ten spaces away from my grandfather’s resting place, a niche labeled MEDINA caught my eye. It wasn’t the name itself that drew my attention, it was the word and the dates below it: IRAQ, 1972-2004.
Staff Sgt. Oscar Medina, as my research tells me, had been a part of the 25th Infantry Division’s 84th Engineer Battalion, and died on May 1st, in Al Amarah, Iraq, when his convoy was ambushed. About two weeks later, he was the first Iraq War casualty to be interred at Punchbowl. I remember feeling a little stunned as I was finally struck with the reality of the war. From then on, whenever I visited my grandparents with flowers, I would take a moment to read his name and reflect.
The years passed by, and the Iraq War, officially called Operation Iraqi Freedom, continued to take the lives of the United States military, sometimes temporarily through deployment, and too often permanently, as our heroes like Staff Sgt. Oscar Medina made the ultimate sacrifice. Politics aside, the war has left its mark on the lives of many Americans, including me, much to my surprise. Without it, I might have never met my husband, Edward, who is an Iraq War veteran himself. Due to an injury he received while serving in Iraq (where he survived nine IED explosions as a humvee driver in the Infantry), he got the opportunity to transfer to Hawaii, and I will forever be thankful for that.
On December 18th, 2011, with my husband by my side, I watched the C-17 approach against the brilliant sunset backdrop. Three days earlier, the war in Iraq had been officially declared over by U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta during a ceremony in Baghdad. After landing, the military personnel aboard took a moment to raise the American and Hawaii flags before taxiing to the flight line, where military leadership stood waiting to welcome the soldiers home after their year-long deployment. 25th Infantry Division Commander Major General Bernard Champoux was the first off the plane, saluting as he was greeted with a hug from Lieutenant General Frank Wiercinski, Commanding General of the U.S. Army Pacific. Maj. Gen. Champoux then received a maile lei from Major General Darryll Wong, Adjutant General of the Hawaii National Guard, before leading his soldiers down the line of military and civilian greeters.
Once the soldiers were aboard their buses, we all headed up to Wheeler Army Air Field, where the families were anxiously awaiting the moment they would be reunited with their loved ones. While the soldiers went through the process of checking in and turning in their weapons in a separate room, children scampered gleefully, waving tiny American flags as the waiting spouses looked on. They sat facing a large wall covered in posters welcoming the soldiers home, and many of the children wore shirts saying “Welcome home, Daddy” or other variations of the sentiment. Every once in a while, Edward would wander off to say hi to friends who he had met during his years in the Army, many of whom had just returned themselves. Once the announcement was made that the ceremony was about to start, everyone cheered, and the returning soldiers marched into the hangar in formation while the band played.
During the ceremony, prayers were said and the Army song was sung. Lt. Gen. Wiercinski said a few brief words, and then he released the soldiers to their families. A year-long deployment is a difficult experience that I’ve had personally, and I was caught up in the wave of emotion as husbands, wives, and children were all reunited around me. I think we can all be grateful that all these families will have their soldiers home for the holidays, unlike so many who have lost loved ones to Iraq.
Thank you to all who serve and have served, and welcome home from Iraq…for the last time!