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Local veterans reflect on Iraq War 20 years after it started

GILLETTE – March 20. For most, it’s not a date that lives in infamy. This year, it came and went without much fanfare.

But Monday marked the 20th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War.

In February of 2003, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told the United Nations Security Council that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and chemical weapons, and that he would use them against neighboring countries and his own people.

Less than 18 months earlier, the U.S. had invaded Afghanistan as a result of the 9/11 attacks.

On March 20, 2003, the first of 160,000 U.S. troops entered Iraq, one day after U.S. planes and warships hit Iraq with missiles. By April 9, the U.S. had captured Baghdad, the capital of Iraq.

Saddam Hussein was captured in December of that year, but the war was far from over. The troops had a presence in Iraq up until the end of 2011. More than 4,400 American soldiers died. It’s unknown how many civilians died, but estimates are in the hundreds of thousands.

Denton Knapp, who was a colonel in the U.S. Army at the time, remembers March 20 very well. He had spent the previous six months training in Kuwait with his brigade.

“The first time being shot at, it made you think about why you’re there,” he said.

David Cox, who was a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army at the time, recalled loading up battle tanks and gun tracks onto Heavy Equipment Transporter Systems, or HETS, while south of Baghdad.

“They raced the HETS north at 70 plus miles an hour, it was insane,” he said.

Knapp had joined the Army in 1987, but 2003 was the first time he saw combat. A lot of his early training was in preparation to fight the Soviet Union. The tactics in the Iraq War were more akin to what was seen in the Vietnam War, he said.

“It’s one thing to see an enemy, aim and shoot and know they’re going to shoot back,” he said. “It’s another thing to not know when you’re going to blow up.”

Cox recalled a lieutenant watching an Israeli Merkava tank getting taken out by an IED, saying something to the effect of, “that’ll never happen here, we’ve got Abrams (tanks).”

“I said, ‘Sir, it’s going to be here any day. Just a few days later, they had a stack of mines right outside of our gate they buried right in front of our guard without even knowing it, and they blew the corner off his tank,” Cox said.

Cox described the experience on the battlefield as “surreal.”

“It’s almost like it was a really bad B-movie set where you can see the wires and the splinters and everything, and then somebody dies, or you start shooting,” he said. “It was nuts.”

Knapp recalled being on the lookout for any signs of chemical weapons or weapons of mass destruction. One time they found white powder and reported it, and it ended up being foot powder.

Jon Rychecky joined the Wyoming National Guard in 1991, and his brother Tim joined in 1997. Both graduates of Campbell County High School, “we didn’t get in because of 9/11 or the patriotic aspect a lot of people were getting in,” Tim said. “We got in because we wanted to serve.”

Ever since 9/11, Tim and Jon were expecting to be deployed, but they just didn’t know when. They got the call two days before Christmas 2003 that they would be going over, much to the dismay of their mother, who thought she was losing her sons.

“We’re going to be fine,” Tim recalled telling his mom. “We’ve trained for this, this is what we enlisted for.”

They arrived Feb. 24, 2004, providing security for the Iraqi government and helping train the Iraqi police. They had started out in field artillery but were then trained as military police.

“It was a lot of chaos,” Tim said.

From trying to establish a new government to keeping the peace to trying to find Saddam Hussein, there were a lot of moving parts, Tim said. And the rules changed from neighborhood to neighborhood, depending on what street or block you were on.

“We went in to go help them, but we didn’t realize that it was going to be an actual occupation,” Jon said.

He said that when he was training the Iraqi police, he realized that this would last longer than he first thought.

“They really show no interest. It’s not that they were bad people,” Jon said. “They were so used to the structure before. I think they were ill-prepared.”

The structure for a successful transition was not in place. Cox said there were junior officers who were made into adjunct mayors and city council members because there was no one else to fill those roles.

While there was a bit of a culture clash, Jon said he learned to just accept things and go with the flow, respecting the culture and not trying to impose “our Western values or expectations on them.”

During his three tours in Iraq, Cox watched as the development of IEDs progressed, going “from something the size of a Coke can to something that can shatter an Abrams tank like glass.” Many soldiers lost their lives from these IEDs.

“We had a memorial service almost weekly. You kind of go numb after a while,” Knapp said. “You kind of come to peace with yourself too. The minute you leave the gate, that could be your day.”

Cox said that he came to fear one thing above all else, and that was dying on the toilet.

“I remember sitting in a porta-potty in Taji and 16 mm mortar rounds were splashing gravel up on the side. I said, ‘Not here. Anywhere else but this place,’” he said. “I was the only idiot wearing body armor on the can.”

Cox did three tours in Iraq, with the final one being in 2008 and 2009. Every time he came back to the states, he had to adjust to an American culture that had moved on without him.

“With the vast amount of cultural change at home that happened, you feel detached,” he said.

And every time he came back to Iraq, he had to adjust to the changing war, which was its own entity.

“The things you knew quickly became outdated and you had to adapt. You get into that mode of thinking and it’s hard to detach from it when you get home,” Cox said.

Jon has had to keep himself busy ever since coming back from Iraq.

“When I got out, I worked 16 hours a day to deal with the lack of being over there,” he said.

Since then, he’s earned associate’s degrees in psychology and human services to better understand third world countries. He also got his addiction practitioner certificate after seeing friends of his who struggled with substance abuse after coming home from the war.

And he’s currently working toward his bachelor’s degree in social work, with an end goal of helping veterans navigate the Veterans Administration system.

Some days, Cox is taken back to his days in Iraq.

“If I think about it, I look out at the brown hills around here, and if it’s hot and dusty, it can take me back,” he said.

There was no parade for the soldiers coming back from Iraq, Knapp said. But he remembered that no matter what time of day or what airport they were at, the Vietnam War veterans were always there to welcome them home.

Looking back on it now, Knapp said invading Iraq was the best decision at the time.

“I think our leadership made decisions the best they could with the information at hand,” he said. “As soldiers, we followed orders.”

No weapons of mass destruction were ever found. Powell later said the intelligence that he’d received on Saddam Hussein having these weapons was incorrect.

In a 2005 ABC interview, Powell said “there were some people in the intelligence community who knew at that time that some of these sources were not good, and shouldn’t be relied upon, and they didn’t speak up. That devastated me.”

Tim said momentum started out great, but as the years went on, the court of public opinion shifted, and the American people wondered why the U.S. was fighting this war.

“A couple years into it, 2006 or 2007, they kind of lost focus,” he said. “A lot of (soldiers) didn’t know why they were there.”

“Was it worth going in? If you’d seen the people and how they reacted to us … It was worth it to remove (Saddam Hussein) from his leadership,” Knapp said.

For Tim, the Iraq War was a task that the U.S. left unfinished.

“We went in with the greatest of intentions, but we really weren’t able to accomplish the mission for whatever reason,” he said. “We didn’t get a chance to finish the job.”

This story was published on March 25, 2023.

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