For U.S. military families, Iraq war can't end short of victory

WASHINGTON — Michael Anderson can recount his son's last moments on earth down to the second.

He knows that the night before his son, Marine Cpl. Michael Anderson Jr., died in the battle for Fallujah he slept in a 17-degree room on a piece of cardboard and that he shared his blanket and iPod with a friend. He knows that on Dec. 14, 2004, his son and comrades shimmied down a rooftop to ambush a group of insurgents, opened the roof's hatch, threw in a grenade and listened for screams before heading inside.

And he knows that the bullet that hit his son pierced his fourth and fifth ribs and killed him instantly.

The Modesto, Calif., resident said he also knew that the Iraq war was working and that it must work or the deaths of his son and the more than 3,800 other members of the U.S. military would have been in vain.

"The surge is working," he said. "I sat through some briefings and investigated for myself. I've talked to the boots on the ground. My opinion is that the leaders who are trying to run this war from the comfort of their well-decorated and comfortable offices are wrong.

"This (war) is not going to be over with signing our names on a dotted line saying this is over. This is our children's children's war. This is an ongoing conflict of good versus evil and we need to put a collar around it."

As rancorous debate over the war's course rages in Washington, soldiers and military leaders in Iraq and the families of service members who've been killed in the line of duty have mixed feelings about congressional proposals to draw down troops. Anderson and others who've lost loved ones in the war have traveled to Iraq and Washington to show support for the war, efforts that aren't always welcomed.

During a recent trip to the nation's capital to meet with lawmakers, Anderson attended a weekend war protest where, he said, "we were outnumbered 100 to 1."

Emotions run high on both sides of the Iraq war debate. The strain and, at times, conflicted feelings are especially acute in places such as Fort Benning, Ga., which has contributed heavily to the war effort over the past four years.

Fort Benning's 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team is part of the 3rd Infantry Division, the so-called "tip of the spear," troops accustomed to life on the front lines of the war in Iraq. Last January, President Bush visited the tightly knit military community and shook hands with hundreds of soldiers headed overseas — many of them for their third tours of Iraq — as part of the troop buildup.

"The new strategy is not going to yield immediate results," Bush said at the time. "It's going to take a while."

But 10 months into the surge, that strategy has been mired in political debate and growing dissatisfaction from some folks back home.

Sometimes, even soldiers have their doubts.

In August, the 3rd Brigade walked and rode through a volatile region southeast of Salman Pak, about 30 miles southeast of Baghdad. While the troops saw some progress, they also faced the daily threat of roadside bombs, an unreliable Iraqi police force, the limitations of depending on Iraqis for tips and the ever-elusive enemy.

"Even though we've outstayed our welcome, in the big picture of whether we've helped or not, I know we have," Sgt. Christofer Kitto, a 23-year-old sniper from Altamont, N.Y., said at the time. "But now it's just in a state of quagmire. The U.S. time here has come and gone."

Others, such as Brig. Gen. Daniel Allyn, the XVIII Airborne Corps chief of staff at Fort Bragg, N.C., think the strategy to transition to Iraqi control is "working well." While serving as a colonel, Allyn helped lead the 3rd Brigade, also known as the Sledgehammer Brigade, in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

A complete troop withdrawal just isn't an option, said Jan Johnson of Lyerly, Ga., whose son, Army Spc. Justin Johnson, died in 2004 in combat in Iraq, days after the death of close friend and fellow Spc. Casey Sheehan.

"I think bringing troops out of there right now is really crazy," she said. "We really need troops out there to get the job done."

The two young soldiers' deaths and the emotional upheaval that those losses caused the Johnson and Sheehan families were chronicled in the book "American Mourning."

While the death of Cindy Sheehan's son motivated her to become a prominent antiwar activist, Justin's death motivated his father, Joseph, to go to Iraq to fight. Justin's brother, Sgt. Josh Johnson, serves in Afghanistan.

While the Johnsons are members of the Gold Star families — founded as Gold Star Mothers in 1928 to honor women whose sons died during wartime service — the Sheehans are founders of Gold Star Families for Peace, a group that represents people who lost family members in Iraq and oppose the war.

"The morning my wife told me that Justin had been killed I vowed to God and Justin that I would go over there and kill as many insurgents as I could," said Joseph Johnson, who served as a corporal in Georgia's Army National Guard unit, the 48th Infantry Brigade. "I had a lot of hate in my heart. That was until I met the children."

Johnson said the children in northern and eastern Baghdad had helped him understand the larger purpose of the war effort.

"We went to schools and clinics, and every time we showed up kids would come running," he said. "We'd give them anything we had: candies, school supplies and soccer balls."

Winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people is no small task, and some military leaders, soldiers and family members worry that the job will become more difficult when fewer U.S. troops are there.

"We are certainly concerned about the welfare of the good Iraqi people in our area of operations," said Lt. Col. Ryan Kuhn, the deputy commander of the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team in Iraq. "The vast majority of the Iraqis in our area are good people that want the same thing that we want: an opportunity to live in peace, send their kids to school and earn a decent day's pay. That being said, all we can focus on right now is the mission at hand."

(Chris Collins of The Fresno Bee, who reported from Salman Pak, Iraq, in August, contributed to this report.)