Rich Edenfield first landed in the Middle East in June 2003, barely a month after President George W. Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech heralded a premature American victory during a war that, in a sense, continues today.
Edenfield was a lanky, fresh-faced 20-year-old Minnesota National Guard soldier from Eagan, newly married with an infant daughter. He had wanted to be a soldier since childhood — his father served in Vietnam, and he idolized his grandfather, a fighter pilot in World War II. But he had no idea what to expect in Iraq.
The war had begun on March 20, 2003 — 20 years ago Monday. Even as U.S. politicians claimed victory that spring, eruptions of violence presaged a drawn-out, bloody conflict. That conflict would cost upwards of a trillion dollars and more than 4,000 U.S. military lives, including 14 members of the Minnesota National Guard, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives.
As politicians became defined by early support for or opposition to the invasion, the Iraq war also changed the role of the National Guard. The old joke about the Guard used to be, "break glass in case of war" — a strategic reserve force typically used for domestic emergencies. The past couple decades have seen Guard members regularly called upon for overseas deployments in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
But Edenfield's original memories of Iraq had nothing to do with big geopolitical forces at play. His first memory was the heat. When he landed at 3 a.m., it was 99 degrees. That first day, the temperature reached 110, and 15 people in his company were treated for heat-related issues.
The more lasting memory from the first of Edenfield's three Middle East deployments, however, was the danger.
Three weeks after landing in Kuwait, Edenfield joined a 33-vehicle convoy to Tikrit, Iraq, near Saddam Hussein's hometown. To protect unarmored vehicles from improvised explosive devices, they placed sandbags and sheet metal on the floor to cushion themselves from blasts.
Edenfield would be stationed in Tikrit as a communications equipment operator until May 2004. As his wife, fellow Minnesota National Guard soldier Liz Edenfield, avoided the news and focused on helping their baby, Jade, learn to walk, Rich Edenfield spent the year in a town known as the most dangerous spot in the world.
He was shot at more times than he can count; he shot back more times than he can count. The most perilous moments were on convoys between Tikrit and Baghdad. Somehow, everyone in his unit made it home.
"Almost every time we did talk, you could hear gunfire in the background," Liz Edenfield said. "Compartmentalizing is a big part of what you do in the military. But there were many nights where I had that fear I was going to get a knock on the door."
"We weren't sure who was our enemy and who was our friend," Rich Edenfield said. "But 95% of the population was extremely grateful we were there. Saddam's regime was pretty brutal."
It is jarring to realize it's been 20 years since the Iraq invasion. Since then, we've seen the invention and proliferation of social media and smartphones, the election of Obama and Trump and Biden, a global pandemic and the reshuffling of the post-Cold War world order. Even today, 2,500 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, advising and assisting Iraqis and Kurds.
Thinking of the invasion in binary terms — success or failure? — is a fool's errand. As David Frum recently wrote in a retrospective in the Atlantic that called the war "a grave and costly error," the war uncovered no weapons of mass destruction and destabilized the Middle East — but it also removed a brutal dictator. We have no way of knowing how a Saddam regime would have played out.
Retired Lt. Gen. Rick Nash of New Prague, commanding general of U.S. Army and multinational forces in Iraq in 2009 and 2010, remembers exactly where he was when Saddam was captured on Dec. 11, 2003: at a U.S. base in Bosnia. Gov. Tim Pawlenty was paying Minnesota National Guard troops a visit. Nash learned about Saddam's capture when Pawlenty got a call from a reporter in Minnesota.
"'Wow, that's pretty cool — now this thing is going to be through with,'" Nash remembers thinking. "And then five years later, I'm in Iraq, and this thing is still going on."
Nash sees the war's biggest mistake as when Paul Bremer, who led the Coalition Provisional Authority after the invasion, banned Saddam's Ba'ath Party and disbanded the Iraqi army. Ba'athists weren't all Saddam partisans; these people made the country function.
"They welcomed us with open arms until they saw the plan we rolled out," Nash said. "When you get rid of all those operators, there's no electricity, you're not distributing the wealth correctly from oil revenues, and we had to recover out of that. We became the hated person because they didn't have a job."
The National Guard's role has morphed the past two decades. Overseas deployments have become regular occurrences for Guard members as the Guard has become more interwoven with active-duty forces; nearly 8,000 members of the Minnesota National Guard have served in Iraq since 2003.
"We don't have enough on active duty to do what this country asked them to do over 20 years in two theaters of war," Nash said. "Even with NATO partners, we were running out."
Rich and Liz Edenfield now have two daughters. Jade is 20, Mackenzie is 10. Rich retired from the Minnesota National Guard last year, and the family moved to North Carolina. When he thinks of Iraq, he focuses on the good: tossing candy to kids, or Iraqis hugging him and thanking him.
"I have pride in all of it," Rich Edenfield said. "I did what I felt was right. I served my country. We did so much good for the Iraqi people. Getting Saddam out of there did so much for that country, for the women, the children."
"My fear," Liz Edenfield said, "is that this has become so normalized. We've had so many deployments for so many years, it's like this is part of our culture now. It's easy to take for granted what our soldiers have gone through. But I hope that's never taken for granted. Never."