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Sunday, July 13, 2014

The big question: Was Iraq worth it?

Families and soldiers have mixed reactions to the legacy of the Iraq war

By RICK PLUMLEE
The Wichita Eagle

A young Marine absorbs the shock of losing four buddies in an instant.

A father turns his career upside down and becomes a social worker after his son is killed.

A mom with four young children keeps things running at home while her husband tries to help the wounded in the war.

Kansans have sacrificed for Iraq. Their bodies have been broken – 409 have been injured. And 50 have died.

Now nearly nine years of war in Iraq is ending for the United States. Only 12,000 troops remain, down from a peak of about 170,000 at the war’s height. Virtually all are expected to be gone by the end of the year, except for about 200 attached to the U.S. embassy. The end comes with a high price tag: nearly 4,500 American dead, a bill approaching $1 trillion.

Was it worth it? No one knows better than those who sacrificed in some way. Their feelings are mixed.

Bob and Karen Funcheon have lain awake at night in their Bel Aire home thinking about that question and a zillion others since their son, Army Sgt. Alex Funcheon, was killed in Iraq in 2007.

“Was it worth his sacrifice? And it was his sacrifice, not ours. We may not know for 10 or 15 years,” Bob Funcheon said. “If Iraq goes back to dictatorship, it’s not going to be worth it.

“Am I going to feel better about his death, if it’s `successful?’ No, I am not. He’s dead either way. Will I ever get to the point where I’ll say it’s worth it? At this point, I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to say that.”

Linden Blank, a Marine from Augusta who served two tours in Iraq, said, “I’ve asked myself that same question. Was it worth it? But the only ones who can answer that are the people who have died. It’s like asking yourself, `Would I be OK with dying over there and never seeing my family again?’”

Wichitan Anita Dixon is pretty sure the U.S. forces helped Iraq. Her son, Army Sgt. Evan Parker, told her so before he was killed in Iraq in 2005.

“I can only speak from experience that I heard from my son,” Dixon said. “Of course, he didn’t get the opportunity to fully understand all of it. We lost him ….

“What I do know, what he did say is that in his heart he knew he had a reason for being over there. He saw it in the faces, in the kids, in the families.”

Those who served and their loved ones have a unique perspective on the Iraq War. Here are some of their stories.

Teamwork in Iraq, at home

Capt. Jeremy Salsbury, a 33-year-old Army reservist from Wichita, served as a nurse anesthetist in Iraq for 3½ months in 2009. He worked in a mobile, 20-person surgical team that was the first to treat the most severely wounded Americans.

“It wasn’t good for us to be busy,” he said, “because that meant people were getting shot up.”

There were busy times.

Salsbury said he would put that trauma unit on par with any he has worked with in the Midwest.

“People work as a team,” he said. “You get tight. It’s not like the rest of the Army, where rank is everything. You get over titles to get the job done.”

Back home, his wife, Katie, was beyond busy with their family, which now includes five children ages 1 through 8, including 4-year-old twin boys.

“My wife is very organized,” said Salsbury, who works at Kansas Heart Hospital. “She took on a lot of burdens. She was automatically the disciplinarian, the mother and the father.”

They were high school sweethearts from Parsons, and their families live two to three hours away. But friends were quick to help out and give her an occasional break.

“Truthfully, how I handled it is my faith in Christ and the people God uses to take care of us,” Katie said. “There was continuous prayer, and we have amazing friends and support here.”

She’ll need that support again sometime in 2012, when Jeremy will be deployed to work with a trauma unit in Afghanistan. A mom or dad of young children can miss a lot in just a few months.

“I hope our efforts are appreciated by the Iraqis,” Jeremy said, “and I hope some other country doesn’t take advantage of our efforts because we don’t have a real strong presence over there.”

Going back to school

Bob Funcheon was a salesman for a processed chemicals distributorship.

And then Alex was killed on April 29, 2007, when a roadside bomb ripped through his Humvee.

After some time off, Bob returned to work. As he visited clients, he was repeatedly asked how he was doing.

“It was a constant reminder – five or six times a day for two months in a row – that Alex was dead,” he said. “These people were genuine, but it wore me out. It got to the point I didn’t want to make sales calls.”

He took a couple of months off. About that time, in June 2007, he and Karen went to Alex’s memorial at Fort Carson, Colo. The Funcheons had been told that all five people in Alex’s Humvee had been killed.

Sgt. Gerardo Medrano was badly wounded in the explosion, but he survived. He walked up to the Funcheons and said, “I was in that vehicle.”

“He had survivor’s guilt,” Funcheon said. “He had a 1,000-yard stare. He apologized to me for living. Now, these guys weren’t in a firefight. He didn’t make a mistake. The reason he lived is because everyone else absorbed the shrapnel.

“His wife and two small kids were literally 10 feet away, and yet he was apologizing for living.”

Later that day, Funcheon met other soldiers who had been wounded and were being told they couldn’t serve any longer.

“They had this look of uncertainty that impacted me,” he said.

The Fort Carson trip, combined with his experience at work, convinced him to go back to school at Wichita State University to finish an undergraduate degree and get his master’s degree in social work so he could treat soldiers with post traumatic stress disorder. He graduated in May.

Funcheon works as an outpatient counselor at Comcare, a provider of mental health services in Sedgwick County. That job doesn’t have him specifically helping soldiers with PTSD, but his volunteer work with the National Veterans Wellness and Healing Center does.

The New Mexico-based nonprofit uses a holistic approach during free, week-long retreats in Angel Fire, N.M., to help soldiers and veterans with PTSD and their immediate families. In October, Kansans brought a scaled-back weekend version of the retreat to the Rock Springs 4-H Center in the Flint Hills. Eight couples attended. Funcheon served as a counselor.

“It was very eye-opening,” he said.

Although he now makes less money with a master’s degree than he did as college dropout, he’s convinced that he’s found his calling.

“Where I’m headed, I have no idea,” Funcheon said. “But I know I want to work with soldiers and veterans suffering from PTSD. I don’t want to be an administrator. I don’t want to write a book or be a professor.

“I want to sit across the table and help people to try to normalize their lives.”

Love and war

Tech Sgt. Ashley Carpenter, a medic with the Kansas Air National Guard’s 184th Intelligence Wing who is stationed full time at McConnell Air Force Base, joined the Air Force reserve shortly after graduating from her Minnesota high school. She was looking for adventure, “something different,” she called it.

She got that and more. Military and love brought her to Kansas.

She met Derrick Tibbetts, a Kansas Air Guardsman from Liberal, in 2004 at an Air Force school in Wichita Falls, Texas. Love took hold. They later both graduated from Fort Hays State University. She switched to the Guard, hoping to make their training schedules fit closer together

But then came four deployments to Iraq – three for Tibbetts, one for Carpenter – plus a deployment for her earlier this year to Afghanistan. They were deployed together in Iraq in 2007, though. Now in the active Air Force, Tibbetts is stationed in New Mexico.

Add it all up and they have been together a total of only six months – a day here, a week there – since they became engaged 2½ years ago. They’re getting married in March.

“If we can make it through this,” said Carpenter, 26, “we can make it through anything.”

And that’s from a woman who worked in a medical compound in Iraq in 2007 that was hammered regularly by mortars. She’s not looking to leave the military, despite the hectic schedule.

“I’m a lifer,” Carpenter said. “Maybe originally it was about getting away from home, but today I’m in because the military stands for patriotism. My passion runs so much deeper after going over there. I believe in what we fight for.”

And that includes Iraq.

“We’ve done a lot to prep them over the last few years,” she said. “Americans have trained the Iraqis to function as a country by themselves. It seemed like they were really appreciative. Are they ready? I hope so.”

Doing what’s right

Linden Blank knows about sacrifice.

His twin brother, Jonathon, a Force Recon Marine, lost both legs in Afghanistan in 2010 when an improvised explosive device ripped his body apart.

More than three years earlier, Linden had been part of a Marine convoy escorting buses filled with a battalion of Iraqi soldiers when two roadside bombs exploded five minutes apart.

Four Marines were killed, six injured. One of Blank’s buddies was among the dead. All they could find were his legs. It was July 24, 2007, two months into Blank’s first tour. He had just turned 20.

His quick response to how he’s doing? “I’m fine.”

Really?

“It was a long time ago,” said Blank, now 24. “It feels like a long time ago now. You never forget your friends and the experiences you had. But you can’t let those bad memories rule your life and get the best of you. Life goes on.

“You have to do your friends’ memories justice by living a good life and doing what’s right.”

Blank is still chasing down the bad guys and helping people. He’s now a cop and firefighter for Augusta’s Public Safety Department.

He wonders about the Iraqis, though. He wonders why the Marines, not the Iraqi army, were escorting the buses that July day. The Iraqis were more familiar with that particular area around Baghdad than the Marines were.

“I think the American people have helped the Iraqis a great deal,” Blank said. “They wouldn’t be free without us. We’ve given that country a second chance. Whether they succeed or fail is up to them. I hope they succeed because we’ve sacrificed a lot of good people.”

During his second tour in 2009, he was among the Marines helping Iraqi soldiers transport ballots after a provincial election. He wonders why the Iraqi soldiers weren’t more alert.

“They were lackadaisical,” he said.

Remembering the sacrifices

Anita Dixon heads a volunteer group that’s trying to raise money to build an “Operation Freedom Memorial” in Veterans Memorial Park in downtown Wichita. It would honor Kansans who served in Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan. The names of those killed would be etched into the monument.

Since beginning 16 months ago, Dixon has raised $40,000 for the $175,000 project. The group’s web site, www.ofm-ks.com, tells of fundraising efforts and plans for the memorial.

“Donations have been very, very slow the last three or four months,” she said. “I’m trying every avenue to reach out to the community to honor the faces of the fallen.”

Pursuing the dream of the memorial does nothing to ease the pain of losing her son. But she doesn’t want to see Evan or any of the more than 80 Kansans who have died in the wars since Desert Storm be forgotten.

“This memorial is a quiet, peaceful honor of those who sacrificed their lives,” Dixon said. “It’s an opportunity to have them all in one place. This is what they did. This is what the boys from the state of Kansas did. It’s a chance to remember.”

Dixon wants to believe U.S. troops really are coming home from Iraq.

“I’m skeptical,” she said. “I hear them saying that. I want it to be true.”

She understands she doesn’t have the 30,000-foot view that generals and politicians claim to have, but she does have a mother’s heart.

“I know from my son’s heart, that he believed he was over there for a reason and doing something good,” Dixon said.

Evan was in Iraq during the first historical election. He wrote home about the good he saw that come of that, the peace of mind that it brought him.

“Whether the reason for us being there has been accomplished, I don’t know,” she said. “But I know if Evan had his choice to go back again, if that were possible, he’d do it in a heartbeat.”

Reach Rick Plumlee at 316-268-6660 or rplumlee@wichitaeagle.com.

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