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Iraq turmoil upsets those with ties to Operation Iraqi Freedom

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Published:   |   Updated: June 13, 2014 at 09:01 PM

Mike Jernigan can't watch fighters from an al-Qaida splinter group push closer to Baghdad.

It's not that he is trying to avoid the images.

But on Aug. 22, 2004, while a squad leader with Company E 2nd Battalion 2nd Marine Regiment, Jernigan was severely wounded by an improvised explosive device in Mahmudiyah, Iraq. He suffered the loss of both eyes, a traumatic brain injury, his right hand was severely wounded and he still has limited movement. His left knee was torn open by a piece of shrapnel and he suffers post traumatic stress disorder.

“I think it is truly sad that Iraqi people can't fight for themselves,” says Jernigan, a St. Petersburg native who graduated from St. Petersburg High School and the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. “I really question the efficiency of the Iraq government and the loyalty of the people to their own nation. I sacrificed a lot on behalf of the Iraqi people.”

Friday afternoon, President Barack Obama made a short statement saying he was evaluating the next step for the U.S. as the al-Qaida splinter group, Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), has captured several Iraqi cities and is threatening that nation's capital. While Obama was ruling out putting troops back into Iraq, where nearly 4,500 U.S. troops were killed between March 2003 and the end of operations there in December 2011, other military options are being considered. But nothing will work, the President said, unless the Iraqi government takes action.

Like others with local ties who either served in Iraq, helped plan war efforts or saw a loved one badly injured by the fighting there, Jernigan says there is little the U.S. can or should do about the ongoing carnage. , Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), has routed an Iraqi military that has largely chosen to strip off their uniforms and flee rather than fight.

“I don't think anything should be done,” says Jernigan, now living in Dallas. “Do you think it is a great idea to sacrifice more American lives to people who have proven they can't take care of themselves? I don't think we should put any more American lives in danger.”

“It is pretty sad and disheartening given all the effort” that went into Operation Iraqi Freedom, says retired admiral William Fallon, who ran Centcom from March 2007 to March 2008.

“At some point, I think (the Iraqi military is) going to have to dig in take a stand,” says Fallon, quick to point out that he has no first-hand knowledge of the situation on the ground.

Fallon says that ideally, the U.S. would have had a larger presence in Iraq after U.S. troops left on Dec. 15, 2011. But because Obama and Iraqi president Nouri al-Maliki failed to come to a mutual security agreement, that left behind a small presence in an effort led by the State Department.

Fallon says he would have preferred a more robust force to better train up the Iraqis.

“That is something we really wanted to have in place from the day we started to draw down,” says Fallon, who assumed command of Centcom as the surge of 30,000 troops into Iraq, ordered by then-President George W. Bush in January, 2007, was getting under way. “But that did not happen. Now it is kind of a scramble.”

Fallon says does not see the U.S. “putting troops back in there.”

Even airstrikes, he says, will be challenging.

“It opens up other issues,” he says. “We don't have any guys on the ground to do close air support. We can't do strategic bombardment. You can see what just happened in Afghanistan (where five U.S. troops were killed in what the Pentagon says is likely a friendly fire incident) that even with our own guys on the ground, sorting out who is who on the ground is very, very difficult.”

Adding to the complexity is that in Samarra, site of the greatest Iraqi resistance, reports show that the Iranian Qods Force is helping their Shiite ally al-Maliki.

“That is all very problematic,” says Fallon, “The real issue is that Iraqi government has to stand up and start doing something politically in my opinion. They have to include the Sunnis. That's part of the problem.”

The intractability of the religious nature of the warfare is a tremendous problem, says Frank Wuco, who served as the deputy director of intelligence for U.S. Special Operations Command Central from 2001 to 2004 and helped plan war efforts in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Though a big concern for the U.S. is the spillover of hostilities from Syria into Iraq, making the region an even bigger threat to the U.S. homeland, the fight is far more than a geopolitical land grab, says Wuco. He is now chief executive officer of the Tampa-based Red Mind Solutions Inc., which provide data mapping, analytical and visualization software based on space and defense technologies.

One of the primary goals of ISIL, a Sunni organization, “is reestablishing the Caliphate,” says Wuco. “They view Baghdad as the rightful seat of power for the Caliphate, harkening back to the golden era of Islam.”

The battle against the government of al-Maliki, a Shiite, “runs a lot deeper than Sunnis hate Shia, which is true,” says Wuco. “There is an awful lot of calculated historical righteousness and fulfillment. It's part of what they are fighting for globally.”

For the U.S., there are few military options, says Wuco.

“As cold-hearted as this sounds, we can either let them fight their war, let the conflict play out and then we have an advantage or we can go in heavy on the ground and stop the violence and then we do what John McCain said we would probably do, be there 50 or 100 years and it becomes Korea,” says Wuco.

And that, he says, is not a palatable option.

“These aren't the Germans or Japanese,” he says. “They don't do defeat. There will be no surrender on deck of USS Missouri. They'll kill themselves before they'd do that. They would just wait until the Americans left, give it a couple of years until they know the American people and government have no will to recommit themselves.”

Time, says Wuco, “is on their side. It is always on their side. They are convinced this is all part of unifying the physical and spiritual worlds, and for us to put it in geopolitical terms, we are missing the target and putting a Band-aid on a sucking chest wound.”

Unlike Wuco, Cyd Deathe says she doesn't understand the reasons for the turmoil in Iraq.

But she is “heartbroken, absolutely heartbroken.”

The executive director of the Tampa Area Marine Parent Association, Deathe is also the mother of a badly wounded Marine who was so traumatized by his experience in Iraq that she doesn't even want to mention his name.

He received a Purple Heart after being wounded in Ramadi in 2006, a battle in which he described “his blood flowing and pooling beneath his machine gun while he kept firing and fighting,” says Deathe.

“I really get upset” by the news of ISIL's advance across Iraq, says Deathe. “I am really upset about the kids I personally know that we lost. I never ever want to be derogatory to our guys' service, but I shake my head and ask 'what was it all for? What was the point? I don't understand it.'”

Knowing that Iraqi troops are running away while her son was wounded over there “is very, very frustrating,” says Deathe. “To see the pictures of (ISIL forces) in the Humvees really knotted my stomach yesterday. I had to ask people to quit asking me about it. This has people so torn up.”

Deathe says she will leave the analysis of the situation to others.

“All I know is I sent a kid over who did not come home the same,” she says. “I watched hundreds of friends of mine who sent their kids who didn't come home or had physical or mental injuries...Why the heck would we go back? Quit being the police of the world.”

haltman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7629

@haltman

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