Was Iraq worth the sacrifice? Chattanooga area veterans weigh in on the question

photo Sgt. James Renfro puts his hat on his son, Johathan Renfro, 3. Sgt. Renfro was one of 14 soldiers from the 1-181st battalion who came to the Chattanooga National Guard Armory after a tour in Iraq in 2008. Sgt. Renfro was in Iraq for nine months and says, "It's just good to be home."

Iraq by the numbers:36 -- Tennessee Army National Guard units deployed97 -- Tennesseans killed; 598 wounded19 -- Military members with Chattanooga connections killed141 -- Georgians killed; 862 wounded73 -- Alabamians killed; 550 wounded110 -- North Carolinians killed; 819 wounded4,484 -- U.S. troops killed; 30,108 wounded58,977 -- Iraqis killed, both civilian and militaryMarch 19, 2003 -- Combat beginsDecember 2011 -- Final U.S. troops withdrawSource: Times Free Press archives, U.S. Department of Defense, The Associated Press

It was a war begun in fear, confusion and hubris.

It was a war where soldiers saw quick progress, then loss, followed by a sinking sense of failure.

For a time, with a surge of troops, successes came, progress followed, a chance.

Our soldiers stopped dying and came home. Iraqis kept dying in bombings, shootings, raids.

Still, there was hope.

Now, as a Sunni insurgency has overrun key towns and taken U.S. equipment to further its fighting and President Barack Obama sends hundreds of military advisers to Iraq while weighing options on what comes next, American veterans of the Iraq War look back and ask:

Was it all worth it?

The 4,484 Americans lost, the 30,108 wounded, the untold number forever suffering, the 60,000 or more Iraqi dead -- all tally on one side of war's ledger. On the other side of that ledger: ink-stained Iraqi fingers from the first democratic election in its history, schools built, water and electricity flowing, an oppressed people liberated.

"Honestly, I'm ... angry and there's a part of me ... I want to saddle up and go back," said James Renfro, a retired Tennessee Army National Guard sergeant who served an Iraq combat tour from 2007 to 2008 with the Chattanooga-based 181st Field Artillery Battalion.

The 48-year-old Harrison man knows what he feels. He also knows it isn't that simple.

He hears "Mosul" or "Tikrit," names of places as meaningful to him as Normandy, Pusan or Khe Sanh were to previous generations. He hears those places have fallen or are under attack, places where some of his buddies died.

"What was their sacrifice for?" he said. "Why would we sacrifice another American life?"

He's not alone in his whirlwind of thoughts about what happened, what's happening and what will happen in Iraq.

Randy Cooley went to Iraq twice, both times with Tennessee Guard units. In his first tour he got to secure positions as Iraqis held their first election.

"I really enjoyed my time over there," said Cooley, 53. "Just seeing people being able to vote."

But there were dark times, too. Car bombs that killed swaths of people. A friend and fellow soldier lost.

When he left after his second tour in 2008, in the midst of the U.S.-led troop surge, he saw that the Iraqi military wasn't ready. A little more than two years later, in December 2011, American troops withdrew from the country.

More time.

That's what Cooley and others veterans interviewed say was needed. Our military left too soon.

"I know you can't get bogged down in a war forever," Cooley said. But leaving a contingent of U.S. soldiers in Kuwait to respond quickly might have sent the message that insurgents couldn't continue their guerrilla war.

Forrest Langley's unit with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division was hit by 120 roadside bombs in the first four months of its 2005 tour. He later learned he had suffered traumatic brain injury after the second blast. Langley has three Purple Hearts.

"I feel like the whole time we shouldn't have gone there in the first place," said Langley, 48.

But once the country went to war, Langley said, we had an obligation to see it through.

"We should have been committed to keeping the lines open and keeping democracy safe no matter how many years it took," the Villanow, Ga., man said.

Roger Hankins had served most of his youth, 12 years, on active duty in the Army. He deployed for the Persian Gulf war in 1991 but left the service a few years later. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks he signed back up, determined to contribute.

The Tennessee Guard sent him to Iraq in 2004, near the American-friendly Kurdish region.

He got to work with Kurds, who remain mostly autonomous in the northern portion of Iraq. The American presence helped those people get a foothold and become more independent.

But he, too, agrees that troops should have stayed longer to continue stabilizing the country.

Whatever happens, Hankins said he's proud of his service there.

"Was it ever going to be a paradise?" he said. "I don't know, but it was definitely in better shape than when we got there."

Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP.

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