End of Iraq War Bittersweet for Soldiers, Vets

Happiness over troops coming home, mixed feelings about gains.

December 15, 2011, 10:39 AM

Dec. 15, 2011— -- After almost nine years, the Iraq War has come to an official end, ending a chapter in U.S.history that claimed the lives of almost 4,500 Americans, and left more than 32,200 more wounded.

For many Americans who served in the war, as well as their families, the feeling is bittersweet.

"I am glad they are finally pulling the troops out of there," said veteran Robert Miltenberger, who served as a staff sergeant in Sadr City in 2004. "We should have pulled them out after they went in there and blown up Baghdad. Turned around and drove everybody back out, and let the population over there decide who was going to be the next leader instead of staying over there for four or five years."

In 2004, Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's militia was becoming more hostile towards the American troop presence. By the time Miltenberger got there in March, things had started to take a turn for the worse.

On April 4, 2004, Miltenberger, 38, was on a mission to rescue a squad that was ambushed and pinned down in Sadr City, surrounded by hundreds of Iraqis. He was commanding one of the vehicles in the convoy, a light medium tactical vehicle without overhead cover -- no match against the small arms and machine gun fire raining down on his men as they entered the kill zone.

After 50 yards, all four tires were blown, the radiator shot, and his first man was shot. A sucking chest wound. Miltenberger ripped open the soldier's Kevlar vest, applied bandages, rolled him facedown to maintain pressure and keep the wound sealed.

Another man screamed. He had a severed artery. Miltenberger fashioned a tourniquet. Another guy hit. Another tourniquet. And another. And another. And another.

The Iraqis were shadows, hidden behind doorways, windows, as they fired upon the men. Another hit. "I can't move!" he screamed. Miltenberger pressed a bandage against the wound, and braced his knee hard against the young soldier's back, to keep up the pressure. "You'll be fine," he yelled to the panicked soldier, knowing it probably wasn't true.

Read the full account in Martha Raddatz's The Long Road Home.

Although 14 were wounded, all of the men in that truck made it back home alive. Miltenberger was awarded the Silver Star for his heroic actions, which he keeps in a suitcase at home, along with collectible money. He said he never takes it out. He retired from the Army in 2005.

Seven years later, Miltenberger still tears up whenever he talks about that day.

"I could see the driver. You could see the hole in his hand, see his ear and part of his face missing where he had been shot, and you could see the blood rolling out of the back of the truck," he said, shaking his head.

Miltenberger doesn't keep in touch with the guys he saved, but thinks about them once or twice every two months. He doesn't have nightmares, but doesn't carry a gun or a knife because he's afraid if someone threatened him or made him angry, he would hurt them. He's also unsure about the American gains there.

"As soon as we pull out, they are going to have a civil war. That's what I believe," he said.

Iraq veteran Luke Fournier will never forget April 4, either. It was he who suffered the sucking chest wound. In a recent interview with ABC News, he recalled driving into Sadr City, surrounded by Iraqi insurgents.

"We were on the truck, and I had gotten shot in my chest first. I was on one knee and I kind of stood up and remember Sgt. Miltenberger looking at me, and he goes, 'Are you OK?' and I think I looked at him and said, 'I think I have just been shot.' There wasn't really no pain at first, just a burning sensation, I stood there for a second, and he was yelling, 'Get down, get down!'"

For Iraq Veterans, End of War Is Bittersweet

Fournier credits Miltenberger with saving his life.

"He was trying to cut my shirt open to try to get to my chest wound when he was still trying to keep everybody on the truck concentrated and watching for enemies with multiple other injuries to other people who had been wounded, and for him to be able to do that was almost superhuman," Fournier said. "He might not say he is a hero, but he saved my life."

Fournier thinks about that day all the time.

"It has been seven years and there is probably not a day I don't think about it."

He also has mixed feelings about the war, thankful the troops are coming home, but not sure it was all worth it.

"When I first went, I thought we were going for the right reasons, but looking back on it, I don't know what the right reason was. There were no weapons of mass destruction. Were we really over there for the right reasons? I don't know," he said.

Then-CPT. Troy Denomy has vivid memories of April 4, too. They were his soldiers, from Charlie Company, 2-5 Cav, who were ambushed and pinned down while on a routine mission escorting sewage-collecting trucks through the city, and he felt it was his responsibility to save them. Though he didn't know it, one was already killed, the others, fighting to stay alive.

He was one of the first men back into the city, in a Humvee with add-on armor but a canvas roof -- built for noncombat use. It was all they had at the time they got the rescue call. Since the stated mission in Sadr City was to improve the quality of life for locals, the division brought only a fraction of its standard armor component for the 2004 deployment in Iraq.

It wasn't long before his vehicle came under heavy fire. Four were hit immediately, including Denomy. After dropping off the wounded at a casualty collection point, Denomy -- hit in the shoulder and back -- gathered up his remaining men and 15 others, and went back into the city. Eventually, the men were rescued. That day, eight men were killed. Over 60 wounded.

Seven years later, Denomy, who is still in the army, now a major, still struggles with decisions from that day.

"In the heat of the moment, based on what we knew, it's hard to say I would make those decisions differently. But looking back, there were opportunities to make different decisions," he told ABC News recently.

The end of the war is bittersweet for him as well.

"I think Iraq is a better place because of a lot of what we've done," he said. "And that's mixed with the -- I'm using 'regret' a lot here -- but the regret of the soldiers that were hurt or killed, particularly ones that were injured badly."

During that tour, his company of 135 lost two, and around 60 percent received the Purple Heart, awarded to those wounded in combat.

Denomy still thinks about the first soldier he lost that April day, Sgt. Eddie Chen.

"His case is uniquely difficult because he was the first one. We had no indication things were going badly... . But it still didn't change the regret because he was one of mine and I knew I was supposed to bring him home," he said.

Denomy worries about what happens next.

"With us leaving Iraq, are we going to lose a lot of the focus on the soldiers that are here now and are coming back, and have grave injuries and are going to require the country's support for years?" he asked.

"You'd like to think so -- but the war's burden been on so few for so long, so you wonder if people have really kept up with that," he said, a sentiment echoed by his wife Gina.

"It was definitely a big price to pay, but I'm glad that they're coming home," she said. "The military family is small in the grand scheme of the nation and I hope that everyone else takes a moment to realize the prices that they do pay because it is pretty significant."

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