Weeks after returning from Iraq, where he and other Utah Marines were part of the bloody, chaotic ground invasion that secured Baghdad, Nick Lopez was on a flight to the Cayman islands with his family.
As he read a magazine article about the war he’d left behind, Lopez saw a picture of a small Iraqi girl with pink shoes in her father’s arms, taken just after the family was caught in crossfire.
The top of the girl’s head was gone.
"I started bawling," Lopez remembers. "I was inconsolable on the aircraft."
That episode in the spring of 2003 should have been a clue to Lopez, a Sandy native and long-time Salt Lake City firefighter.
But it took years, anger severe enough to doom his marriage, and a recurring nightmare for Lopez to acknowledge what the ground invasion, which began on March 19, 2003, had cost him.
"I was a first sergeant. I wanted to be sergeant major. I was damned if I was going to tell somebody I had PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) early on," says Lopez, now 47.
The price of war, 10 years on, is still being exacted, even on those who were in Iraq only once and only for a few months. Fox Company of the 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marines, known as the "Saints and Sinners" because it is based in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, was attached to the 1st Marine Division for the invasion. Lopez and the nearly 200 Marine Reservists of Fox company were home by late May 2003.
But going to war also left many soldiers with an appreciation for life, a sharper focus on what matters and above all, deep friendships with fellow fighters.
"I don’t think there is a day that goes by that I don’t think of the war," says John Worsencroft, who was 21 when he served under Lopez in 2003.
"There’s something to be said for the experience," says Worsencroft, a Murray native who is now a doctoral student in history at Temple University in Philadelphia. His focus is on military and society.
"It’s all the clichés you can imagine, but at the same time, it was a very exciting experience, a very frightening experience," says Worsencroft. "It was both formative and transformative. I don’t think I’m the same."
‘We took a fair amount of life’ » As the 10th anniversary of the invasion, the messy April fight for Baghdad and the early months of war approach, many veterans are reflecting on that tense time.
Maj. Gen. Jeff Burton, promoted to adjutant general of the Utah National Guard last fall, led the 1457th Combat Engineer Battalion into Baghdad in May.
"Things were still smoking," recalls Burton. "The people were overjoyed to see us. They pretty well hugged us in the streets. Unfortunately, that didn’t last long."
Top military brass made the mistake, he says, of removing mid-level managers who were vital to keeping the Iraqi government and military working. It only compounded the chaos and created animosity, he says.
Burton left Utah with 450 soldiers and had another 200 assigned to his command while in country.
Working with Vietnam-era flack vests and 1980s vehicles that lacked armor, the soldiers dismantled roadside bombs and helped recover bodies, body parts and the injured in buildings that were attacked. They were among the first on the scene when a suicide bomber struck the United Nations compound in August, killing 22 and wounding more than 100.
At one point, the soldiers of the 1457th were charged with rounding up animals that had escaped the damaged Baghdad zoo, even as they were under fire.
"There were lions, tigers, bears, hyenas running all over the place," Burton recalls. They killed donkeys back at the zoo to lure the animals back into their cages.
The 1457th’s "fairly miraculous" survival — no deaths and only seven injuries — fed into a myth in LDS circles. Burton at one point publicly refuted a falsehood-riddled email that called his soldiers modern-day "Stripling Warriors," as described in the Book of Mormon.
Burton says that although anger and broken marriages have been common among his soldiers, only a handful were so debilitated that they cannot work. He still hears from stressed soldiers.Next Page >
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