The last American combat soldier quietly left Iraq Sunday, crossing the border into Kuwait with little fanfare. Operation Iraqi Freedom began in March of 2003. My daughter was a junior in high school and a student in my AP U.S. history class. I still remember the spirited debate among members of her class as to whether we, the people of the United States, were doing the right thing by invading a country, in response to the attack on our nation by Muslim terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001, to which no direct connection with that attack had been proven.
I quite distinctly remember one young lady commenting, "I don't think George Bush can make peace by waging war," to which another young man responded, "Speaking purely theoretically, I don't think George Bush is interested in making peace; I think he is interested in killing bad guys."
Since that March day, almost nine years ago, my own daughter has graduated from high school and college and has, in fact, earned a doctorate degree and is pursuing a quite successful professional career. Most of her classmates and friends have experienced similar success. Many have married and started families. Some are still living in the area. Most have moved on.
During that time, while Jamie and her friends have been enjoying their life and liberty and pursuing happiness, nearly 1.5 million men and women have put their lives on hold to fight to protect the rights and safety of 300 million of us at home and to liberate the entire population of Iraq from the hand of an evil dictator and create for them a better world and a better hope for the future. Many, if not most, went back to Iraq a second and even third time and almost 4,500 of them did not make it home alive.
As I watched the news coverage Sunday morning about the end of the war, a lot of random thoughts were fighting for space in my mind. I thought about the political debate leading up to the initial invasion. It went on for almost seven months and centered on whether former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had secured weapons of mass destruction that he could use against our nation. Our military intelligence insisted that he had.
When we finally got boots on the ground in Iraq we didn't find hard evidence of such weapons, unless you call the graves of almost 100,000 Kurds and almost another 100,000 Shiites hard evidence, leading George W. Bush's detractors to rail against the president and accuse him of "lying" about the whole thing. I would suspect that a man of Saddam Hussein's means and clout in that troubled region could have moved a lot of evidence in seven months.
I thought about Diego Rincon -- the former Salem High School thespian -- who was one of the very first casualties of the war. If I live another hundred years, I will not forget walking into the funeral home and encountering his flag-draped coffin and his heartbroken family. Such a promising life snuffed out so soon.
I thought about Jessica Lynch, the West Virginia private who was captured by the enemy and later rescued, becoming one of the first heroes of a war that would drag on too long. I thought about all the local families who wrung their hands and prayed for a year or more at a time while loved ones served halfway around the world.
I thought about my Texas A&M friend, Paul Fleming, who served three different one-year tours while his brave wife, Laura, stayed home with the stair-steps that are the Fleming children.
I thought about Noah Harris, the former UGA cheerleader who carried Beanie Babies around in his haversack for the children of Iraq and laid his young and promising life on the altar of freedom.
I thought about the Sunday morning that I awakened to the news that the Butcher of Baghdad had been captured -- hiding in a hole like the low life vermin he was -- by an American soldier, and I thought about the December day that I watched with guilty pleasure as he was led to the gallows.
I thought about my good friend Mike Beshiri who spent two Christmases and his 60th birthday at war, long after his days as a warrior should have passed.
I thought about the bumper sticker a soldier gave me that read, "War never solved anything, except ending slavery, fascism, communism and Baathism," and I wondered what, exactly, we as a nation accomplished in Iraq over the past nine years.
I know that we liberated the Iraqi people from a brutal dictator. I know that we have helped instill a democratic government in that nation and helped provide the people of Iraq with more schools, hospitals and freedom than they have ever known.
Have we kept America safer? Someone smarter than me will have to answer that question. Will the democracy last? I hope and pray that it does. Will the people of Iraq make sure that Diego Rincon and Noah Harris and the 4,500 other Americans who sacrificed their lives on their behalf make the most of the gift they have been given?
I pray they do. Lord, I truly pray that they do.
Darrell Huckaby is a local educator and author. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For past columns, visit www.rockdalecitizen.com or www.newtoncitizen.com.