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Iraq War's legacy

Matt Jensen talks with fellow veteran Ret. U.S. Navy seaman Stephen Wilson of Santa Rosa, at the Santa Rosa VA clinic Friday. Jensen, who served three tours with the Marines in Iraq, helps other vets cope with PTSD, something that Jensen himself deals with in his own life.

KENT PORTER / The Press Democrat
Published: Saturday, March 16, 2013 at 8:20 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, March 17, 2013 at 9:00 a.m.

Sarah Renay Kynoch sees the Iraq war every time she looks at her 7-year-old daughter Savannah.

“She looks just like him and acts exactly like him,” Kynoch said.

Like her father, Army Cpl. Joshua Kynoch, little Savannah brazenly snatches the last appetizer on a restaurant plate, an act some people might see as a social faux pas.

But Savannah didn't learn it from her dad, who returned to Iraq combat when she was 3days old.

Kynoch, a 23-year-old Santa Rosa native, died six months later when a bomb went off beneath his Bradley Fighting Vehicle on Oct.1, 2005. He was due home from his second combat tour in 13 weeks.

Kynoch was the sixth resident from Sonoma, Mendocino or Lake counties to die in Iraq, and six more would perish before America's combat role and the attendant drumbeat of casualties ended in December 2011.

The war that began 10 years ago Tuesday — on March 19, 2003 — has taken 4,486 American lives and left more than 32,000 service members wounded, many with long-term injuries.

Financially, the war has tapped $1.7 trillion from the U.S. Treasury to date, with future health and disability payments to veterans of $590billion, according to Brown University's Costs of War Project. The estimate includes, among other things, $770 billion in direct Department of Defense war appropriations, $402 billion in associated defense costs, $246billion in Homeland Security costs and $139 billion in debt interest.

Sarah Kynoch and others who lost a loved one recall the solace they gained when flag-waving crowds turned out in North Bay communities to salute the fallen troops and hundreds attended the funerals with rifle salutes and sounding of taps.

But some who still mourn and others who fought on hot Iraqi sand also say the war — politically divisive from its start — is fading from the nation's memory.

“I just think everybody's sick of it,” said Kynoch, 31, who lives in Santa Rosa with Savannah, a second-grader, her fiance, Jose Mendez, and their daughter, Alexis, 4.

Kynoch said she cries less often, seven years after her loss, but suffers jolts of anxiety that come upon her for no apparent reason, which she considers a form of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Savannah calls Mendez “Dad,” but also longs to know her father, who joined the Army in the wake of the Sept.11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“I tell her he's in heaven looking down at us and he loves us,” Kynoch said. “She says she wishes he was hugging her.”

Contemplating the war's 10th anniversary, Kynoch said she remains “proud of everybody who signed up and knew they might not come back.”

Her husband enlisted “because he wanted to protect us and fight for people's freedom,” she said.

Pride, commitment and courage are words veterans and family members apply to the Iraq War, but they are mixed, for some, with doubts about what it accomplished and how long the sacrifices will be remembered.

“We've already been forgotten,” said Matthew Jensen of Santa Rosa, a 30-year-old former Marine who served three tours in Iraq.

The flags and cheers that greeted soldiers when they were “coming back in coffins,” Jensen said, have since diminished as veterans cope with physical and psychological damage, unemployment and high rates of suicide.

Another example of the gap between Iraq veterans and the public, Jensen said, was the sex scandal that brought down David Petraeus, the former four-star general who once commanded coalition forces in Iraq.

“To me, Gen. Petraeus is a hero,” Jensen said. “He changed that war. He saved a lot of lives. What he did in his own time, I don't care. None of us do.”

Iraq remains torn by sectarian violence — the Iraq Body Count reported 4,570 civilian deaths there last year — and the United States is still threatened by terrorism that Jensen attributes to angry, impoverished Muslims, not from the mainstream of that faith.

The war did some good, he believes, in setting the stage for the Arab Spring, the wave of uprisings starting in late 2010 that ousted rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

Jensen, who suffers from PTSD and has become an advocate for others who need help, said veterans must stick together now as they did on the battlefield.

“We know what we did and we're proud of what we did,” he said. “It's important not to forget our own brothers and sisters.”

Jay Ottolini of Santa Rosa said the war is history for most people, and turned out as badly as Vietnam did a generation ago.

“I think it was a waste,” said Ottolini, 59. “We didn't succeed at what we wanted to do.”

His brother, Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Michael Ottolini, 45, of Sebastopol, was killed by a roadside bomb Nov. 10, 2004, leaving behind a wife and two grown children.

“I was proud that he answered the country's call,” Ottolini said.

His brother, who had joined the Guard's Santa Rosa-based 579th Engineer Battalion right out of high school, was one of the unit's senior members, the one who played Santa Claus at battalion Christmas parties.

When the 579th was ordered to Iraq, Michael Ottolini, a hay truck driver, had to go along to watch out for the younger soldiers he'd helped train, his brother said.

But Jay Ottolini said he was concerned by the nationwide call-up of older Reserve and Guard soldiers to meet the manpower needs for the Iraqi invasion.

“I didn't like it,” said Ottolini, who served in the Air Force during the Vietnam era.

The war turned into a grinding struggle with insurgents who were hard to distinguish from the civilian population, and a similar effort in Afghanistan hasn't fared any better, he said.

The lesson, Ottolini said, is that the Middle East, a region of deep-seated religious conflict and territorial disputes, does not lend itself to solutions by military force.

Steve Countouriotis of Petaluma, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who served two tours in Afghanistan and two in Iraq as a Blackhawk helicopter pilot, said Iraq is “fading into history” for most people.

Countouriotis, 61, said he understands how economic woes have dimmed memories of the war that ousted Saddam Hussein but became a prolonged bloodletting for all sides. One of his neighbors lost his job, another his house.

But Countouriotis said his lasting image of the war is a young female soldier, wearing an Army-issue T-shirt and shorts, a prosthetic leg below her right knee and carrying her rifle on her way to a base exchange at Camp Striker in Baghdad in 2008.

One word came to mind, he said: “Courage.”

He expressed his thanks to the amputee still serving in a combat zone, and the soldier said: “Yes, sir. I'm glad to be back in the fight.”

Countouriotis, now chief of emergency services at the Coast Guard's Two Rock Training Center, said it was “an honor and privilege” to serve with so many brave men and women.

America gave the people of Iraq the “tools for governance” and they are now living in a nation that abides by the rule of law, he said. Given the continuing ongoing sectarian violence, that is not a universally accepted assessment.

Mary Shea of Sonoma said she cried at the sight of Iraqi citizens displaying their purple-inked fingers after voting in parliamentary elections in 2010.

“I thought, 'Tim, if you could only see this,'” she said.

Her son, Army Ranger Cpl. Timothy Shea, 22, was killed by a roadside bomb on Aug. 25, 2005. More than 600 people attended his Catholic funeral Mass, which included tributes to his charm as a young man and tenacity as a soldier in an elite Army unit.

Mary Shea, a community college Spanish professor, said her son's five tours in Iraq were a complete mystery to her, owing to the tight security concerning Ranger missions.

“He would just disappear,” she said, leaving with the words “I'm going to work, mom.”

Not knowing even his whereabouts was agony for Shea and her husband, William, an attorney. She took some consolation from learning he had died near Iraq's border with Syria, where U.S. forces launched a major operation against foreign fighters in 2005.

“My son died fighting al-Qaida,” she said. “His mission had a purpose.”

Still, Shea is reluctant to draw conclusions about the war, saying there are “no easy answers” and the true verdict on the Iraq War may not be known for 30 years.

“We try to stay focused on our son and the gift he was to us,” she said.

Military families are the “true 1 percent,” Shea said, referring to the rough percentage of the U.S. population serving in the all-volunteer armed forces. “One percent is carrying the burden.”

Troops who've served multiple tours over the past decade are worn down, Shea said, suggesting the draft should be restored to boost manpower and spread the obligation to serve.

The obligations of citizenship, she said, should include “voting, paying taxes and going to war when called upon.”

Herb Williams of Santa Rosa rejected the notion that Iraq is a forgotten war, recalling the crowd of 1,000 people who turned out for his son's funeral at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts and more recently the warm welcome for soldiers who have come home alive.

Army Staff Sgt. Jesse Williams, 25, was killed by a sniper's bullet on April 8, 2007, the first of three local men who died in Iraq in a span of about five weeks.

Williams, an Eagle Scout, left behind his wife, Sonya, and their daughter, Amaya, whose footprint was tattooed on his chest.

Herb Williams, a political consultant, said the war's anniversary makes him think of the other local Gold Star families who have borne their sorrows — and give thanks no one has joined their ranks in more than a year.

The Iraq War's outcome has fallen short of the nation's hopes, but it did remove a violent dictator and ultimately led to the killing of Osama bin Laden, Williams said.

He recalled his son's comment, after his first Iraq tour in 2003-04, that he believed the U.S. had a clear purpose in securing the country. But during his second tour in 2006, the soldier said it seemed to have changed to a mission of “keeping one group from fighting another group.”

The war may have lasted too long, Herb Williams said, but he makes no apologies for it, nor holds any regrets other than his personal loss.

“My son was a volunteer,” he said. “I am proud of what he did; what they all did.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.

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