It was early evening, Jan. 17, 2003.
The phone rang.
“Raging Bull, Raging Bull. You’ve been mobilized.”
Within three days, Leighann Dunn was on a military base for training, and within three months, she was on the ground in Kuwait, waiting to cross the border into Iraq. She was 18 years old.
“Stepping off the plane, I think I was more excited,” the 29-year-old doctorate student said. “I didn’t know what to think about the war, or about the political stance behind it. Everybody was kind of energized that we were going to go take out the bad guys from 9/11.”
Wednesday, March 20 marks the 10th anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom which launched a U.S.-led military invasion to help eradicate terrorism and rid the region of Dictator Saddam Hussein.
Dunn served a year-long tour in Baquba, a small city north of Baghdad, at Camp Warhorse, where she served as a bridge engineer. Faced with innumerable challenges throughout her tour, Dunn even survived a bomb attack on her company. And all before she could legally drink back home.
“You know you have to join”
After a family member recognized Dunn needed some help, she enlisted shortly after her 17th birthday.
“The Guard recruiter called me every month up until I was 17 and then he said, ‘Alright, you know where your future is at. You know you need to join.’”
Dunn began her training as a junior in high school and finished during her senior year, embarking on what she saw as an opportunity to do something with her life, even go to college.
For senior John Person, a member of the Air National Guard, joining the military was something he just knew he wanted, and even had to do.
“Tuition assistance stuff was a perk, but it wasn’t the reason,” Person said. “I could have gotten loans and stuff, but I knew it was something that I needed to do.”
Person served a five-month tour in Balad, Iraq in 2009-2010.
“As soon as I found out that we had an opportunity coming up, I put my name on it right away,” he said. “It wasn’t really a question, it was more of, I knew I was going to do it as soon as I was offered that.”
Person had just turned 20, and considered himself an adult when he stepped foot in Iraq.
“When you’re 18, 20 years old, you think you’re an adult, but when I got over there, I realized this is going to be the thing that changes my aspect on life,” he said.
Move on, drive on, ignore what you saw
The culture shock was especially difficult for Dunn, who said crossing the border from Kuwait into Iraq was like going from gold-covered streets right into the middle of a third-world type of living.
“As a woman, my heart ached to see these children who had nothing, the way their society valued men over women and how we were expected to look away,” she said. “I saw a man beat his wife in front of me, and that was an eye-awakening event.”
Unable to do anything about the crimes she saw and experienced, Dunn said the Army provided little to no preparation to deal with the social, economic, religious and cultural differences troops experienced.
“The reality was that this little kid who is coming up to you, who may be wanting some food or clean water, who is trying to get your attention, could possibly kill you.”
Cultural ignorance, both on the battle field and back home, was a problem during the war, said Associate Professor of History Kurt Hackemer.
Included in that cultural ignorance was difficulty in locating a clear enemy and dealing with the differences in warfare, Hackemer said.
“To put it bluntly, armies are trained to kill people and kill them very efficiently,” he said. “In an insurgency, you’re doing something completely different.”
Troops had to make split-second decisions on who and what targets were in risky situations and environments, Hackemer said.
“Suddenly, you have to be able to figure out very nebulous situations very instantly,” he said. “If you guess wrong, there’s an excellent chance you might die. That’s an incredible amount of pressure to put on a 19-year-old.”
Out of sight, out of mind
On the home front, little to nothing changed in everyday life during the years of the conflict.
Operation Iraqi Freedom was pitched as a quick, inexpensive war with little sacrifice, Associate Professor of Political Science Timothy Schorn, said.
“(The state) encouraged a non-involvement, a non-engagement policy on the part of the American people,” he said. ”
The problem, Schorn said, is the dichotomy it created between the public back home and the troops on the ground.
“Anyone who was putting on the uniform understood that there was going to be a price to be paid, and that they were going to be called to make sacrifices,” Schorn said.
In the Midwest, and particularly in South Dakota, the war effort hit closer to home than many places around the country.
“There is a Guard unit in almost every town,” Hackemer said. “We know when a Guard unit goes to war. That’s not necessarily the case for the rest of the country.”
In the end, notions of manpower and money needs initially formulated were flawed. Many military members were sent back repeatedly, for not just one or two, but three, four and sometimes five tours, Hackemer said.
“That has physical consequences, psychological consequences,” he said. “Rates of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) are really high, suicide rates are really high.”
Dunn, who was diagnosed with PTSD, said she didn’t even know she had it and carried it with her for four years before it was noticed.
“I didn’t even understand how I functioned from 19 to 22 years old,” said Dunn, who received her undergraduate degree from USD. “It was extremely hard coming onto a college campus, especially some that weren’t ready for us, to be able to handle our mental wounds, to handle how we tick.”
“I can breathe after 10 years”
On campus, veterans blend in unbeknownst to many traditional students, Hackemer said. Annually, the USD Veteran’s Club erects a flag display, honoring those who gave their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each year, Hackemer said he asks his students about their reaction, and many take little notice.
“It underscores how disconnected most people here are about that event,” he said. “Something that is that physical – there is nothing subtle about that display. They don’t get it.”
In the classroom, student veterans are mission-oriented, he said. Veterans notice the superficial activities going on and have no time for it.
“There’s a divide there between the mainstream student, the typical student who goes about their day to day normal college life and the vets who are returning who have seen a lot, experienced a lot and want to focus on the most important things,” Schorn said.
Moving into the future, Hackemer said it’s too early to tell whether this war’s vets may seek to be more politically involved.
“It’s just been kind of refreshing and rewarding and motivating to speak up,” Dunn said. “Being active politically gives everybody that true sense of what I have to say as a veteran. It’s not just someone on the nightly news, it’s boots on the ground who have experienced it.”
Ten years later, Dunn said she can finally breathe and move on. She’s ready to forgive and move on, to not take any day for granted and not look back.
“Was it worth it? Yes— it made me who I am today,” she said.