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Oregonians take a hard look at service in Iraq

by: Pete Vogel,

By PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP WRITERS

Joey Coon sees hope in Iraq.

Jessica Acosta sees, well, something less than hope.

What Coon and Acosta see is not that different from many Oregonians. But what they have seen - the perspective they bring to the question of the war in Iraq - is incredibly different from almost all Oregonians.

Coon and Acosta are among the few thousand Oregonians, and among the hundreds of Portland-area residents, who have served in Iraq as members of the Oregon National Guard or the U.S. military.

They are among the Oregonians who have tried to stop insurgent attacks along a stretch of highway south of Baghdad. Who've fixed the electronic equipment of members of the Army infantry. Who've provided security at checkpoints outside of Baghdad. Who have done boat patrols on the Tigris River, or searched for improvised explosive devices - which have killed more than 1,000 U.S. troops in the nearly four years of the war - alongside Iraqi roads.

'The job no one wants,' says U.S. Army Sergeant Tanner Gould, who did it.

Some of their colleagues, their fellow Oregonians, have paid a steep price for their time in Iraq. Hundreds or thousands have been injured. Fifty-five Oregonians have been killed there - a fatality rate for Oregonians that's 50 percent higher than the nation as a whole. More than 3,000 U.S. troops have died in Iraq.

As the nation and Oregon debate President Bush's proposal to increase by more than 20,000 the number of American troops in Iraq, the Pamplin Media Group wanted to check in with Portland-area people who have a special, and intense, focus on Iraq.

What do they think about Iraq - where it's been, where it's going, what the U.S. has done there and what it should do?

Many service members, even former service members, were reluctant to talk publicly about their views.

But several were willing. Some retired, some active duty. And they offered a range of views, views colored by the realities they had lived.

We talked to two members of the Oregon National Guard, two U.S. Army sergeants, and a civilian who spent a year in Baghdad training Iraqi police.

Here are their stories, and their views on the future of U.S. involvement in Iraq.

Name: Joey Coon

Branch of service and rank: Oregon National Guard, sergeant

Age: 25

Hometown: Lake Oswego

Tour of duty in Iraq: training began August 2004, deployed to Iraq early 2005. Returned to the U.S. in mid-January 2006. Served as a cavalry scout for a Quick Reaction Force.

Family: unmarried; has family in Lake Oswego and Bend

Current occupation: senior at Portland State University, studying philosophy and economics.

What did you experience in Iraq?

Coon said he enlisted in the Oregon Army National Guard right after 9/11 and had his sights on serving his country in Afghanistan. He admits that he was a bit naïve and by the time he finished with basic training, the world was different - and Iraq was the United States' new war front.

'I was a cavalry scout in Iraq, working with different missions and local patrols. I supported the QRF - the Quick Reaction Force. Kind of like 9-1-1. Troops would call us when they needed assistance. We'd go in and get them out of danger.'

Do you believe that it is at all possible for the United States to 'win' in Iraq?

'Yes, we can win. It is possible to win. I think the confusion is that the American people don't know what victory should look like. Why we need to win is because life has degenerated for the Iraqi people. Victory will be stability for the Iraqis.

'There are three points to what 'victory' will look like for us. One: The U.S. needs to stay long enough to train the Iraqi army to provide the same level of safety we are providing them with now. Two: We need to stamp out the insurgents. Three: We need to pressure the Iraqi government to make compromises that all sects of Iraqi people can live peacefully with.

'These are definable goals that I believe can be attained. In the long run, the consequences of leaving now - before these goals have been met - would be detrimental to the Iraqi people.'

Has the war been worth the loss of life we've endured?

'That's a difficult question. When is enough enough. We've just reached the 3,000th soldier (who has been killed) milestone, with 10 to 20,000 injured. Is that worth it? But that's why I find it difficult to leave now. Should we leave entirely or change strategies? Can we attain our goals? It's important to try.'

What do you believe the United States should do now, increase troop levels or begin to withdraw?

'The difficulty is that the path we've been on the past several years was hard on soldiers, too. We need to focus on the three things we need to accomplish and can accomplish. The (proposed) surge is a bold move that could cost us many more Americans. But hopefully by increasing the troops we will be able to get everyone home more quickly.'

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Name: Ed Winkler

Branch of service and rank: Oregon National Guard, major

Age: 40

Hometown: Ft. Walton Beach, Fla. Now lives in West Linn

Tour of duty in Iraq: in Iraq from April 2003 to April 2004 with the 1st Battalion, 162nd Infantry.

Family: wife Brenda, children, Chase, 10, Ryann, 7 and Hunter, 3 ('We found out we were pregnant with him after I left for the Middle East. I got back a couple of days after he was born, on a 15-day leave.')

Current occupation: Self-employed business owner: 'Fresh Air Air Fresheners.'

What did you experience in Iraq?

'We had three separate missions in Iraq and two into Kuwait. One was 91 days of continuous combat missions south of Baghdad, along a main supply route. Our mission was to stop insurgent attacks along a very short section of highway.

'The way we did it was completely foreign to Army doctrine at the time - it's not foreign now.

'I wrote a letter to the Iraqi people in our sector and went door-to-door delivering it, developing trust. Learning how many people are in the household, how many vehicles, what farm equipment they had. We'd ask to see any weapons they had, and the serial numbers.

'At first everyone thought I was taking a huge risk … or stupid.

'From August to October, while I was there, there were no insurgent attacks … but attacks continued all around us. We shared a camp with some MPs from New York … Our message was one of respect, 'We respect you and we need your help.'

'The MPs on the other side of the camp - their message was not one of respect. It showed - just about every week they suffered some combat casualties.

Were you optimistic about the mission, and do you retain that optimism today?

'I was optimistic about the mission, and that's based on my experiences and the reaction of the Iraqi people. They were so grateful we were there.

'I am still optimistic. I cannot disprove what you see in the media, but the work we did, the impact we made, it was not covered by the media. There is another story over there that is not focused on.'

Is it possible to 'win' in Iraq?

'I think that objectives should be clearly defined. I think they need to be attainable, and they need to be decisive. It has to make a difference. If the objective is to take a hill, that's clearly defined, and you can take it … But if it doesn't matter whether we take the hill or not, don't take the hill.'

Has the war been worth the loss of life?

'My answer - in my opinion - is yes, and here is why. As far as I can tell, there have not been any wars that we have been involved with on foreign soil where the country we were involved with is not better off than it was before.'

What should the U.S. do now?

'It is my position that we should do exactly what Generals Kagan and Keane suggest: Build relationships of trust with as many Iraqi people as we can. (Frederick W. Kagan, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Jack Keane, a retired Army general, recently advocated a surge of U.S. troops in Iraq.)

'That MP company commander spent his time working with the sheiks … I spent my time building relationships with the people.

'We were successful in our mission. The MPs were not.'

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Name: Dale Scobert

Branch of service and rank: civilian, International Police Trainer.

Age: 55

Hometown: Sandy

Tour of Duty in Iraq: November 2004 to November 2005, in Baghdad

Family: wife Sue; five children ages 12 to 31.

Current Occupation: Mortgage broker, ex-police chief

What did you experience in Iraq?

Scobert, a former police chief for the city of Sandy, worked in Baghdad as a civilian, teaching Iraqi police recruits about democracy, modern law enforcement and leadership. During his tenure teaching new recruits, upper leadership and other trainers, he saw some of his idealistic students killed by insurgent bombings.

'We've had several students killed (one) time after class,' he recalled. 'We had several people blow themselves up in very close proximity to us. After time you don't necessarily become numb to the violence; it just becomes a normal, every day part of life.'

He also perceived escalating violence in the country, which he says has only become worse since he left more than a year ago.

Could the mission have been accomplished? Is it still possible now?

'Absolutely. But I think this is our last shot. If this doesn't work, we got a real mess on our hands. What I heard from (my law enforcement students) is that a lot of them want to be professional and do law enforcement the way we were teaching, but there's tremendous religious, political and tribal pressure. It's such a tribal country.'

He said when he was in Iraq, he knew some Sunnis who were married to Shiites. 'It was like Democrats and Republicans,' he said, noting that since then, the insurgency has worked harder to exploit religious differences.'

Was the war worth it?

'Absolutely. They (Iraqis) were in a fishbowl for 35 years (before the invasion). They had no clue what the outside world was like. Working, debating and discussing with us, they're realizing that we're not crazy madmen. We're good, caring people. And we learned that they are good folks, too, who want a better life.'

What should the United States do now?

'They're doing the right thing. These insurgents, or whatever you call them, are bullies. If you go back to the school yard when we were growing up, you'd deal with a bully out behind the barn. You didn't try to negotiate. (Bullies) threaten you and punch you in the nose, and if you keep backing away, he's not going to stop. He'll think he's the toughest kid on the block.'

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Name: Tanner Gould

Branch of service and rank: U.S. Army, sergeant

Age: 22

Hometown: Eagle Creek/

Estacada

Tour of Duty in Iraq: April 28, 2003 through July 3, 2004 and Nov. 5, 2005 through Oct. 16, 2006

Family: parents, four brothers and sisters

Current occupation: transitioning to the Oregon National Guard

What did you experience in Iraq?

During his first tour, he did checkpoint security, Quick Reaction Force patrols, boat patrols on the Tigris River. During his second tour, he did route clearance and searched for improvised explosive devices, known as IEDs.

'That's the job no one wants.'

When you went to Iraq were you optimistic about the mission? Do you retain any of that optimism today?

'We knew what we were going to do and what we were heading into. There's no real definitive feeling when you're going, you're leaving a lot of things behind - you don't have time to sit back and think about it. You just try to get there safely.

'I (still) believe in the mission. I feel that what we did there saved a lot of lives, both for the U.S. forces and the Iraqis. For every IED we found, a life was saved.'

Do you believe that it is at all possible for the United States to 'win' in Iraq?

'This is a war something similar to Vietnam. If it ever stops, I don't think it will be anything we can say we're proud we won. I don't think that this is something we can win by occupying the country. A lot of Iraqis appreciate what we do. But they just don't want us there anymore.'

Has the war been worth the loss of life we've endured?

'No, I don't think it's worth all their lives. The progress there has been so slow, the amount of soldiers' lives that has been given is not worth the amount of progress. The goal was to rebuild Iraq so they could be a self-sufficient government. The only way they're going to learn is if more Iraqi control is given.'

What do you believe the United States should do now, increase troop levels or begin to withdraw?

'I don't think sending more troops over there is going to solve anything. But I'm not completely for pulling out everybody right away. Our job is to teach the Iraqi army to defend their own nation under their own government. I think we should pull out a set number of troops every year, like one brigade or battalion … It should be an even transfer of authority between the Iraqis and the United States.'

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Name: Jessica Acosta

Branch of service and rank: U.S. Army, sergeant

Age: 27

Hometown: Portland

Tour of duty in Iraq: two tours, January to March 2003, and January to April 2006.

Family: mother Sharon. Her father, Jesus, died during Acosta's first Iraqi tour. Her boyfriend, Army specialist Michael Ware, left for his third tour in Iraq earlier this month.

Current occupation: receptionist; student at Warner Pacific College

What did you experience in Iraq?

Acosta's unit's main job was to calibrate and fix electronic equipment for infantry soldiers and sometimes to accompany and be bodyguards for U.S. officials traveling around Iraq.

'Our shop was the electronics maintenance shop. The line guys - the infantry - would bring their stuff into us and we worked on it. I was a private first class. I didn't know what was going on - other than do what you're told, do what you're told. I was basically there to fix something or play bodyguard.'

Acosta left the Army in April of last year, after the completion of her second tour.

When you went to Iraq were you optimistic about the mission? Do you retain any of that optimism today?

Acosta's unit was in Kuwait in January 2003, before the Iraq war began. Then unit members were told they would be helping to invade Iraq.

'It was really fast and against the wall. So there wasn't a whole lot of time to really think about the rationale behind it … We thought we were doing the right thing … 'Hey, you're going there to help people.' '

Now, shortly after she's said goodbye to her boyfriend as he embarks on another Iraq tour - going to Camp 'Blue Diamond' in Ramadi, 'which is the new Fallujah' - she feels differently about the war.

'It isn't the same feeling … It's sad. I'm just saddened by the whole situation. It's discouraging. My biggest prayer is that he's going to come back.

'Honestly … I hope to God that somehow I've made a difference. But I'm uncertain. I'm uncertain, and I try to trust in God that somehow something good could come out of it.'

Do you believe that it is at all possible for the United States to 'win' in Iraq?

'I so badly want to answer that the way I feel … I don't know how easy it is to say 'win or lose' because people are still dying, and the mom who lost her kid over there or the husband who lost his wife … I don't know how justified he's going to feel or she's going to feel, with the term 'winning.' I don't think in terms of win or lose. I think in terms of living.'

Has the war been worth the loss of life we've endured?

'I'm discouraged. But time will tell.'

What do you believe the United States should do now, increase troop levels or begin to withdraw?

'If I could have my wish and click my heels, everybody would be home this second. If wishes were that easy.'

- Pamplin Media Group writers Barb Randall of the Lake Oswego Review, Todd Murphy of the Portland Tribune, David Stroup of the Clackamas Review and Oregon City News, Marcus Hathcock of the Sandy Post and Barbara Adams of the Estacada News contributed to this report.