US military veterans watched in dread this summer as insurgents swept across Iraq and as the country the United States fought to liberate descended into chaos. They recoiled at the beheadings of hostages and mass killings at the hand of the Islamic State.
But as the United States extended its airstrikes against the radical group into Syria this week, a new phase of what military leaders said would be a lengthy campaign, many military personnel who fought in Iraq said they feel deeply conflicted over the latest intervention.
Even some veterans who believe that the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, poses a grave threat and that military action is justified expressed profound ambivalence over the expanded US involvement.
They said they worry the airstrikes may spiral into another intractable conflict that will lead to a redeployment of American ground forces.
Coming after 13 years of war in the region, the renewed military campaign brought an overwhelming sense of uncertainty and fatigue.
“Our community is tired,” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, an advocacy and support group for veterans and their families. “ISIS is absolutely a problem, but it’s a problem for the entire world.”
President Obama has pledged that he will not send ground combat troops to fight the Islamic State, but military leaders have said the campaign in Iraq and Syria could take years to complete. While some veterans welcomed the airstrikes as overdue, they voiced unease about a protracted campaign.
“Does this mean another 13 years of war?” asked Rieckhoff, who served as an Army infantry rifle platoon leader in Iraq. “That lack of clarity is something that weighs heavily on our community. And you can’t honestly tell us we’re going to get taken care of when we get home. That promise has been shattered.”
There is a range of opinions among veterans, and in interviews this week some said they welcomed the campaign, calling it necessary to avoid squandering hard-won gains in Iraq.
“I was proud to see that we took a strong stand against terrorism,” said Jim Glick, a former Army paratrooper who served in the 1980s. “It’s a statement, and I think it was necessary.”
Yinon Weiss, chief executive of RallyPoint, an online social network for veterans and active-duty military personnel, said he has found that those who served in Iraq clearly support the bombings, and believe the threat posed by the Islamic State is too big to ignore.
“A lot feel that going back to finish the job is a no-brainer,” said Weiss, an Army veteran who cofounded the Watertown-based company, which hosts interactive discussions of military news.
Judging by the opinions veterans express on the site, many fault the Obama administration for removing combat troops from Iraq too quickly three years ago, believing a substantial, continued US military presence could have stabilized the country and prevented the Islamic State from establishing a stronghold.
“There’s a sense this entire thing could have been avoided,” Weiss said.
While veterans generally support the US-led campaign, he said, active-duty service members appear to be more divided. Some feel the United States has sacrificed enough, and that it is long past time to let Iraq stand on its own.
“There’s a faction that thinks, ‘We have to do something,’ ” he said. “But some say we’ve spilled enough blood. Iraq has had our support for almost a decade. At what point do we stop putting Americans in harm’s way?”
Some veterans said they were torn, reluctant to squander the sacrifices made by service members who died in Iraq. But others were frightened by the prospect that more could die for an uncertain cause.
“We watched our friends die, yet it’s still happening,” said Jon Turner, a Marine who served two tours in Iraq. “Hundreds of thousands of people died, and what do we have to show for it.”
Turner, 29, said news of the bombing campaign awakened the stress and anxiety he has experienced since leaving the military, and the fear that other young adults will be sent into combat.
“I’m definitely concerned about where this is going,” said Turner, who lives near Burlington, Vt. “I don’t want us to be at war anymore, period. Seeing what’s happening is very disheartening.”
Eric Wasileski, a Navy veteran who took part in Operation Desert Fox, a US bombing campaign against Iraq in 1998, said Obama’s recent speech outlining plans to defeat the Islamic State triggered painful memories, and the fear the United States would be pulled back into a wider war.
“It was like I was back over there again,” he said.
Michael Smith, an Army veteran who served as a chaplain’s assistant in Iraq, said the Islamic State’s brutality and its aims in the region posed a clear threat. But Smith, associate director of the Veterans Upward Bound program at Suffolk University, feels ambivalent about further military action, and its cost.
“There are a lot of people with a lot of heartache and baggage from combat,” he said. “Some of it’s seen, and some of it’s unseen.”