I spent 21 years as an officer in the U.S. Navy. For all but the last two years, I flew fighters. In 2005, I left the cockpit for the first time in my career and mobilized with the Army. For 12 months, I worked as a civil affairs officer attached to Multinational Division-Baghdad. I returned home from Iraq in 2007 feeling defeated, disillusioned and unsure of which way to turn.
These days I’m living a pretty good life. I keep busy raising three great kids who I love more than anything. I live in a nice neighborhood with some great neighbors. And I love my job counseling fellow veterans. I help them reintegrate into civilian life by working with horses in Wylie, just northeast of Dallas, at a nonprofit called Equest.
Our program, “Hooves for Heroes” is changing lives. In fact, there’s not much that makes me feel better than seeing a vet who has spent years in pain, pull himself up in the saddle and flash me a big smile. In that smile, I find hope — hope that this veteran’s life might finally be mending. Hope that the legacy of this war will not include his tragic end.
These little victories help temper the bitterness that I sometimes feel when I think of the war in Iraq. Bitterness that comes from the knowledge that countless lives were changed forever, often tragically, because of our decision to invade. Bitterness that we, as Americans, must now move forward a little less certain of our nation’s moral superiority.
And bitterness over so much we have lost … and have yet to lose in the years that follow.
I was a United Airlines pilot in the skies over Manhattan on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. I remember the confusion and fear I had on that awful day, knowing only that something terrible was happening yet feeling powerless to stop it. I cheered two months later when we struck back at the faceless enemy that attacked us. Going after al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan felt justified and right and I was proud of the way Americans rallied in support of the war. As a Navy reservist, I also felt a nagging sense that my place was with those in the fight, not on the sidelines back home.
As the country grew closer to war with Iraq, my pride turned to trepidation. Our moral clarity and sense of purpose seemed lost in the drive to expand the war to a country with no obvious ties to 9/11. When the first bombs fell on Baghdad, I sat in my dark bedroom staring at CNN and holding my young son tightly. I couldn’t believe we had actually done it.
Right or wrong, those in harm’s way were my brothers and sisters. I couldn’t shake the feeling that my place was with them.
In 2005, I volunteered to go to Iraq. I left behind a wife and three young children to fight a war I hadn’t agreed with — in a way I had never experienced. Instead of fighting in the cockpit of a Navy F-14, I strapped on an M-9 pistol and slung an M-16 over my shoulder in an effort to augment the Army’s counterinsurgency mission in Baghdad. My role would be as a civil affairs officer, tasked with establishing stability and support for the legitimate Iraqi government among the populace. We were to win their hearts and minds before the insurgents did. The team’s mission included helping neighborhood leaders establish local government as well as meeting with locals to develop Iraqi state-owned enterprises. Putting the missing pieces together to get these enterprises up and running involved a great deal of close contact with local Iraqis and a lot of time outside the wire.
For one bloody year, I felt as if I were a bit player in an epic drama, but a drama without a director, or even a script. My frustration was broken only by moments of rage as I bore witness to the brutal inhumanity that our species is capable of inflicting upon one another. Fear was my constant companion. But not the fear I had known as a fighter pilot.
In my military career up to that point, I had experienced many brief moments of terror. In fact, there were several times flying jets when I was pretty sure it was all over. But those events were separated by days and months and years of unbridled exhilaration at having the freedom to streak through the heavens at unimaginable speeds. Flying fighters was nothing short of glorious.
Iraq was different. For me, there was nothing glorious about it. In Baghdad, moments of terror simply led to more moments of the same, and more after that. The days outside the wire were long, hot and filled with low-level anxiety over what might happen next. In the midst of a brutal Sunni-Shiite civil war, we moved through the filthy streets of Baghdad, trying to restore some semblance of order where none could possibly exist. In the process, we placed ourselves squarely in the cross hairs of a populace that seemed to despise us as much as they did each other. In their words there might be cooperation and civility. But hatred lay smoldering behind feigned smiles.
I never hated the Iraqis. But I never trusted them either.
If we made any progress at all, it seemed to come in the tiniest of increments. Part of my job as a civil affairs officer was working at the ministry and provincial level. Although I felt much safer during my infrequent excursions to the Green Zone than I did on the streets, my exasperation was compounded tenfold. Brief respites to this relative oasis became exercises in managing frustration amidst an incoherent mix of competing priorities. State Department, Department of Defense, Iraqi National Government, coalition agents, nongovernmental organizations — each seemed personally invested in its own vision of “the way forward.” I’d never before experienced such a continuous flurry of human activity with so little tangible result. In the end, I came to think of the Green Zone as the “Land of Perpetual Futility.”
Through it all was the constant killing. Two or three of ours every day. Hundreds of theirs. IEDs, sniper fire, rockets, mortars. Sectarian violence on a horrific scale. Tortured, dismembered bodies tossed in the Tigris like trash. Life was cheap in Baghdad in 2006 and 2007.
As I think about it now, it hardly seems real. It’s more like a bad dream. But a dream that has occupied my thoughts constantly over the past five years. Every day. Every hour. Sometimes, every minute.
I often wonder if it will ever go away.
But as soon as I ask myself this question, I have to stop. I remember that the closest friends I have in the world are the men and women I served with during that year. The bond that I feel toward these individuals is as deep and enduring as any I’ve ever known save the love that I have for my kids. What a gift to have such friends, such brothers, such soul mates. These friendships are one of my life’s greatest treasures. How ironic that they were born in the middle of my life’s greatest despair.
Ten years after we invaded Iraq, we are still left with perhaps as many questions as answers. I know that I still haven’t completely come to terms with everything I saw and everything I lost while there.
Still, there’s reason to be hopeful. True, there exists a very wide chasm between those who have served in uniform and those who haven’t. Yet, there is a seemingly endless reservoir of goodwill toward our nation’s veterans and many citizens are deeply committed to easing their transition home. Programs designed to help our newest generation of veterans have actually encouraged earlier generations of warriors to finally confront their own demons after suffering in silence for decades. Although she has a few more lines on her face, America is perhaps a wiser, more mature nation with respect to how she views herself in the world. I believe next time we will ask the tough questions before we send our sons and daughters into harm’s way. We may still have to do it. But hopefully the decision will be made with temperance and a fuller understanding of the consequences.
For me, I have other reasons to be hopeful. They come from the smiles I see in the faces of veterans riding high at Equest Therapeutic Horsemanship.
There seem to be a lot of them these days.
Jeff Hensley is a counselor for the Hooves for Heroes program in Wylie, TX. The program is sponsored by Equest Therapeutic Horsemanship Equest Therapeutic Horsemanship. The Sept. 11 attacks and Iraq war prompted him to leave careers as a United Airlines pilot and Navy reservist to join the Army. He spent 12 months ending in 2007 as a civil affairs officer in Iraq.
The difficulty that some veterans have in the transition to civilian life was the focus of an American-Statesman special report that found high numbers of suicide, drug overdose and vehicle deaths among Texans receiving VA benefits after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Find the report, Uncounted Casualties, at statesman.com/uncountedcasualties.
More veterans’ voices
The perspectives of others who served in the U.S. military in Iraq will appear March 24 in Insight & Books.