Naveed Shah crisscrossed Iraq during his time in the US military, traveling from the capital Baghdad to the southern city of Basrah, on the banks of the Shatt Al Arab River.
Like many recruits, he was inspired to enlist after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which killed nearly 3,000 people in the US.
That day had upset him. Shah was only a teenager at the time, but he remembers the day two hijacked planes slammed into the World Trade Center in New York City and a third hit the Pentagon building in Washington, D.C., not far from where he lived. A fourth hijacked plane, also believed to be bound for Washington, D.C., crashed in a Pennsylvania field after passengers fought back.
“I felt like my country was under attack,” Shah, who now works with veterans’ advocacy organization Common Defense, told Al Jazeera in a recent phone call. “And as a Muslim, I felt that my religion was perverted to justify something terrible.”
Shah finally joined the military in 2006, nearly three years after the US invasion of Iraq. It was a campaign that then-President George W. Bush justified by calling out the September 11 attacks and warning that Iraq harbored terrorists and was developing weapons of mass destruction, a claim that has since been refuted.
Shah, like many Americans at the time, said he had no doubts about the decision to invade.
“I didn’t think much about how we got to Iraq,” he said. “At that point it looked like we were winning and we were going to leave the country in a decent way.”
However, as the 20th anniversary of the Iraq war approaches, Shah’s views have changed. Many veterans like Shah now grapple with questions about the purpose of the invasion, as well as ongoing combat-related medical challenges.
“The war was based on a lie,” Shah said. “It was wrong for us to be there in the first place.”
Among the hundreds of thousands of American servicemen who took part in the Iraq War, perspectives on the conflict vary.
“My year in Iraq was not a pleasant one,” Kristofer Goldsmith, who served in Iraq from January to December 2005, told Al Jazeera. “I can’t say an American, let alone an Iraqi, is better off having served there.”
A 2019 Pew Research Center poll found that a significant one majority of American veterans – about 64 percent — believe the war in Iraq was not worth fighting, a percentage slightly higher than the 62 percent of all American adults who agree with that statement.
In foreign policy circles, the war has increasingly been described at best as a wrong venture and at worst as a conflict based on false pretenses that has brought death, destruction and instability to the region. Hundreds of thousands Iraqi civilians were killedand millions were displaced.
The years since the invasion have prompted Shah, who served as an army communications specialist during the war, to rethink how the US approaches its foreign policy.
“It sounded far-fetched when people said there was an attempt at the highest level of government to mislead us into a war, but that’s what happened,” he said.
Shah would like to see an end to what he calls the “perpetual state of military activity” that has defined America’s “war on terror”.
“The US defense budget is approaching $1 trillion. With all the problems we have at home, should we get involved in conflicts around the world?” he asked. “I think the clear answer is no.”
Turn experience into advocacy
Another veteran, Oscar Olguin, lost his right leg as a result of an explosion early in the Iraq War in 2003. He expressed his ambivalence about the war and its legacy in a recent telephone interview with Al Jazeera.
“I wouldn’t change anything that happened to me, but I can’t say if the war was worth it,” he said. “Is it ever really worth it? No one really wins in a fight.”
But like some Iraq war veterans, Olguin has found a way to turn his experience into advocacy.
Through his work helping veterans access government services with the nonprofit organization Disabled American Veterans (DAV), Olguin said he has helped veterans of all ages and backgrounds, including a former Tuskegee pilot, one of the Black fighter pilots who served during World War II. The work “feels fulfilling,” explains Olguin.
Goldsmith, the veteran who served in Iraq in 2005, has also found a newfound sense of self through advocacy. During his employment he struggled with psychological problems.
“I remember my team leader asking me if I’d ever heard of PTSD,” he said, using an acronym for post-traumatic stress disorder. At the time, Goldsmith explained, “it wasn’t part of the lexicon”.
Goldsmith was eventually fired after attempting to take his own life. “When I left the military, I lost a big part of my identity, a big part of my community,” he said. But outreach work helped him rediscover a sense of well-being: “Sharing my story and my experiences really helped me come out of a dark place.”
He has since founded a group called Task Force Butler, which focuses on identifying neo-Nazis through internet intelligence gathering.
“My experiences have left an impression on me that cannot be separated from who I am,” said Goldsmith. “I used to think about the war all the time. Now when I think about my identity as a vet, it’s about using my skills to make my country a better place and fight for democracy here at home.”
Ongoing health effects
Shane Liermann, who works with the DAV on legislative issues, mentions Iraq war veterans with pressure on the US government to expand services such as healthcare and education for military personnel, past and present.
One of the most high-profile battles was overexposure to fire pits, used in both conflicts to dump waste at military bases. Proponents say plastic, electronics and even industrial chemicals were thrown into the waste fires, releasing toxic fumes and heavy metals.
But for years it had been veterans’ job to prove that their health was a result of their proximity to the pits.
It wasn’t until August 2022 that US President Joe Biden signed a bill to expand health care for veterans exposed to toxins while on duty, including from the fire pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Since 2007, thirteen thousand veteran claims have been rejected,” says Liermann. “Under this bill, it is no longer for veterans to prove causation.”
He said reforms to the GI Bill, a veterans’ benefits bill, also expanded access to college. Other laws, such as the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act and the TEAM Veteran Caregivers Act, have helped provide veterans with disabilities with assistance in their homes.
Still, Liermann noted, gaps in coverage remain and some veterans struggle to access the help they need.
“Rural veterans may still struggle to access benefits,” he said. “Having to drive a few hours to a VA (Veterans Affairs) clinic in a big city can be a challenge.”
Mental health problems remain an ongoing concern: Since 2001, more than 6,000 veterans have committed suicide each year.
But that trend is showing signs of improvement. According to a VA report released last year, veteran suicide rates fell 9.7 percent from 2018 to 2020.
“There are more resources available now than before,” said Goldsmith, the veteran turned lawyer. “There is still work to be done, but things are getting better.”
If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, these organizations might help.