I still have the bulletproof vest. It sits in the corner of the basement, along with the Kevlar helmet I wore on my head and the gas mask I hung on my hip every day for almost three months.
It was around this time, 20 years ago, that I boarded a commercial flight for the first leg of an unforgettable trip to Iraq to cover a brutal war that had just begun under the most false of pretexts.
A torrent of thoughts filled my head as the plane, loaded with soldiers and military supplies, rolled down the runway.
Among them was that I had tickets to that year’s Final Four in New Orleans and that I was going to miss the games and the chance to hang out with my brother.
But that thought quickly faded as he considered the sacrifices many others would make in the weeks, months, and years to come.
I was a journalist embedded with the US Army’s 4th Infantry Division stationed at Fort Hood, Texas.
As a civilian reporter, I was invited to sit in first class and rub shoulders with the officers and commanders.
I declined. I knew that if I was going to develop any kind of relationship with the soldiers, I was going to start in a middle seat in the back of the plane with the enlisted men and women.
What I couldn’t get over, still can’t get over, was how young they all were. And anxious.
Our entry into Iraq was delayed because Turkey, to the north, did not allow the US to deploy its troops on Turkish soil. So we had to push into Iraq overland from the south through Kuwait, which meant we missed some of the action.
My new friends were disappointed.
My new friends were still alive.
I thought legroom on the plane was bad until we did the 20 hour convoy from Kuwait to Iraq. The back of the Humvee was littered with sandbags. Before entering, we were instructed to remove one of the Kevlar plates from our bulletproof vests and sit on it. This, we were told, was to protect us from explosive devices that were probably along the way.
We knew it wouldn’t help.
For the most part, I didn’t see much action, unless you count the night raid I carried out without night vision goggles, or the land mine field we went through to retrieve the body of a local killed by one of the land mines.
Weeks earlier, Secretary of State Colin Powell had told me in an interview that war was imminent because Iraq’s leader, Saddam Hussein, was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction.
“He has shown the ability to hide things and fool inspectors,” Powell said. “He has to confess. He has one last chance to come clean or face the consequences of not doing so.”
There were no such weapons. It was bad intelligence all along.
Powell’s legacy was damaged, but not ruined. Worse yet, not everyone he was on that plane with made it home.
I often think about those days, especially now that the fighting continues in the Ukraine.
If there is a “just war”, that is what it means for Ukraine as it defends itself against Russian aggression.
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But not all flag-wavers believe in freedom for all.
“While the United States has many vital national interests… getting further involved in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told Fox News host Tucker Carlson last week. .
DeSantis, who is expected to run for president next year, said Russian President Vladimir Putin’s successor “would probably be even more ruthless.”
Former President Donald Trump had already said that instead of providing military assistance to Ukraine, he would have let Russia “take over” parts of the country.
War is brutal. I saw some of that firsthand. Children die. Families are torn apart. The survivors lose arms and legs. Many are never the same again.
There are conscientious objectors, people who are morally opposed to war no matter the circumstances.
But it is one thing to oppose a war. Another thing is to choose the wrong side.