- CNN iReport invited those affected by the Iraq War to share their stories
- While some feel positive about their service there, others see downsides
- "Was it the right thing to do? Nobody really knows," says one iReporter
Joyous homecomings flash on television screens with the return of troops from Iraq. But away from the jubilation, stories of loss, darkness and ambivalence emerge.
CNN iReport invited service members, contractors and others affected by the Iraq War to tell how it changed their lives. While some stories resonated with pride, out of the dozens of iReports submitted, a darker theme surfaced about whether the war was worth the price.
In their own words (edited for length and clarity), here are eight stories from eight years in Iraq, compiled from interviews and iReports that reflect the spectrum of feelings about the war:
'I don't know if it was all worth it'
Emily Trageser, 31, joined the Army in 2000 and deployed to Iraq for the 2003 invasion with the 101st Airborne Division. She returned to the United States in early 2004.
I don't think that the gravity of what we were doing ever really hit me. I was just a silly 23-year-old, excited to be a part of something big with one of the best-known units in the United States Army.
I was like a little kid on a family trip with my nose pressed against the window, not wanting to miss anything on this grand adventure.
When I contrast my experience with what happened later on in the war, it makes me feel guilty that my time there was so easy. Every time I heard about a soldier from my old unit who was hurt or killed, I felt a tremendous anger but was unsure of where to direct it. I find it embarrassing when someone thanks me for my service, because I feel like I didn't really do anything compared to some. But I have the memories of my time there, which I treasure.
I don't know if it was all worth it. I know now that the invasion was based on flawed intelligence, although at the time, everyone thought that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction. Everyone. So we liberated Iraq from a madman, and saved them from perhaps a later, worse fate.
So much blood, and where are the Iraqi people now? Are they in a better situation? We want to know, we want reassurance, that all the American lives, both lost and ruined, were worth it. I can't say.
'A factory producing painful lives'
Nicholas Panzera, 29, deployed to Mosul and Baghdad, Iraq, from August 2005 until November 2006. He served with the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment from Fort Wainwright, Alaska.
Baghdad during that time was a complete firestorm, and four days from going home to Alaska, orders came from the president extending our deployment indefinitely. To help make sense of my thoughts and emotions I wrote poems. Some were long, some very short, and each one meant more to me than any weapon I had to carry while protecting myself in that nightmare.
a landscape that spits acid in your face,
destroys civilization with its sourness.
god has no place here.
yet the people embrace him as they are whipped.
evil smells swim through the hairdryer heat.
grit bounces off the eyelids of a shunned existence.
smashed and burned.
the souls of many exit through this place.
a factory producing painful lives,
one after another.
-- from "Land of Pain," 2006
I will never be able to forget how I saw human beings treat one another with such hateful intentions. Where families were tortured and murdered for following one religious doctrine or another. Where the police robbed the very people they were hired to protect with their lives. Where murderers would be freed by relatives in the Iraqi judicial system.
We removed one corruption and replaced Saddam Hussein with officials that were just as murderous and evil.
'Feeling like you're a bad person'
Marc Loiselle, 32, served as an infantry platoon leader in Iraq during two tours between 2003 and 2006. He is now a schoolteacher in Seattle and doesn't usually tell people he is an Army veteran.
The secret about combat -- what not even the harshest anti-war cynic will tell you -- is coming home and walking around every day feeling like you're a bad person.
All things surrounding Iraq continue to be the black hole in the otherwise loving light surrounding me in my life. Though life was difficult when I was in combat, I never really suffered until I got home. I lost everything. My wife, my place to live, my friends, and the future that I had once seen.
It was not worth the lives. To say nothing of the money, material, energy and effort. It was not worth the lives of my friends to take the lives of someone else's friends so that they would not take the lives of someone else's friends. It was not worth liberating Iraqis so that warlords, thugs and gangsters could rule over Iraqis. There were no WMDs, or ties to al Qaeda, or ties to 9/11.
We talk about the superiority of our culture, but then we invade their country and set them at each other's throats like animals.
The Iraq War, from its planning to our withdrawal, as a whole, has been a fiasco, an embarrassment, a disaster.
'Proud to be a part of something'
Tyler, 24, is a platoon leader in the Army. He spent a year in Iraq, 2010-2011, helping to shut down more than 40 U.S. military bases. He asked not to use his full name because he is still in the Army.
This was my first deployment to Iraq and the amount accomplished is simply astonishing. As bases closed and troops left, the U.S. military was humming at full speed. As we departed, I have never felt more proud in my life to be a part of something.
Being deployed also gave me a greater sense of just how good America truly is ... from the air and scenery to the security. When was the last time an American citizen worried about an IED on one of our highways? Or when the temperature hit 135? We are truly blessed, and I feel sorry for anyone who does not realize this.
Any war that has been fought is worth the sacrifices. I trust in my country as well as God that when we are asked to fight, the end will be a just cause. Is that the case for Iraq? Sure. We are talking about a dictator who killed his own people and suppressed their voices.
'War didn't kill me, but coming home almost did'
Eric Sofge, 31, served as an Army infantry officer in Iraq in 2007. He is now a law student at the University of San Francisco.
When I came home, the first thing my wife said to me was that she was filing for divorce. So ended an eight-year relationship and sent me spiraling into despair and hopelessness. The war didn't kill me, but coming home almost did.
Sadly, almost everyone who was there has struggled and will struggle for possibly the rest of their lives. The families who lost someone there will never fully recover. And the soldiers who came back wounded have to deal with something I cannot imagine.
The Iraq War was a waste because although we did depose a dictator, we ruined the country in the process. Most Iraqis have paid a tremendous price for it. I oftentimes remember people telling me, "It was better under Saddam."
Clearly there were strategic interests in toppling Hussein, but I'm not convinced that those interests outweighed the costs to this nation. It also cost the U.S. a tremendous amount in international credibility.
I realize that it's possible that in 20 years from now the Iraq War may be seen as the turning point in the Middle East from dictatorships and theocracy to democracy and civil liberties, but I highly doubt that.
'Pleading for us to stay'
Jeffrey Tracey, 55, was trained as a biological weapons inspector responsible for verifying the information that Iraq provided related to their WMD programs.
As a Canadian, but trained by the United Nations at a six-week course in Vienna, I felt honored to be selected as an international observer and weapons inspector for this most important mission.
When we were notified that we were to leave the country in advance of the initiation of the armed invasion, the Iraq citizens were beside themselves, begging for us to stay. One woman, a single parent with two children, dropped to her knees in front of me, pleading for us to stay. She knew that there would be substantial collateral damage on the streets of Baghdad because Saddam had offices and building throughout the city mixed within residential areas.
The invasion of Iraq and the subsequent hostilities have left a mixed taste in my mouth. For starters, the principle excuse to invade Iraq to discover WMD was a nonstarter from the get-go. The U.N. found no traces of Iraq reconstituting their WMD programs, nor did the subsequent Iraq Survey Group. Whether it was a sound decision to invade Iraq to seek WMDs (or to seek a regime change) will be debated for a long time.
'It just kept going on and on'
Jim Lewandowski, 48, deployed to Iraq in early 2004 as a member of the South Dakota National Guard. He served as a gun truck commander, assisting in more than 270 convoy security escort missions.
We didn't think of it as an occupation, but we were going there to do whatever we needed to win, whatever that would end up being ... a patriotic sense of, "This is what our country needed us to do, so we were going to do it and do it well."
But when we were there, it seemed like the war was over. There was just a sense that we had done all that we could possibly do, if we had done anything. [Saddam Hussein] had been located, they hadn't found any weapons of mass destruction, and they didn't believe they would ever be found. So there was a kind of a feeling of, "Why are we still here?"
We probably might have wrecked their country, but we offered to repair or do what we could, and there wasn't that feeling of "Help us." It was more, "Get out of here."
None of us could see a reason why we were still there. And it just kept going on and on.
Was it the right thing to do? Should we have been there, or should we have left sooner? Nobody really knows. The only thing we received was President [George W.] Bush saying only history will be able to tell, which kind of tells me nobody knows.
'The hardest part was re-integration'
Spencer Alexander, 24, deployed to Iraq in August 2009 as an infantryman with the Army. He stayed until July 2010.
In the end, we freed the Iraqi people from a dictator. We helped build up their infrastructure after tearing it down. We helped train their leaders, police and military so that on their own the Iraqi people have a chance at a brighter future.
Our attempts to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people may never change the contempt many Iraqi people still have for Americans, but at least during my time in Iraq I know my unit touched the lives of many people in a positive way.
But I'm afraid the bad outweighs the good. I don't know any soldiers who really have a positive view on any of it. Most guys, almost all of them reflect on how relationships went bad, and other people have been through more stuff -- lost lives and seen people killed. There's a lot of negativity.
The hardest part was re-integration. When I first got back, I was a lot more quiet. I didn't talk to people as much. I was expecting when I got back, it was going to be all happy. I used to enjoy movies and playing Xbox and now I'm just sitting around.