Fort Drum leaders reflect on Iraq war 20 years later

Published: Mar. 20, 2023 at 3:43 PM EDT
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FORT DRUM, New York (WWNY) - Monday marks 20 years since the beginning of the war in Iraq. Two decades later it’s marred in controversy, despite strong support when the U.S. first launched its invasion.

We discussed the anniversary with 10th Mountain Division leaders at Fort Drum who spent long parts of their careers overseas in this conflict.

“I’ve deployed over 98 months total in my career,” said Colonel Brian Ducote, 1st Brigade Combat Team commander, 10th Mountain Division. “Over half of that was in Iraq.”

Colonel Ducote is only months back from his fourth deployment to Iraq.

A lot has changed in nearly 20 years since he first deployed to the country in 2004.

For several years now, the role of the U.S. military has been to train and advise as the Iraqi people take the reins.

“The receptiveness and the motivation of the Iraqi Security Forces was noteworthy. Whereas, many years ago when I first deployed, it was mostly us doing that. This time around it was them,” said Ducote.

Fighting the Islamic State’s extremist ideology is the main mission in Iraq in 2023 and public support for U.S. involvement in the country is low.

In 2003, that wasn’t the case.

War was on in Afghanistan following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the public was swayed in favor of taking the fight to Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

The justification: Saddam’s supposed ties to 9/11, and the belief he had weapons of mass destruction, namely chemical weapons.

Those justifications proved unfounded, however.

Multiple investigations, including one by a U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in 2006, drummed up no evidence of WMDs or terrorist ties to Iraq’s government.

According to the Department of Defense, there were 4,431 U.S. military deaths during the campaign called Operation Iraqi Freedom and almost 32,000 were injured.

After almost 9 years at war, the last American soldiers left Iraq in 2011.

Enter ISIS. Seizing on instability in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State took over large parts of both nations.

In 2014 the U.S. returned to Iraq to help fight ISIS, launching thousands of airstrikes against the Islamic State.

By 2017 ISIS had lost much of its seized land.

In the years since, the U.S. has been reducing its involvement, aiming to help the Iraqi government stand for itself.

That’s the mission Colonel Ducote helped lead during the 1st BCT’s 2022 deployment.

“Something so evil, so disastrous to this world as an ideology in ISIS, being able to have a part in that, play a role in defeating that is really humbling for our soldiers, and so morale was very high,” he said.

Currently, there are about 2,500 U.S. soldiers deployed in Iraq and 900 in Syria.

While the United States aims to reduce its role in the region, 10th Mountain Division leaders say the country still has its eye on ISIS.

“They’ve been defeated on the battlefield, but ISIS is still there,” said Major General Gregory Anderson, commander of the 10th Mountain Division.

“I trust our senior leaders in terms of their judgment as to when the Iraqis will be able to do it entirely by themselves, but I can say it’s getting close to that,” said Ducote.

From 2004 to 2015, 120 Fort Drum soldiers lost their lives. The 10th Mountain Division has deployed a dozen times during the conflict.

“My reflections on my comrades and the soldiers I’ve served with, soldier and teammates I’ve just come to love and respect and revere over the years. I think about them often and I’m really proud to have done my role with them,” said Anderson. “This division availed itself and distinguished itself many times in these 20 years.”

The deployments continue. The 2nd Brigade Combat Team will be deployed to that region this summer.

It will be the 10th Mountain Division’s 13th trip overseas in the war.