For U.S. Vets, Iraq's Newest Conflict Awakens Complex Emotions
In Iraq this weekend, government forces launched an offensive against the Sunni militant group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. On Sunday, the government said it was using Russian-made jets to attack Sunni militants in the northern cities of Tikrit, the hometown of the late dictator Saddam Hussein, and Mosul. Both cities remain under insurgent control.
The battle is familiar to many U.S. veterans of the Iraq war. Ten years ago, thousands of U.S. soldiers battled Sunni fighters in the same cities.
One of those soldiers was Jason Hansman, a former sergeant in the Army Reserves and part of the 448th Civil Affairs Battalion deployed to Mosul in 2004. His job was to help rebuild a city destroyed in the occupation: roads, buildings, schools, medical facilities.
Hansman tells NPR's Arun Rath that he arrived in Mosul shortly before an offensive by Sunni militants.
"We got there in the fall, in September, and by November it was a full-fledged insurgency," he remembers. "Every single police station burned to the ground. So it was a little harried to say the least."
In December of that year, four days before Christmas, a suicide bomber blew up a mess hall at a forward operating base outside Mosul. The blast killed 22 people, including 14 U.S. soldiers.
In early 2005, the violence began to subside, and Hansman and his unit went about rebuilding what had been destroyed. He still remembers one project he saw from beginning to end — the building of a bridge.
"It was just a simple bridge, but when you're talking about commerce and making sure people have freedom of movement and travel, you know, it made a huge difference in the lives of Iraqis and American troops," he says.
Overall, says Hansman, he was proud of what he had accomplished in Mosul. When he returned home in 2005, he moved on with his life. He had used his Army Reserve job to help pay for college. He got a job helping to support other vets.
He was preparing for work earlier this month when he heard the news from Iraq. Mosul, the city he'd worked to rebuild, the city he says he still cares deeply about, had fallen to ISIS on June 11.
"It was tough," he says. "It's tough to watch."
In one recent picture from the city, he says he saw humvees that U.S. troops gave to the Iraqi Army. The vehicles were being driven by ISIS militants.
Hansman says it's difficult for him and his fellow veterans to watch the video footage of Mosul being splashed across TV news without feeling frustrated.
"It's like: you know what? That looks really f-ing familiar. That looks really, really familiar. And that's kind of tough," he says. "It looks like the time we were there during the fall when the entire city was in an uproar."
Hansman now works as a case manager for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He says a lot of veterans are struggling right now to understand their own feelings about the situation in Iraq — not just seeing cities they remember fall to insurgents, but also watching U.S. military advisers return to the country.
For many veterans, it's been a decade or more since they were in Iraq. The fighting can feel distant, even as it brings back memories of the sacrifices U.S. troops made on the same turf now under dispute.
"I think that's one of the struggles we're seeing within the community right now, is collectively trying to figure out, 'How do we feel about what's going on there?' " says Hansman. "And how does that affect, or does it affect, our time there?"
When a veteran asked Hansman how he was supposed to feel about the recent events in Iraq, Hansman says he told him that there is no correct response.
"It's a trying time," he says. "Not having any feelings is not a bad thing."
ARUN RATH, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. The fighting still rages in Iraq. Yesterday government forces launched an offensive against the Sunni insurgent group ISIS in the northern cities of Tikrit and Mosul. There are conflicting reports of how far the military has advanced in Tikrit. Mosul remains under insurgent control. These are names familiar to many U.S. veterans of the Iraq war. Ten years ago, thousands of U.S. soldiers fought in the same cities. One of those soldiers was Jason Hansman. In 2004, he was a sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserves - part of a small battalion of civil affairs specialists.
JASON HANSMAN: Our mission was, I guess, fairly simple - was to liaise with the Iraqi nationals and then do some reconstruction projects. So all of the roads, the buildings, the schools, the medical clinics that were destroyed in the lead up to the war and in the war itself - it was our responsibility to do that rebuilding.
RATH: Hansman's battalion deployed to the northern city of Mosul in the fall of 2004.
HANSMAN: 2004 was a bad time to be in Iraq - anywhere in Iraq. But, you know, in the cities like Fallujah and Mosul and Baghdad it was I think especially bad. We got there in the fall in September and by November it was a full-fledged insurgency. Every single police station burnt to the ground. So it was a little hairy to say the least.
RATH: In December of that year, four days before Christmas, a suicide bomber bombed a mess hall at an army base in Mosul and killed 22 people - including 14 U.S. soldiers. In early 2005 the violence began to subside. Hansman and his unit went about rebuilding what had been destroyed.
HANSMAN: A bridge - we built this wonderful bridge just outside of one of our bases in the southern part of the town. I remember I - it was one of the few projects I saw from beginning to end. And, you know, it's just a simple bridge but, you know, when we're talking about commerce and making sure people have the freedom of movement and travel, you know, it had a huge difference in the lives of Iraqis and of course American troops.
RATH: When Hansman returned home in 2005 he says he felt a sense of pride at what he had accomplished. And he moved on with his life. He had used his Army Reserve job to help pay for college. He got a job with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America helping support other vets. Then earlier this month he was driving to work when he heard the news - Sunni insurgents had overrun Mosul.
HANSMAN: It was tough. I'll be honest with you - shocking. Certainly didn't expect, you know, a city that, you know, I'd spent almost 10 months in. You know, and cared still very deeply about to have it fall to, you know, a fresh round of insurgents is, you know, that's - it's tough to watch and it's tough to, you know, really see the reactions or read the reactions of other vets as they struggle through this time.
RATH: Do you see anything in the news coverage now, you know, images of the city that are especially hard for you to see?
HANSMAN: Not hard. What I will say is, you know, there was one video I think it was an Iraqi civilian who was filming it going through the streets of Mosul. I remember seeing it on one of the guys I served with in Iraq - his Facebook page. And we all, you know, I can imagine the look on their face because it was the same look on my face where it's like - you know what, that looks really familiar. That looks really, really familiar. And that's, you know, that's kind of tough, you know, especially, you know, it looks like we were - it looks like the time that we were there during, you know, the fall when, you know, the entire city was in an uproar.
RATH: Now you're currently a case manager for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. And obviously you talk to a lot of veterans as part of your job. What other things have you heard you've heard from people who have served in Iraq?
HANSMAN: You know, it's people struggling to deal with this - struggling to find out how to feel and - but, you know, I got this one e-mail from this one member and he was like - you know, how am I supposed to feel? Like tell me how am I supposed to feel about, you know, not just, you know, Mosul falling and, you know, the insurgents, you know, essentially taking over a good portion of Iraq but how am I supposed to feel about new troops going to Iraq - advisers - quote, unquote "advisors" going to Iraq. How are we supposed to feel about that? And I think that's, you know, one of the struggles we're seeing within the community right now is, you know, collectively trying to figure out how do we feel about what's going on there and how does that affect or does it affect the time that we spent there?
RATH: That guy that you heard from who asked you how am I supposed to feel - what'd you tell him?
HANSMAN: You know, I basically told him I can't tell you how you should feel. I will tell you how I feel, you know. And it's a trying time. It is a trying time for me, it's probably going to be a trying time for you but not having any feelings is not a bad thing.
RATH: Jason Hansman served in Mosul, Iraq in 2004 and 2005. Jason thank you so much.
HANSMAN: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.