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.
Fadhil’s commitment to the Americans was so profound that Baumann made it his mission to make sure Fadhil found safety in America. He secured a letter supporting Fadhil’s exit from Iraq and brought him to Minnesota when he left the military. Last year, Fadhil became an American citizen and now works in IT for the Minneapolis public schools.
The men consider each other brothers and talk nearly every day.
“What brought us together is that we found each other in this tornado of events,” Fadhil said. “We thought the same way, we aligned so well.”
Fadhil sees the chaos in Iraq as evolutionary. A country where the boundaries were set artificially by colonial powers, and one riven by sectarian violence, its citizens had no experience of self-government after decades of tyranny. The Americans pulled out too soon, Fadhil said.
“It’s really like you freed a little kid from a bully, which was Saddam,” he said. “Now let that kid out on the street on his own, and he’s going to get bullied again by somebody else. Iraq wasn’t ready.”
His immediate family has fled Iraq and Fadhil says he is comfortable in his new home. But if he had a chance to be part of Iraq’s maturation, he said he would not hesitate, no matter the personal danger.
“If you’re an adult and you’re standing by a river and you see a little kid drowning, you may drown as well, but it’s instinct that you jump in,” he said. “I would feel myself as a bad person if I stood by the sidelines. It would haunt me.”
Back ‘in a heartbeat’
Nicole Humble did two tours as a Marine in the Middle East, first in Kuwait in 2003 and then again in Fallujah in 2008. She finds it infuriating that the United States gave up a combat presence there, saying the U.S. should either have never gone in or never left.
She left as a sergeant when her contract expired in 2010 and will soon begin work on a master’s degree in social work. She hopes one day to counsel veterans.
If she were asked to return to Iraq, “I would go in a heartbeat,” she said.
“I want to say everything was in vain, but we did some good,” she said. “We helped build schools. Little girls would tell us they loved America and they loved us. We were getting to some people.”