This evening, President Obama will talk about the end of combat operations in Iraqvia a prime time address to the nation. A few days ago, as I watched footage of the Strykers leaving Iraq and crossing over into Kuwait, tears welled up in my eyes. Much blood, sweat and tears were spilled over the past several years in order to achieve this goal. In war, there are goals and when goals are achieved, those who fought hard and valiantly to achieve them are entitled to a feeling of accomplishment, and we are proud of their efforts. As you can see, many are heavily invested in the future of Iraq.
Many troops, such as Army Staff Sgt. Nicholas Burkeen, 27, of St. Louis, will keep a keen watch on what happens in the still-fractious country. Burkeen is on his third, and almost certainly last, deployment to Iraq.
"I'm always going to be looking at this place," he said. "I've got 48 months' deployment time here - it's like a second home. That will be my best day, whenever I see ... this country unify under one flag."
The only military that troops of the Iraq generation know is one at war. Multiple deployments are the norm rather than a remote possibility, as it was after Vietnam. It has crept into the rhythms of their lives. Time with spouses and children has become a luxury in between tours.
As I listened to the interpretations of various pundits on the day the the last combat Brigade rolled out of Iraq, I knew what was about to ensue in my corner of the world, so I scoured several milspouse forums with predictable results.
I came across many comments by milspouses stressing that approximately 50,000 troops are still in Iraq and that their spouses were among them. I was merely reading words, but the emotion behind the words was palpable. These ladies wanted people to understand that Iraq, while standing, has wobbly knees, and that the men they loved were still in harm's way. Transitioning from Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation New Dawn, while definitely worth celebrating, doesn't change the reality for many milspouses and their families. The sentiment of the collective commenters was a mixture of pride and pain.
And I understood it perfectly.
With our military actively fighting wars on two fronts over the past nine years, I've seen the pendulum swing back and forth. In the beginning, all eyes were on Afghanistan. Then came Iraq and the bulk of discussion and news coverage left Afghanistan and centered on Iraq. The surge was successful and in 2007 and 2008, the security situation in Iraq improved so the focus turned back to Afghanistan. When the focus of the national spotlight shifted from region to region, the daily grind of being a military family in a time of war remained unchanged.
This is not a contest to determine whose spouse is serving in the most dangerous region. Nor do spouses of those serving in Afghanistan begrudge spouses of those serving in Iraq anything. And vice-versa. After all, many of them have spouses who have served in both areas. Nobody wants success more than the military community. But military families who have given so much can sometimes become frustrated with the shift in focus. Both Iraq and Afghanistan are hot spots. With troop levels, each numerical digit represents a family separated by war and danger. It's personal. Call either conflict what you will, but allow me to echo the sentiments of the milspouses whose comments I read - Don't forget about the troops. Wherever they may be. Whatever stage a conflict may enter, or exit.
I hope that President Obama will shine the light on those who continue to serve in Iraq, and the families who support them. The ones who skillfully remove the distractions which enable our troops to focus on their mission, whatever it may be.