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From Baghdad, On Veterans Day

  • Published
  • By Maj. Gen. Russ Handy
  • Commander, 9th Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force-Iraq, Director, Air Component Coordination Ele
On Veterans Day, when the nation formally recognizes the contributions of millions of past and present men and women in uniform, I want to pass on my sincere appreciation for the conspicuously grateful American people.

I was speaking to my wife about this on Sunday night and I reflected on how often she's stopped and asked how things are going over here and thanked for her service -- and they ask her to thank me. As one of the thousands of family members waiting at home, she appreciates that. The folks she speaks to don't offer their opinion about whether or not our military ought to be engaged in country "X" or country "Y" -- they just thank her, and they ask her to thank me and all of our Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines over here, and hope we make it home safely.

I'm eternally appreciative of that attitude back home; it isn't lost on our men and women serving here. It is what sustains them. Rest assured our Airmen serving here will do everything in their power to ensure they get all our troops home safely.

So, it is of great interest to me for the American public to have an accurate and complete perspective of what their sons and daughters, husbands, wives, parents, friends and neighbors are doing over here in Iraq in a very challenging time. Our troops and their families have suffered during this mission and sacrificed to provide this opportunity the Iraqis now have for some time. But no one should believe this sacrifice was in vain.

Our legacy here really is the extraordinary opportunity for the people of Iraq, but with that opportunity comes extraordinary challenges. As I think about the potential of this nation, squarely positioned in the middle of a very turbulent region, I can't help but reflect on what's going on in our country right now. If you think about it, on Tuesday, many went to the polls in the United States to cast their vote in a variety of state and local-level elections. We're also just within a year until our next U.S. Presidential election. That is what we and the people of Iraq have together provided this nation - this same opportunity to have a choice.

As I ponder this from here in Baghdad and think about all that we have in the U.S., I'm reminded of the significance of living in a free democracy where individual citizens are afforded the opportunity to go to the polls, cast their vote for a candidate of their choice and to influence what happens to them. I'm also reminded of the cost of both establishing and continuing a democracy -- a democratic, inclusive system of government that Iraq now has. It's not easy, but it is worth it.

I started this journey a little more than 21 years ago. As an F-15 pilot, I led combat missions over Iraq in Operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm and Southern Watch. I returned to Iraq in August 2010, as Operation Iraqi Freedom ended and Operation New Dawn began.

Over the past 15 months I've traveled Iraq visiting our Airmen and witnessed a part of this country's transformation. I've looked at the palaces and facilities the Saddam Hussein regime built and I've read the history about what Iraqis went through during that tempestuous time. There are Iraqis who are starting their own businesses, Iraqi soldiers, sailors and airmen learning what it means to defend their free nation and pan-Arab media everywhere publishing true and sometimes controversial stories. That's powerful stuff and it's very different from what I experienced in my first exposure to Iraq.

Was it worth it? I get that question a lot. Folks are asking: "With the economic issues in the United States, why are we spending all this money in Iraq?" Think about the region and think about the recent Arab uprisings ... and what has being going on in the 'neighborhood' at the grassroots level ... think about what the demonstrators were fighting for. Certainly they were demonstrating for better conditions and various social programs. But, they were also pleading for a democratically elected, inclusive government and Iraq has one of those.

Iraq is still struggling as a fledgling democracy and they are working their way through that. But it is difficult to overstate the importance of a stable, self-reliant Iraq and what that means to the region and to the world. It has tremendous influence on what happens in the United States from security to economics.

And certainly it's hard to think about anything that has happened here over the last 21 years without thinking about the nearly 4,500 Americans who gave the ultimate sacrifice and the tens of thousands who have become casualties. That's what brings it home.

And so on this Veteran's Day, I thank you -- every service member, every family member and every friend -- who has supported this from the beginning to the 'new dawn.'