Unlike previous conflicts like World War II and Vietnam, many Americans don’t have a family member or close friends who fought in Afghanistan or Iraq. Yes, we know the names of Pat Tillman and Casey Sheehan, but for many the war is little more than a tally of numbers and a regular segment on the nightly news. Perhaps that’s because the military is smaller. Perhaps that’s because we don’t have a draft. But nearly 4,000 American soldiers are dead, and over 28,000 seriously wounded. To those who have been there, it’s a life-changing experience that’s shaped their personal identity.

“Today’s soldiers are unique in the respect that they’re volunteers, and they understand that their country is involved in a war on terror that could last decades,” says Col. K. F. Frederick (USMC), Commanding Officer of NROTC at the Citadel. “Even with that knowledge they’re still willing to risk their lives in the defense of freedom, and not even necessarily the freedom of their countrymen, but the freedom of the Iraqi and Afghani citizens that we’re helping to establish a new, democratic country.”

In a controversial war rooted in faulty intelligence and deception, anything less than a fully committed voluntary military would be detrimental to solidarity. Even still, many who have been to Iraq return uncertain that we should be there. The one nearly universal characteristic among soldiers, regardless of their opinion of America’s role in Iraq, is an unfaltering love and sense of duty to their country.

Amongst the parades, concerts, and speeches, we often associate Veterans Day with white-haired men donning their old uniforms. It’s easy to forget that American men and women are fighting right now, and some have gone and come back as many as five times.

To get an idea of what it’s like to return to the U.S. after being in a war zone, we spent an evening at the James Island VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars), where several young vets shared their stories over wings and beers. Here are their words:

Life in a war zone

J. Scott Komarnicki was a Navy Seabee (the Naval construction force), called up from the reserves, who was stationed in Fallujah, Iraq, from Feb.-Oct. ’04, some of that infamous city’s most violent months. He and his wife married quickly before his abrupt departure, so she would have easier access to news about him during his deployment.

“I got to Fallujah a couple days before the contractor killings, and it took five tries to get our convoy in because the road kept being attacked. There’s no transition. I don’t care if you’ve been in the military for 20 years — if you’ve never experienced war, it’s nothing you can explain. You’re never at ease. Sure, you can take a break, but it’s always in your mind. I was afraid from the day I got there until the day I left. We took over 500 rockets and mortars inside the base while I was there. I’ve come out of a bathroom with rockets dangling in a tree over the top of my port-a-potty. I was in there when my friend took shrapnel in his (genitals) next to me. My friend died 50 yards away from where I slept. He got hit by a rocket in his chest.”

Maj. Edward Cloyd returned to Charleston with his Army National Guard unit in September, after a year deployment at Bucca, a detention-center camp based in rural, southern Iraq.

“There weren’t too many IEDs (roadside bombs) in that area, but the ones we had, called explosively-formed projectiles, or EFPs, were the most deadly. People had them wired to their cell phones to set them off. It’s dangerous, but you have to take that attitude that you’re going to confront anything that you come across. There’s risks, and you deal with them.”

Komarnicki: “Any time you use the roads it’s a bad situation. One time a vehicle-borne IED exploded next to us. We had (steel armor) on, but at the time it only came up to your neck. Of about 40 of us, there were 20 of us left trying to match which body went with which head.”

Balancing personal feelings with the realities of wartime

Clay Middleton, a 2003 Citadel grad and lieutenant in the Army National Guard, was stationed outside of Baghdad, in Tagi, from May ’04 to May ’05, where he was in charge of his battalion and received a Bronze Star. He opposed the U.S. decision to go to war in Iraq before being deployed.

“When you wear the uniform, folks have got to realize you’re a volunteer, and if the president of the United States says you have to go, you go. I’m not a hypocrite who would take the government’s money, and when asked to perform my job in a time of war say, ‘I’m not going to.’ I am against the war for a litany of reasons, but I never discussed it with any of my soldiers or with people back at home while I was over there. If my name is called, I’ll have to go again.”

Komarnicki: “I really didn’t have the choice of whether to go, but if I had, I’d have gone. When you’re there, it really becomes who’s to the left and right of me, and how am I going to get home safely to my family. We’re not interested in the politics behind it all, because there’s nobody throwing rocks at us. All the people we helped genuinely wanted it.”

Iraqi sentiments and perceptions of the war

Sgt. Daniel Franzen served in the infantry in Fallujah from Feb.-Oct. ’04, and returned for a second deployment between June ’05 and Feb. ’06. His battalion’s mission was offensive — they cleared cities that had been deemed “full of insurgents.” He is currently earning his degree at the Citadel, after which he will receive a commission and be an officer in the Marines.

“I had a grown man, maybe 70 years old, kiss my hand after we’d been through a city. Other times you’d notice a lukewarm apprehension about us. That’s often because any nice gesture towards Americans would bring about suspicion from insurgents. And they’re not obvious or wearing uniforms. There’s definitely a sense of relief after a town is cleared out. It’s much more peaceful and the children love us.”

Middleton: “In 2004, some Iraqis were very happy the Americans were there because it was free money. There was cash all over the place. But democracy isn’t for everyone, and that’s what some people on this side of the world don’t realize.”

Komarnicki: “I don’t think our country understands the resolve of most Iraqi citizens. I’ve seen Iraqi people not just killed, but whole families cut up into little pieces and put into bags because they were contractors working with us to rebuild mosques, schools, and parks. Twenty-four hours later there’s a whole other group of people standing there ready to take their place and do the job. They’re not a weak people, and there’s not much you can do to intimidate them, because they already live in fear of dying every second of every day.”

Cloyd: “They feel like their survival is based on picking the right side. They want all the things we have to offer — the voting turnout shows that — but they take an unbelievable risk by showing that publicly and they want to know that we’re going to be there until the end. If we don’t believe the Iraqis can be free and peaceful, how can they believe?”

Coming home

Komarnicki: “War changes you for the rest of your life. There’s not a day that goes by I don’t think about it. I was never allowed to go out and shoot back at the enemy. I was kept on a base and constantly fired upon and beat down. It’s like being trained to box, and then they put you in a ring with somebody and tell you not to hit back. You get so upset and there’s this build-up, and you just don’t know how to deal.”

Middleton: “The best way to support our veterans when they come home is to make sure their paperwork is processed properly, ensure we have fewer homeless vets, and get them proper health insurance. I saw a sign at (a restaurant) that said, ‘We Support Our Soldiers,’ yet they didn’t have a military discount. People say it because it sounds good, but they don’t really support.”

Franzen: “I would say the ratio of ‘Thank Yous’ to admonishments was 20 to 1. A lot of people may not think we should have been there in the first place, but they’re nevertheless very thankful.”

Komarnicki: “A Vietnam vet once told me, ‘It’ll always be a part of your life, but don’t let it define who you are.’ I have to try really hard to do that. I have to throttle back around my wife and friends, because I don’t want to bring the conversation down. The best time is when you’re around people who you were there with, because they’re the only people who understand 100 percent what you’ve been through. I’ve seen grown men sleep with teddy bears — captains, lieutenants, colonels.”

What do Americans need to realize?

Lt. Brendan Coney is a member of the same unit as Maj. Edward Cloyd. He returned in September from Iraq and now trains National Guard recruits.

“It seems like we’ve been at war a long time because you see it every day in the news. Four or five years is really not that bad. I’ve got nine years left of service, so I’ll be back, maybe twice.”

Cloyd: “We went to Bosnia in the early ’90s and stopped a war there, and the last troops are just leaving now. We went to Kosovo in ’97, and we haven’t left there yet. The Korean War is not even over yet. The bulk of our forces are leaving Germany, and that was 60 years ago that we finished there. Why would anyone think we could attack Iraq and be gone in three, four, or five years? We’re impatient people. I suppose it’s been a long time, but it’s going to take longer.”

Middleton: “Ninety-five percent of the places the military has gone, we’re still there. This is a political war, not a military war, and we’re going to be in that region for a long time. The Philippines kicked us out, so let Iraq kick us out before we go out 100 percent.”

Where do we go from here?

Franzen: “I think it’s a mistake to think that we can just come home and say ‘whatever’ to the Middle East. People who think we can or should come home immediately do not have an accurate picture of what is going on or the implications of what would happen if we were to pull out right now. Regardless of your political affiliation or what you think should happen, it’s more than obvious that we cannot just come home.”

Middleton: “A higher percentage of Iraqis voted in January 2005 than in the U.S. 2004 elections. That’s a damn shame. We have this thing called freedom that we take for granted, and we feel our vote doesn’t count. As a soldier, to know that I’m fighting for someone else to have democracy and freedom, and people at home aren’t even voting, yet they have a yellow ribbon on their car and say they support the soldiers, then I question those people’s integrity.”

Cloyd: “I supported the war before I left, and I support it after coming home. I think we can and will win.”

Komarnicki: “The Seabees awarded millions of dollars in contracts to rebuild, and by now, those buildings have probably been blown up. It’s a no-win situation. It’ll be never-ending.”