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End of Iraq War Bittersweet for Soldiers, Vets

Happiness over troops coming home, mixed feelings about gains.

ByABC News
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!'"