20 years later, the war in Iraq resonates with Minnesotans who deployed
Rich Edenfield first landed in the Middle East in June 2003, barely a month after President George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech announced a premature American victory in a war that, in a sense, is continues today.
Edenfield was a 20-year-old Minnesota National Guard soldier from Eagan, newly married with a baby girl. He had wanted to be a soldier since childhood – his father served in Vietnam and he idolized his grandfather, a fighter pilot in World War II. But he didn’t know what to expect in Iraq.
The war had started on March 20, 2003, 20 years ago on Monday. Even as American politicians claimed victory that spring, eruptions of violence foreshadowed a drawn-out and bloody conflict. This conflict would cost more than a trillion dollars and more than 4,000 American military lives, including 14 members of the Minnesota National Guard, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives.
While politicians were defined by their early support or opposition to the invasion, the Iraq War also changed the role of the National Guard. The old joke about the Guard used to be “breaking glass in case of war” – a strategic reserve force usually used for national emergencies. Over the past two decades, members of the Guard have been regularly called up for overseas deployments to places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
But Edenfield’s original memories of Iraq had nothing to do with the major geopolitical forces at play. His earliest memory was the heat. When he landed at 3 a.m. it was 99 degrees. That first day, the temperature reached 110 and 15 people from his company were treated for heat-related issues.
The most enduring memory of Edenfield’s first of three deployments to the Middle East, however, was the danger.
Three weeks after landing in Kuwait, Edenfield joined a 33-vehicle convoy bound for Tikrit, Iraq, near Saddam Hussein’s hometown. To protect unarmored vehicles from improvised explosive devices, they placed sandbags and sheet metal on the ground to protect against explosions.
Edenfield would be stationed in Tikrit as a communications equipment operator until May 2004. While his wife, Minnesota National Guard soldier Liz Edenfield, avoided the news and focused on learning to walk of their baby, Jade, Rich Edenfield spent the year in a city known as the most dangerous place in the world.
He’s been shot more times than he can count; he has retaliated more times than he can count. The most perilous moments were on the convoys between Tikrit and Baghdad. One way or another, everyone in his unit went home.
“Almost every time we spoke you could hear gunfire in the background,” Liz Edenfield said. “Compartmentalisation is a big part of what you do in the military. But there were many nights where I had this fear of being knocked on the door.”
“We didn’t know who was our enemy and who was our friend,” said Rich Edenfield. “But 95% of the population was extremely grateful that we were there. Saddam’s regime was quite brutal.”
It is heartbreaking to realize that 20 years have passed since the invasion of Iraq. Since then we have seen the invention and proliferation of social media and smartphones, the election of Obama, Trump and Biden, a global pandemic and the reshuffling of the post-Cold War world order. . Even today, 2,500 American soldiers remain in Iraq, advising and assisting Iraqis and Kurds.
Thinking of invasion in binary terms – success or failure? – is a fool’s race. As David Frum recently wrote in an Atlantic retrospective that called the war “a grave and costly mistake,” the war uncovered no weapons of mass destruction and destabilized the Middle East – but she also overthrew a brutal dictator. We have no way of knowing how a Saddam regime would have performed.
Retired Lt. Gen. Rick Nash of New Prague, commanding general of the US Army and multinational forces in Iraq in 2009 and 2010, remembers exactly where he was when Saddam was captured on December 11, 2003: in a American base in Bosnia. Governor Tim Pawlenty was visiting troops from the Minnesota National Guard. Nash learned of Saddam’s capture when Pawlenty received a call from a reporter in Minnesota.
“‘Wow, that’s pretty cool – now it’s gonna be over,'” Nash recalled thinking. “And then five years later, I’m in Iraq, and it’s still going on.”
Nash sees the biggest mistake of the war as when Paul Bremer, who headed the Coalition Provisional Authority after the invasion, banned Saddam’s Baath Party and disbanded the Iraqi army. The Baathists were not all supporters of Saddam; these people made the country work.
“They welcomed us with open arms until they saw the plan we put in place,” Nash said. “When you get rid of all these operators, there’s no electricity, you don’t distribute the oil revenue wealth properly, and we had to get over it. We became the hated person because she didn’t have a job.”
The role of the National Guard has transformed over the past two decades. Overseas deployments became regular occurrences for members of the Guard, as the Guard became more closely tied to active duty forces; nearly 8,000 members of the Minnesota National Guard have served in Iraq since 2003.
“We don’t have enough active duty to do what this country asked them to do for 20 years in two theaters of war,” Nash said. “Even with NATO partners, we were lacking.”
Rich and Liz Edenfield now have two daughters. Jade is 20, Mackenzie is 10. Rich retired from the Minnesota National Guard last year and the family moved to North Carolina. When he thinks of Iraq, he focuses on the good: throwing candy at children, or Iraqis hugging him and thanking him.
“I’m proud of it all,” said Rich Edenfield. “I did what I thought was right. I served my country. We did so much good for the people of Iraq. Getting Saddam out of there did so much for this country, for the women, for the children.”
“My fear,” Liz Edenfield said, “is that it’s become so normalized. We’ve had so many deployments for so many years, it’s like it’s part of our culture now. It’s easy to hold on for gained what our soldiers have But I hope it’s never taken for granted. Ever.”
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