Michael Dolphin was a Marine sergeant in 2005 serving out of Fallujah, the Iraqi city where not long before U.S. forces had lost nearly 500 killed or wounded in the most intense street fighting since Vietnam.
Dolphin did convoy security work there, protecting supplies coming across western Iraq against insurgent attacks. Nearly a decade later, the area he patrolled is again up for grabs, the extremists are back in charge in Fallujah, and the peaceful, democratic Iraq that U.S. forces had hoped to leave behind is nowhere in sight.
“You look at a place like Fallujah and that city fell after all those Marines died there and your mind starts to wonder, ‘Well, what was the point of that?’ ” Dolphin said. “I think that’s a fair question, especially for the guys who strapped it on and went over there.”
Sixty-eight Minnesota service members died fighting in Iraq, and 88,000 Minnesotans in all served during the two Gulf wars. Many of them are watching with a mixture of regret and indignation as old worries, old battlefields and old arguments flash across their TV screens while the Iraqi government flirts with collapse.
Dolphin left the Marines in 2011 after eight years and two tours in Iraq. He recently passed the bar exam and works out of his home in Woodbury. He’s reconnected with many Marine buddies through phone calls and e-mails in recent weeks, sharing memories and opinions about a country that he admits he will never fully understand.
In the end, what’s important to Dolphin is not so much whether the longest American war was for naught but that the sacrifices service members made are honored, and that leaders understand their obligations to soldiers on the ground.
“We’re really good at winning battles, but we want to know that the reason that we are fighting and losing guys is that there was some kind of general plan,” he said.
‘Saw this coming’
Iraq hits home almost every day for Michael Baumann.
Baumann, now a school administrator in Lakeville, was a lieutenant colonel in the Army who served as a battalion commander for 683 American soldiers and about 300 Iraqis from 2004 to 2005. His area of responsibility was in the Al Rashid neighborhood, on the west side of Baghdad.
Four soldiers in his battalion were killed. He was with three of them when they died.
After returning home, Baumann, a University of Minnesota graduate who served 20 years in the Army, wrote a book about his experiences, “Adjust Fire.” Published in 2008, the book is more than a wartime memoir. Baumann spelled out the changes needed for Iraq to flourish as a new democracy, including bringing democracy to the local level to defeat insurgents.
There also had to be a concrete American exit strategy that left a trustworthy and robust national defense behind.
It hasn’t happened. Baumann admits to being left a little sick by recent news from Iraq, knowing what the United States sacrificed there.
“I’m not hopeful,” he said. “I have worked with the Iraqis in a military aspect. I knew they did not have the constitution to defend themselves. I knew it was a matter of time, and the test would come, and that their readiness to deal with that test was not at the level of fidelity that it needed to be. I saw this coming.”
‘Tornado of events’
Baumann’s experience in Iraq is reinforced almost daily, when he and his old interpreter in Iraq talk. It’s not a long-distance call.
Fadi Fadhil was known as “Freddie” and had worked with the U.S. military since 2003, the year U.S. forces invaded to depose Saddam Hussein. Fadhil’s connection to the Americans put him in such jeopardy that he was forced to live on a U.S. base. His family regularly received written death threats thrown over the wall of their Baghdad home.