Remembering Iraq and Its Legacy Today

U.S. forces responding to an insurgent attack in 2008 within Mosul, Iraq

U.S. forces responding to an insurgent attack in 2008 within Mosul, Iraq

In October 2011, President Barak Obama addressed the nation stating, “America’s war in Iraq will be over…The coming months will be a season of homecomings.” Two months later, following nine years of bloody warfare, the Iraq War finally ended. President Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki indeed seemed confident in their decision to remove U.S. forces two months prior as the U.S. president stated: “The new partnership with Iraq will be strong and enduring,” and that “the last American soldier will cross the border out of Iraq with their head held high, proud of their success and knowing that the American people stand united in our support for our troops.”

Almost three years later, the world now stands and watches what appears to be utter failure on the part of the U.S. government as ISIS militants systematically invade and conquer large portions of the nation, threatening not only Iraq, but the entire region as a whole under a brutal regime comparable to the barbarism of medieval times. War once again rages, infrastructure is threatened, and genocide spreads among the regions religious minorities of which include Assyrian Christians, Yezidis, and Kurds who allied themselves with American forces during our occupation. As a veteran of the Iraq War, keeping my head high and proud of our success becomes harder everyday as I watch the systematic downfall of a nation where many U.S. servicemen gave their lives. Closure with success in what was always a controversial conflict now seems far out of sight.

Eleven years ago, with a nation divided, could we have predicted the current legacy before us as U.S. led forces stormed into Iraq on March 20, 2003? Within a month, Baghdad fell, ending the 24 year reign of Saddam Hussein following an incredible display of military prowess by the U.S.  and its allies. The initial campaign was so successful that on May 1, 2003, former President George W. Bush stated aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, “Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.” Depending on your interpretation to the statement, U.S. forces indeed had prevailed, but major combat operations had only just begun. Bush continued, stating; “Now our coalition is engaged in securing and reconstructing that country.” I was a junior in high school when these events happened and would not join the United States Army until June 2004. It never occurred to me I would end up, along with multitudes, serving more than one combat deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Aerial view of the Tigris River photographed in 2006 within Saladin Province, Iraq.

Aerial view of the Tigris River photographed in 2006 within Saladin Province, Iraq.

Following the initial invasion by coalition forces in 2003, U.S. servicemen continued to prevail under various phases of the conflict including multiple insurgencies and civil war. The military was run ragged, rotating units constantly through theaters and exposing thousands of servicemen and women to multiple deployments ranging from 6 to 15 months. Even without a draft, America’s volunteer men and women rose to the challenge in order to fight and support a two front war in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Finally, after 8 years, 8 months, 3 weeks, and 5 days, the Iraq War officially ended on December 15, 2011. The war had cost over 4,400 American lives and 318 of our allies, along with approximately 17,700 Iraqi Security Forces and over 100,000 Iraqi civilians to date. Over 32,000 U.S. military were wounded and an additional 50,000 suffer from combat related injuries and diseases. Total Iraqi enemy, allied, and civilian casualties are reported up to half a million total.

As the final troops returned home, minus a contingent of embassy guards and civilian contractors, America tended to easily forget the conflict which had impacted so many lives and focus their attention elsewhere at both home and abroad. It appeared a controversial, bloody chapter in American history we wished to close and stick high up on the bookshelf so as to not open it again. Easily, one could understand the wars unpopularity as result of several factors: First, the main initiative for invading Iraq was sold under the intelligence claim Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction which posed a threat to the U.S. and its allies. In the aftermath of the U.S. takeover, weapons of mass destruction were never found. Secondly, to target Iraq in the ongoing War on Terror campaign, following the attacks by Osama bin Laden on September 11, appeared unnecessary. Afghanistan had yet to be rid of the Taliban and Al Qaeda influence and the 9/11 mastermind was still at large, while Saddam Hussein still remained crippled from his nations devastating defeat during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and harsh sanctions that had followed for over a decade. Lastly, came the inevitable possibility U.S. occupation would cause more harm than good and place the Iraqi people in a worse situation than under the Hussein regime. The new, unstable country became a battleground for Islamic insurgents across the region seeking to kill coalition servicemen and replace the power vacuum should America fail in establishing a secure, democratic Iraq. In addition, the people’s lack of a national identity further complicated plans due to the many ethnic, religious, and tribal differences within the nations boundaries.

Should we have invaded? It mattered not once the door had been kicked open. The deed had been done and those forced to pay the price became none other than the men and women of the U.S. armed forces and people of Iraq. The main objective was clear yet demanding to American forces upon invading: end the regime of Saddam Hussein, identify and eliminate Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, search and eliminate any terrorists within the country, collect any intelligence related to terrorist and illicit weapons networks, deliver humanitarian support to the impoverished Iraqi people, secure Iraq’s oil fields and resources for the people, and help the Iraqi people rebuild and establish a representative, self-government.

M1 Abrams tank leading a U.S. patrol through Mosul, Iraq in 2008. The ancient Yunus Mosque seen in the distance (burial site of Jonah the prophet) has since been destroyed following the ISIS takeover in July 2014.

M1 Abrams tank leading a U.S. patrol through Mosul, Iraq in 2008. The ancient Yunus Mosque seen in the distance (burial site of Jonah the prophet) has been destroyed by ISIS militants following their takeover of the city in June 2014.

Aside from locating the supposed weapons of mass destruction Saddam possessed, U.S. led forces nearly accomplished all of these objectives despite the odds and controversy worldwide. With the final withdrawal of U.S. troops in December of 2011, Saddam Hussein had been toppled and executed and a new parliamentary government established in his place. By 2011, the U.S. had delivered billions of dollars in humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping operations, and government revenue to Iraq’s people, preserved the nation’s vast resources, and overcome various insurgent forces throughout the theatre in an effort to provide Iraqi civilians peace and freedom following decades of tyranny and warfare. Still, despite the successes, it became evident the U.S. government had placed its military in a situation it was not ready to abandon at a cost the American people were not willing to further pay or tolerate.

To understand, compare it to your next door neighbor entering your kitchen while visiting. While in the kitchen your neighbor accidently spills a carton of milk on the floor. Whether they like it or not, they have created a mess and are therefore obligated to clean it up despite the fact they may be in a hurry to leave. Should they choose to only partially clean the floor and then leave, in turn they have left a complete mess for you to deal with of which in turn becomes worse than before as a result of the unattended, rotten milk lying on the ground. Should Bush have invaded? Should Obama have pulled out so fast? Whichever side you take, the legacy of America in Iraq has taken a dark shadow amidst the current failure and tragedy that has overcome the country. As of today, nearly 5,000 American lives were sacrificed to create and preserve a free, democratic Iraq that has now fallen into the hands of Islamic militants who wreak destruction and genocide upon all they come in contact with. Millions of dollars in U.S. military equipment have been stolen and currently used to further the conquests and slaughter of Iraq’s civilian population and worst of all, those who most strongly allied themselves with U.S. forces (Assyrian Christians, Yezidis, Kurds) are facing extermination.

No matter how hard we tried to forget Iraq had happened in 2011 upon the departure of U.S. forces, that chapter in American history has re-opened itself, whether we like it or not, and continues to write itself daily. As veterans of the Iraq War, holding our heads high while proud of our successes inevitably fades with each setting sun. Yet, regardless of the outcome or actions that follow the current state of affairs in Iraq, the failure and tragedy lies within the hands of the U.S. government, not its military. If any legacy should follow Iraq War veterans it is one of courage, determination, and self-sacrifice unseen today in American society.

An Iraqi family photographed outside their home in 2006 within Saladin Province, Iraq.

An Iraqi family photographed outside their home in 2006 within Saladin Province, Iraq.

I do not consider myself a hero, but I knew many. Many who would not claim to be heroes either, but simply did what they had to do for others. They call it the service for a reason. Few occupations give themselves so wholly for the sake of others and expect so little in return. I would even dare to say, aside from the grim reality of war and its results, any man or woman who served a tour of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan did more charity within that frame of time than the average American back home will ever do in a lifetime. It was not all about kicking in doors and killing insurgents; but supplying schools, feeding and protecting neighborhoods, building infrastructure, and empowering a people who for decades lived under tyranny and oppression. Were we welcome? Were we invaders? Weren’t we really serving Iraq and its people and not our own nation? Was the mission in Iraq doomed for failure before it even begun, resulting in the death of thousands of Iraqis? Tragically, one could answer yes to all four of these questions. In return it is only fair we ask in retort: Did America’s service members have a choice? Did they really sacrifice for their country and not just Iraq? Did all Iraqis view us as invaders? Did we do all we could to prevent the unnecessary loss of life and property?

Throughout most of America’s history and the various wars we have participated in, nearly every American family was directly impacted in one way or another as a result of military conscription. Even today across the globe and in some of the worlds most developed countries, all males, and in some cases even females, must serve time in the armed forces. Thankfully, today in America we have relied solely on a volunteer military force and not instituted the draft since the Vietnam War, of which ended in 1972. Did America’s service members have a choice? In volunteering during an apparent two front war in Iraq and Afghanistan one could say they did. On the other hand, in joining the armed forces one rarely has the choice in where they will end up. Even soldiers stationed in Germany rotated in and out of Iraq given the dire need for troops. Did U.S. servicemen and women really sacrifice for their country and not just Iraq? Well certainly, if it weren’t for volunteers who were willing to sacrifice their life in the armed forces, you or someone you love very well could have been drafted to fulfill that need regardless of how unpopular the war was. If anything, serving in the Middle East kept America’s enemies occupied with trying to kill U.S. servicemen and women over there rather than attempting further attacks here where we live.

Did all Iraqis view us as invaders? Did we do all we could to prevent unnecessary loss of life and property? Of course we were invaders, but to many we were also friends, protectors, humanitarians, and hope for a better life. True, the war had its ugly side and lead people to do unspeakable things, but the vast majority of U.S. military men and women acted in a manner of restraint and tolerance despite the impending stress and danger they faced daily in Iraq. The U.S. government gave us a mission and whether we believed wholeheartedly in the cause to create a new, democratic Iraq or not, our mission came down to two simple things: take care of each other and protect the innocent civilians around us. Tragically, hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties occurred as a result of the U.S. war in Iraq, but the guilt of the vast majority of those deaths lies in the hands of the various Islamic terrorist groups who operated there with absolutely no regard for human life or property. Few armies in world history conducted themselves the way the U.S. forces did in Iraq to prevent civilian casualties and unnecessary collateral damage. To be even more altruistic, we even allowed Iraqi civilians to report any damaged property by U.S. forces to the nearest operating base in order to be compensated for their losses. Does that sound like the actions of bloodthirsty conquerors? I think not. So how does the legacy of the United States war in Iraq stand currently with history following the blood, sweat, and tears shed by thousands of Americans there?

Iraqi shepherd children photographed in 2006 within Saladin Province, Iraq.

Iraqi shepherd children photographed in 2006 within Saladin Province, Iraq.

Coming home over 800,000 veterans have filed disability claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Traumatic brain injuries as a result of the heavy exposure to improvised explosive devices, post-traumatic stress disorder, amputations, and severe spinal cord injuries dominate the majority of these claims along with respiratory, neurological, and cardiovascular diseases that have plagued veterans as a result of their exposure to toxic dusts in theatre. Statistics also report millions of American families have had to cope with a loved one leaving them to go to war over the past 12 years. As a result, whether it is the veteran or their family, issues such as divorce, alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence, unemployment, and suicide are reported higher in homes directly affected by the war aside from those uninvolved. Although the Department of Defense attributes most of these problems to the individual’s characteristics, others find it still evident any pre-disposed condition was spurred on by these individuals and their families enduring multiple combat deployments within a decade of war.

Iraq, despite the incredible efforts and improvements made by the U.S. and its allies from 2003 to 2011, now crumbles under the murderous banner of ISIS and its gospel of death and terror. Civilian deaths continue into unknown numbers as a result of Islamic terrorism while over a million remain displaced from their homes in a desperate struggle for survival. Health care is poor, infrastructure threatened, and the stability of the post-Saddam government facing utter collapse and disaster. Entire races of people such as the Yezidis and Assyrians, face extermination as a result of their religious beliefs, being forced to convert, die, or flee from the bloodthirsty hands of ISIS. Even those spared death are reported severely beaten, tortured, raped, and sold into slavery. If pulling out so soon for what appeared more for political reasons than anything has resulted in such devastation, than the even greater travesty occurring is the complete abandonment of the Yezidi, Assyrian, and Kurdish people who risked their lives and those of their families as aids to U.S. forces, who are now left for dead despite the sacrifices they made for Iraq and the U.S. military during the war. In a nation today so open to the immigration of millions we owe nothing to worldwide but to offer them a better life, it is an absolute disgrace how our government hesitates to save those we owe so much.

A horrible legacy indeed has resulted from the U.S. government’s actions in Iraq and again, who suffers the most as a result of these blunders? None other than the military, its veterans, and civilians left behind. But that isn’t the legacy I want to remember, despite the darkness that overshadows our past efforts.

Iraqi civilians photographed in 2008 within Mosul, Iraq

Iraqi civilians photographed during combat operations in 2008 within Mosul, Iraq

I will remember such men as Sergeant First Class Paul Smith of the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division who exposed himself under severe enemy fire while manning a .50 Cal machine gun to allow the evacuation of multiple wounded at the cost of his own life. I will remember navy seal Petty Officer Michael Monsoor, marine Corporal Jason Dunham, and army PFC Ross McGinnis who valiantly self-sacrificed themselves by diving on grenades to save their fellow men. All four of these men received the Congressional Medal of Honor, but most of America never has or ever will know of these heroes. So when you remember Iraq, remember them, not just the darkness we hear today.

I will remember the heroes I served with, and those who served before or after me in the U.S. Army’s 1/8 Infantry Battalion, 4th Infantry Division. From 2003 to 2010, my battalion deployed four times within seven years with great efforts in bringing peace and stability to some of Iraq’s most dangerous regions. Within those years, sixteen men died and more than twice that number were wounded. Many would say that is a small number compared to fatalities in past wars, yet, the fact of the matter is human life is human life. The gifts those individuals could have brought to the world, but were cut short for the sake of others only adds to the tragedy as a result of their deaths. Mourning parents, widowed wives, fatherless children, and grieving brothers in arms make statistics completely irrelevant whether one or thousands were lost. Their names were SSG Dale Panchot, CPT. Eric Paliwoda, SPC. Walter Howard II, SPC. Thomas Wilwerth, SGT. Gordon Misner II, SSG Curtis Howard II, CPL. Dimitri Muscat, PFC Grant Dampier, SSG Marion Flint Jr., SSG Gary Jeffries, SGT. James Craig, PFC Joshua Young, SPC. Brandon Meyer, CPL. Evan Marshall, SGT. Michael Clark, and PFC Charlie Antonio. Not to forget those who died while attached or in support of our battalion as well. So when you remember Iraq, that place few volunteered to go, remember those who did and died so others could live, not just the darkness we hear today.

I will remember the men I knew who displayed uncommon valor and examples of courage and perseverance I can always look up to throughout life. Men, who were severely wounded, yet returned to combat voluntarily when they very well could have, and deserved to go home. Men who placed themselves in harm’s way by my side, whether dragging a wounded platoon member under fire or sitting in a concrete tower for twelve hours in over 125 degrees Fahrenheit heat in order to help guard our forward operating base, many sacrificed in ways most of America will never know. If not with their lives than with limbs, organs, their innocence, and mind; even marriages were sacrificed so that others back home could sleep peacefully at night. So when you remember Iraq, remember those who put their life on hold so others back home could live in peace, not just the darkness we hear today.

U.S. soldier giving out candy to an Iraqi Christian girl while providing humanitarian aid to an Assyrian neighborhood in 2008 within Mosul, Iraq.

U.S. soldier giving out candy to an Iraqi Christian girl while providing humanitarian aid to an Assyrian neighborhood in 2008 within Mosul, Iraq.

I will remember the many wives, mothers, children and volunteers that remained faithful and supportive back home for those fighting abroad. The care packages, the letters, the crowds of strangers who stayed awake till 4 am to welcome us home in Bangor, Maine or Dallas, Texas. Their charity and compassion we will never forget. I will remember those veterans who served before us. When they returned they received no gratitude from our nation, yet despite their ill treatment, shook our hands to prevent the same to us. The civilian contractors who placed themselves in harm’s way to improve our quality of life and make living conditions bearable in one of the world’s harshest regions. The unit Family Readiness Groups who kept our loved ones informed back home and the burden so many parents, widows, and children bear in the sacrifice of their loved ones so that others may live. Therefore, when you remember Iraq, remember those who gave much in support of America’s military without asking for much in return, not just the darkness we hear today.

Lastly, I will remember the many friends, families, and aids we came to know amongst the country, villages, and cities of Iraq. Those who risked their lives to serve U.S. forces as interpreters; who had to wear masks and carry fake names in order to prevent them or their families from being kidnapped or murdered. I will remember the local families who made us welcome, offering hospitality and short relief while we carried out grueling patrols, or the priceless faces of the children when handed candy or a ball from us on a humanitarian mission. From the charity of a young girl to walk bravely up to me, exhausted from the desert heat, and offer me a glass of cold water, or the risks many Iraqi soldiers and policemen took manning stationary checkpoints in place of U.S. soldiers of which became main targets for suicide bombers, not all civilians were our enemy and many believed and did their part for a free, democratic Iraq. So when you remember Iraq, remember the civilians who sacrificed and helped our servicemen despite our cultural differences, not just the darkness we hear today.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” I know not how the legacy of Iraq will end in light of recent events. It is matter out of our hands and beyond most of our own control. Will the Iraq’s religious and ethnic minorities be exterminated? Will ISIS be defeated, or will ISIS continue to spread its hate and intolerable cruelty? Will the world intervene, and if so how many more soldiers will die and military families suffer in the third attempt since 1991 to bring peace and stability to the region? However the story ends, please remember those who have suffered the most…the military and civilians…honor their heroism and support them always to carry on amidst the darkness of this modern tragedy.

Copyright ©2014 Benjamin Abajian

Mosque photographed in 2006 within Saladin Province, Iraq.

Mosque photographed in 2006 within Saladin Province, Iraq.

Sources

CNN. “Obama: Iraq war will be over by year’s end; troops coming home.” http://www.cnn.com/2011/10/21/world/meast/iraq-us-troops/ CNN. 21 OCT 11. 05 SEP 14.

History Channel. “George W. Bush Declares Mission Accomplished.” http://www.history.com/speeches/george-w-bush-declares-mission-accomplished#george-w-bush-declares-mission-accomplished History Channel. 05 SEP 14.

Vergano, Dan. “Half-Million Iraqis Died in the War, New Study Says.” http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/10/131015-iraq-war-deaths-survey-2013/ National Geographic. 15 OCT 13. 05 SEP 14.

Costs of War. “U.S. and Allied Killed and Wounded.” http://costsofwar.org/article/us-and-allied-killed-and-wounded costsofwar.org. 2011. 05 SEP 14.

Costs of War. “U.S. Veterans and Military Families.” http://costsofwar.org/article/us-veterans-and-military-families costsofwar.org. 2011. 05 SEP 14.

Costs of War. “Iraq: At Least 133,000 Civilians Killed by Direct Violence.” http://costsofwar.org/article/iraqi-civilians costsofwar.org. 2011. 05 SEP 14.

Costs of War. “Iraqi Refugees.” http://costsofwar.org/article/iraqi-refugees costsofwar.org. 2011. 05 SEP 14.
Hemmer, Bill. “Franks Holds Press Briefing.” http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0303/22/se.22.html CNN. 22 MAR. 03. 05 SEP 14.

Global Humanitarian Assistance. “Iraq.” http://www.globalhumanitarianassistance.org/countryprofile/iraq globalhumanitarianassistance.org. 2014. 05 SEP 14.

Pregent, Michael, Weiss, Michael. “Exploiting the ISIS Vulnerabilities in Iraq.” http://online.wsj.com/articles/michael-pregent-and-michael-weiss-exploiting-the-isis-vulnerabilities-in-iraq-1407884145 Wall Street Journal. 12 AUG 14. 05 SEP 14.

U.S. Army Center of Military History. “Iraq War Medal of Honor Recipients.” http://www.history.army.mil/moh/iraq.html#Dunham http://www.history.army.mil. 13 AUG 13. 05 SEP 14.

Photographs taken by Gabriel Pittman and Steve Mead.


Genocide In Our Time (The Tragedy Facing Iraq’s Christians and Other Religious Minorities)

An Iraqi Christian Church nearby COP Titanic. Taken early 2008 in Mosul, Iraq

An Iraqi Christian Church nearby COP Titanic. Taken early 2008 in Mosul, Iraq

Approximately three years ago while employed as a security supervisor for the Sherman Oaks Galleria in Sherman Oaks, CA I recall a peaceful rally being held on the corner of Sepulveda and Ventura Boulevards, two major cross streets in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley. It was not an unusual occurrence to see demonstrations there; however, it was unusual to find a demonstration of such type. They were a group of Assyrian Christians, striving to bring awareness to the genocide of their brethren and many other minorities in their homeland as a result of the recent conflicts in the Middle East. Although a diverse and heavily visited locale in the Los Angeles area, most employees and patrons were indifferent to the cause voiced by the group; unaware and even annoyed amidst the hustle and bustle of their daily lives. I however, was taken back to another time in my life. A time I had since separated from and strived to forget about.

It was early 2008 and the Iraq War had been dragging on for five years. My life had a completely different purpose and outlook then as I exited from the back of one of my platoons MRAP vehicles to carry out a common presence patrol on my second tour of duty in country. Mosul was considered the final stronghold for Al Qaeda within the occupied nation which had been devastated by years of warfare and strife. This neighborhood, however, was one I had yet to see or even know about despite already completing a full year combat deployment during 2005-2006. Continuing down the impoverished road, we moved calmly toward one of the city’s many Iraqi Army outposts known as COP Titanic when suddenly, children sprang from the neighborhood to greet us on all sides. This wasn’t uncommon for many areas we had patrolled in the past except for who these children were.

New to the area and alert as always, we maintained our bearing while being friendly to the locals. Children everywhere in Iraq knew American soldiers had plenty of goodies they could only dream about amidst their impoverished lives and to receive a simple pencil or candy bar was the equivalent of a new car to a teenager back home. So despite the rubble and sounds of skirmishes in the distance all seemed good so far as we proceeded. The entry control point to COP Titanic was near, landmarked by a massive religious structure pictured above which looked similar in design to a boat, probably giving the outpost its namesake. I had never seen a mosque like it and was soon to find out it wasn’t a mosque at all.

While observing my surroundings, I suddenly felt a small hand grasp my pinky finger. It was a young girl, probably four years old. I could barely make out what she said as she held my pinky, walking beside me while other children followed waving what appeared to be holy cards in their hands. To my surprise the cards were of Christian saints. I was confused since I had never seen such things in my prior knowledge and experiences here. I looked over and saw our medic take a photograph of me with the little girl and began enquiring as to who these people were. Looking around I could see mothers watching from the gates of their homes, anxious but smiling. Their heads weren’t covered as was common among Iraqi women and they seemed happy to see us. I believe we were all a bit confused as to the presence around us and began all wondering who these people were. They spoke Arab, they looked Arab, but something was obviously off.

Elements of my platoon patrolling the war torn Assyrian neighborhood near COP Titanic. Taken 2008 in Mosul, Iraq

Elements of my platoon patrolling the war torn Assyrian neighborhood near COP Titanic. Taken 2008 in Mosul, Iraq

After a brief interaction with the neighborhood and Iraqi Army command at the COP through our interpreters, we soon came to find they were Assyrian Christians, not Arabs; and that big, boat looking mosque nearby wasn’t a mosque at all, it was a church. I could easily understand why the neighborhood saw us as friends now.

It soon became a common task among many in our platoons area of operations to gather intelligence from the Kurdish Iraqi Army company at COP Titanic and provide a security presence and small gifts to the children and their families within that neighborhood. It was often a place we looked forward to given the peoples attitude toward us. Although I wasn’t a devout Christian, we somehow shared a commonality as both Americans and Assyrians, and the innocence and gratitude of the people and their children brought a seldom smile to our faces amidst the brutality of our mission in Mosul against Al Qaeda. However, despite our presence, the Assyrian Christian people among many minorities were in grave danger and suffered daily as a result of our enemy.

Shortly within our arrival to the area the city’s archbishop, Paulos Faraj Rahho, was kidnapped and murdered by Al Qaeda gunmen within the city and his fate soon became that of many Christian families despite the efforts of us and our Kurdish allies. Even outside the COP Titanic neighborhood, we discovered many Christian families who had been living peacefully among their Muslim neighbors for centuries, only now to find violent and tragic fates at the hands of Al Qaeda and other militants. Churches were completely abandoned due to fear and many Christian men, women, and children were terrorized, driven out, and savagely murdered on a common basis. Often they would plead their fears and concerns to us while conducting reconnaissance patrols yet, there was only so much we could do to prevent such war crimes in a city of 2 million people despite the surge of American and Iraqi forces during the Mosul Offensive in 2008.

Our efforts, however, weren’t completely tarnished as US and Iraqi forces defeated Al Qaeda in the city and killed their primary leader, Abu Khalaf, on June 27, 2008. Unlike my first deployment in Balad, Iraq, where we left the area with no progress, continued fighting, and civil war among the populace; we could feel a sense of accomplishment in leaving the war-torn city in better hands than when we arrived. Al Qaeda was utterly annihilated and what remnants remained were completely backed against the wall. Still, it brought sadness to return to the Assyrian Christian neighborhood at COP Titanic, which was once lively and vibrant, only to become solemn and empty. We became so accustomed to the place we even had nicknames for the children who ran to greet us. The little girl who ran and held my pinky during our first visit to COP Titanic can be seen in the photo below with me that day. As time progressed we never saw her or her family anymore. I do not know whether she is dead or alive.

Me and the Iraqi Christian girl mentioned above during our first patrol to her neighborhood near COP Titanic. Taken early 2008 in Mosul, Iraq

Me and the Iraqi Christian girl mentioned above during our first patrol to her neighborhood near COP Titanic. Taken early 2008 in Mosul, Iraq

Almost six years have passed since I came home from Mosul and today we find the Assyrian Christian population, among many minorities to include Kurds and Yazidis, in an even worse situation than when my unit arrived in 2007. If anyone was our friend in the aftermath of the Iraq War, which ended on the 15th of March 2011, it was them. Yazidi, Kurdish, and Assyrian Christians risked their lives and those of their families daily while serving as interpreters; walking alongside us on the frontline. They served in their new nation’s army in the few Iraqi units we could rely upon and trust and their neighborhoods displayed constant gratitude and whatever possible support they could for our welfare and safety. Now that we have left, they are completely helpless to the bloodthirsty destruction and barbarism of ISIS who has systematically taken over the city.

According to Mark Arabo, an American businessman and Chaldean Christian leader who spoke to CNN, near 300,000 Christians are in Iraq fleeing in a desperate attempt to escape extermination from ISIS militants. “Christianity in Mosul is dead, and a Christian holocaust is in our midst,” stated Arabo. “Each day is getting worse and worse. More children are being beheaded, mothers are being raped and killed, and fathers are being hung.”

CNN interviewer Jonathan Mann himself was surprised at Arabo’s words as would most of the American public, but to an Iraq veteran such statements hit right home with the reality we lived with in Mosul. “The world hasn’t seen an evil like this for generations,” continued Arabo. “There’s actually a park in Mosul where they actually beheaded children and put their heads on a stick… this is crimes against humanity. They are doing the most horrendous, the most heart-breaking crimes that you can think of.”

Mann continues to question Arabo in regards to the ISIS letter to Mosul Christians to either convert, pay a fine, or be put to “death by the sword. “It’s very clear they are killing people,” stated Mann. “But are Christians managing to escape by paying a fine?” Arabo responded: “The letter they did send out with those three items, they did ask to pay a fine but actually after paying the fine they are taking over their (Christians) wives and their daughters and making them into their (ISIS fighters) wives. So really, it’s convert or die.”

My platoon passing an Assyrian Christian Church while on patrol in Mosul, Iraq. Taken 2008.

My platoon passing an Assyrian Christian Church while on patrol in Mosul, Iraq. Taken 2008.

According to Catholic Online, a news and information center for Catholics, “The Islamic State has warned Christians, possibly for the last time, saying “there is nothing to give them but the sword.” Across Northern Iraq, Christians are huddled in refugee camps, trapped in the desert, or trapped in their homes, waiting for death.”

Today, we can hear the pleas of so many innocent lives crying for help to the rest of the world as they did six years ago to my platoon among our many patrols throughout the ruins of Mosul. For over 2,000 years they have lived and worshipped there and in a matter of months been systematically uprooted and purged from their homeland, now facing complete and utter extinction. According to Fox News: “Assyrian Christians, including Chaldean and Syriac Catholics, Syriac Orthodox and followers of the Assyrian Church of the East have roots in present day Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran that stretch back to the time of Jesus Christ. While they have long been a minority and have faced persecution in the past, they had never been driven completely from their homes as has happened in Mosul under ISIS. When the terror group ordered all to convert to Islam, pay a religious tax or face execution, many chose another option: flight.”

Mosul is Iraq’s second largest city aside from the capital, Baghdad. Upon the U.S. invasion in 2003, Ignatius Yousef Younan III, a patriarch of the Syrian Catholic Church stated there were approximately 60,000 Christians living within Mosul. Following the war and our withdrawal from the city it had been cut in half to 35,000. In the wake of the ISIS invasion in June 2014 it stands tragically at zero. “Where is the conscience of the world? Where is the United Nations? Where is the American administration to protect peace and justice?” he asks. “Nobody has said a word.”

Unfortunately, many of us who are blessed to be born in a nation like the United States would rather continue on our daily business and pretend such atrocities aren’t happening to our brothers and sisters across the globe than face the tragic truth. We only care for what directly affects us in our day to day lives within the bountiful nation we reside. I myself have tried to forget the tragedies seen and heard during the Iraq War and focus on the future, however, the people I speak of weren’t complete strangers in some unknown foreign land. They were the few friends I had aside from my brothers in arms there. I may not be able to go back and protect those like the little girl and her family below, but I do have a voice. If there is one thing necessary it is to bring awareness to the world starting one person at a time.

So please, look below, and remember that innocent little girl and pass this on. Perhaps then the world will hear her. Perhaps then we can prevent a genocide in our time.

The same young girl from the photo above, now standing outside her home on the far right next to her siblings. Taken 2008 in Mosul, Iraq

The same young girl from the photo above, now standing outside her home on the far right next to her siblings. Taken 2008 in Mosul, Iraq

Copyright ©2014 Benjamin Abajian

Sources

CNN. “ISIS Beheads Christian Children.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V9JuMZ8spFQ. Youtube. 07 AUG 14. 09 AUG 14.

Catholic Online. “WARNING GRAPHIC, RAW PHOTOS — ISIS on Christians: ‘There is nothing to give them but the sword'” http://www.catholic.org/news/international/middle_east/story.php?id=56339. Catholic Online. 08 AUG 14. 09 AUG 14.

Fox News. “Purged by ISIS, Iraq’s Christians appeal to world for help.” http://www.foxnews.com/world/2014/07/23/purged-by-isis-iraq-christians-appeal-to-world-for-help/. Fox News. 23 JUL 14. 09 AUG 14.

Special thanks to my brothers in arms, Gabriel Pittman and Steve Mead for the photos.

You Can Help

Awareness isn’t the only way we can help the victims of the genocide in Northern Iraq. Organizations such as Save the Children and the Iraqi Christian Relief Council are working hard to provide relief and save lives. To help, please click on one of the links below and donate today to make a difference!

The Iraqi Christian Relief Council
http://www.iraqichristianrelief.org/donate/

The Iraqi Children’s Relief Fund
https://secure.savethechildren.org/site/c.8rKLIXMGIpI4E/b.9164083/k.948B/Iraqi_Childrens_Relief_Fund/apps/ka/sd/donor.asp?_ga=1.76795093.1589512993.1398802351