Veterans react to end of Iraq, Afghan wars

Dargan Thompson

(Photo by Sean Murphy)

By: Dargan Thompson, Assistant Features Editor

As controversy continues to rage about U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, two UNF students who served in the U.S. Marine Corps share their experiences in the region and their views on withdrawal.

Iraq War March 2003 – December 2011

The Marine Corps fascinated Bradford Costello from an early age. Although he doesn’t come from a military family, Costello said he was drawn to the Marine Corps’ impressive record and reputation.

He volunteered to serve in the summer of 1998 and went off to boot camp within two months.

A few years later, after several training deployments, Costello was preparing to be part of the “tip of the spear” in the war on Iraq. There was a buildup to the start of the war, he said.

“Late March 2003 President Bush was announcing to America and the world that we were going in,” Costello said. “We knew we were going in and what we were going to be doing months before that.”

Costello said he had no reservations about going in. He was pleased to be able to apply his training as a Marine in a real environment as part of the operation that took down Saddam Hussein’s regime.

There was some concern in the beginning because of the potential use of chemical weapons, Costello said, but within about a week, the threat of being gassed had diminished.

For the six months he was in Iraq, Costello’s job was to provide fuel support for the pilots at the front of the action. His troop was attached to the first Marine division that led Operation Iraqi Freedom, which meant its convoy was close to the action. It traveled up from southern Iraq to a city about 100 miles north of Baghdad through some very hostile areas.

Costello said the pace of the action was constantly changing. It was like a rollercoaster.

“You could be just sitting around for days, waiting for movement to happen,” he said. “And then when movement comes: boom. You could move for 72 hours and get no sleep.”

As a supply Marine, Costello never personally engaged the enemy, but he saw some perimeter fire.

His unit saw a lot of displaced people and post-attack destruction. Some nights, it saw explosions on the horizon from the air assault on Baghdad.

When Costello came back from Iraq in August of 2003, his contract was up for the Marine Corps, and he processed out.

Five years later, Costello decided it was time to take advantage of the G.I. Bill. He started college in Tuscon, Ariz., then finished his associate’s in business at Florida State College at Jacksonville after relocating to Jacksonville to be closer to family.

After that, he came to UNF to pursue a degree in business administration. He has six classes left to take before he graduates and hopes to go to on to seminary and then into ministry.

As far as the war ending, Costello said the area is still tremendously unstable. Iran is the new concern in the area. The U.S. needs to pull out of Iraq at some point, so the country can get back to governing its own affairs, but Costello thinks U.S. forces cannot leave the area entirely.

“For the purposes of stability, it’s important to have a strong military presence in that area in some capacity,” he said.

Costello said his personal prediction is that the U.S. will get involved somehow with Iran within the next six months. What is going on now is more of troop restructuring than complete withdrawal, he said.

“It’s more complicated than: ‘Bye, we’re going home,’” Costello said.

Iran is a wild card, Costello said, so U.S. forces need to be preparing for something while continuing to exercise diplomacy.

Costello said civilians tend to label those who serve. He wants people to know that those in the military are not warmongers but are willing to do what it takes to keep our country safe.

“Don’t confuse the men and women who serve our great country with politicians,” he said.

Afghan War 2001 – Present

Jhullian Donawa was hoping to finish school before getting deployed, but in April 2010, at the end of his third year at UNF, his Marine Corps unit was activated for a push in Afghanistan.

Over the course of his six-month deployment, Donawa had three different jobs. For the first few months he was there, he worked as a landing support specialist at the airfields. Then he was attached to motor transport with the job of recovering blown-up vehicles.

Donawa said improvised explosive devices — bombs planted to front lay the oncoming U.S. forces — caused most of the damage he saw. The bombs were all different sizes, some causing just little poofs and others creating enough force to throw a man out of a vehicle.

Usually a recovery convoy would take a day to get out to the vehicle they were to recover, then sleep the night there and bring the vehicle back the next day.

Often, Donawa said, things did not go that well, and the recovery vehicle would hit a bomb on the way out and have to be recovered, too.

Donawa was later tasked to go to one of the bases near the front lines to load cargo and help unload the people coming off the medical evacuation helicopters.

On the last base he was on, Donawa was stationed with an infantry unit called Dark Horse that played a big part in pushing out the Taliban. Things started to settle down the last few months he was there because of the unit’s work, he said, but it took a heavy toll on him.

“We’d be at the airfield when they went out,” Donawa said. “We’d see the damage that they took. The people, you know, scars and shrapnel.”

After his post-deployment training, Donawa came back to resume school at UNF in the summer of 2011. He will graduate in August with a degree in criminal justice. He plans to get a master’s degree in public administration and do federal law enforcement or work for the government.

Donawa said it was interesting to see how people in Afghanistan lived. The terrain is really barren, he said, and some people live out in the middle of the desert. It seemed like many of the people were still in the middle ages, living in mud huts without power and farming with donkeys.

The situation is a lot different than that of Iraq, he said, because the people in Afghanistan are much more spread out.

“They’re not neighbors, they don’t have to worry about each other,” Donawa said.

The disconnectedness makes it hard for the people to stand up to the Taliban, Donawa said, especially since the different regions of the country are under individual control.

“The country’s set up in a way where it’s not conducive to being a democracy,” he said.

Donawa said he doesn’t know what is going to happen as the U.S. scales back. He said he thinks it would be good to leave a force to help train the Afghanistan military, but really it’s up to the people there to decide what they want to do.

Email Dargan Thompson at [email protected]