Eleven years ago this week, America’s military began the assault on Saddam Hussein’s forces in Iraq. A coalition led by the United States outmaneuvered and overwhelmed the Iraqi army, breaching the gates of Baghdad in just twenty-one days. The accomplishment was marked by a moment of great symbolism and irony, as a statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square was pulled down with the help of Iraqi civilians and punctuated with celebration.
It was not until then that the Iraq war truly started. But by now, it’s past time to start identifying far more of the most valiant of Iraq war veterans with the highest recognition of all: the Medal of Honor.
Soon after, the Iraqi army was disbanded, creating a foundation for an Iraqi insurgency that would fight on for years. Through it all, more than one million Americans served in Iraq. Thousands made the ultimate sacrifice, while many more returned home bearing the scars of war.
For all of the success of the U.S. military, the Iraq operation was replete with political and diplomatic failures that saturated operational advancements. Many soldiers and Marines executing the ground war viewed these setbacks as a hindrance to mission success. They were right.
In 2007, the surge of forces was a game changer and the tenuous security situation that enveloped parts of Iraq dramatically improved. Today, security conditions have receded, due to political squandering by President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of the hard fought gains of America’s military men and women that transcended nearly a decade. The difference now is that the obligation to resist insurgent forces and disruptive elements is solely the obligation of Iraq and its people. Right or wrong, the U.S. is on the sidelines.
Looking back is not easy, especially for those who fought there, were injured or lost loved ones. Much of the public debate nowadays centers on whether the U.S. will be on the right side or the wrong side of history on the decision to enter Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein and his regime. That debate will continue, for some. For others, including myself, that chapter is closed.
Having served two tours in Iraq and a third in Afghanistan, I am forever grateful for the opportunity to lead Marines. To see them in action is impressive. They are courageous and highly skilled. So too are America’s soldiers, sailors and airmen, all of whom have done their part in Iraq and are no less committed to victory in Afghanistan.
The battlefield in Iraq presented new and untested ground. As a whole, the men and women of each service branch, in specialties of all types, did their duty and did it well. And through them, the fighting and pioneering spirit of America showed. All service is notable, but some actions went above and beyond.
There is Brian Chontosh, who alone cleared 200 meters of enemy trench and killed more than 20 enemy soldiers. His selflessness undoubtedly saved lives.
There is Alwyn Cashe, who crawled out of the burning wreckage of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle hit by a roadside bomb. Wounded and drenched in gasoline, he reentered the burning vehicle and caught fire as he pulled others to safety.
There is Bradley Kasal, who covered a fellow Marine from a grenade blast. Wounded, Kasal pulled the Marine out of the line of fire and guarded him for more than an hour.
There is also Rafael Peralta, who swept a grenade into his body and shielded the blast. He too saved the lives of others.
These are just a few examples among many others. In total, more than 400 Silver Stars were awarded for bravery. Twenty-one were awarded the Navy Cross. Another 15 were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. The Medal of Honor, the highest award for combat valor, was awarded on four occasions, all of them posthumously.
For Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and the Defense Department, the fact that there has yet to be a living Medal of Honor recipient from the war in Iraq should sound alarm bells. Call it a mystery. Call it intentional. Whatever the case, it is one failure that is still within the power of the Defense Department to fix.
On this occasion of the eleventh anniversary of the war in Iraq, Secretary Hagel should commit to reviewing the highest combat valor awards from Iraq and commit to identifying living Medal of Honor recipients. No more excuses. No more sidestepping.
However the Iraq war is remembered now and in the future, respect and gratitude is forever owed to the men and women who carried out the mission. They risked their lives. Some gave the last full measure of devotion. They are all heroes and they all deserve our praise.
Increasingly, the war in Iraq will be defined more by the heroism of Americans who stepped forward in the days, months and years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and less by the politicization of the mission. That is how most of those who served in Iraq are sure to reflect on their service and sacrifice, and every American should strive to do the same.
Rep. Duncan Hunter is a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from California’s 52nd District and a member of the House Armed Services Committee. He deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan and is a major in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve.