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Iraq, through the lens of 2 Rhode Island veterans

Mike Previty in Baghdad in April 2003. (Mike Previty)

It was quite a long time ago — the opening hours of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Michael Previty rode into the country from Kuwait during the first chapter of what would turn into a long and costly war.

Previty, an Army corporal, commanded a tracked medical transport in a column of tanks and troop carriers that barreled north through the desert in near-zero visibility conditions.

The inky blackness, the blinding dust, the risk of taking a wrong turn are what Previty, a former medic, says he remembers best after 15 years. His vivid memory of the frustrating murkiness on that night is the starting point for the story he’s about to share, which offers reflections on recent warfare in Iraq and the bloodshed in neighboring Syria this year.

Trying to see it all clearly is like driving through a desert in clouds of dust on a moonless night. The ongoing conflict incorporates sectarian feuds between Shia and Sunni Muslims, Kurds and Turks; fighting between Syrian nationalists led by a tyrant, Bashar Assad; radical jihadists from the Islamic State and Al Qaeda; and, great power jockeying between the United States and Russia.

The outcomes of earlier American wars were easier to size up.

Previty, who won a Bronze Star with a “V” for valor, would like to feel the kind of satisfaction that some World War II veterans felt as they watched Germany and Japan rebuild and grow into healthy prosperous democracies.

“It’s disheartening to say the least that it’s turned into a hornet’s nest over there,” says the 35-year-old South Kingstown veteran who agrees that the situations in Iraq and particularly Syria are “extremely dissatisfying.”

“We’re sitting there,” says Previty, “we’re not doing anything about it. It’s hard to sit there and watch it.”

U.S. troops are in parts of Syria. Syrian Kurdish forces, who are U.S. allies, are under assault from Turkey, also a U.S. ally in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The Islamic State, which pillaged huge swaths Iraq for years, is nearly defeated, but not dead. The Assad regime, supported by the Russian military, continues to bomb and starve civilian populations.

Previty emphasizes that he doesn’t know if a more forceful U.S. military response is the answer. He says he wants the U.S. to apply more vigorous — and more visible — diplomatic pressure on Russia.

For Previty, the outcome of the war in Syria has bearing on the stability of Iraq, which cost the sacrifice of Americans who bled under his care in battle. Dealing with the situation is worth effort and attention, he says.

“We need to do something,” he says. “We need to follow through, we need to not just sit back and let it all go to hell. We need to do something, and I don’t know what that is but something needs to be done.”

Previty’s observations come after two tours in Iraq, a service stint of about five months during the initial invasion and a yearlong stint in 2004 and 2005.

During the 2003 invasion, he was with the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division when troops met heavy resistance in the city of Karbala.

Previty says he and his team of medics from the 41st Infantry Division were largely responsible for evacuating 22 casualties, including a soldier who died.

After his service, Previty earned a bachelor’s degree in risk management from Johnson & Wales University. He serves in the Providence Emergency Management Agency, where he is a coordinator.

He also worked at Operation Stand Down. Through that work, he eventually met Tyrone Smith, another thoughtful, college-educated 35-year-old veteran who wants a better outcome in Iraq.

“There’s an overwhelming sense of being a cheerleader in me,” says Smith. “I want the best for them. I want the best for the country.”

A graduate of Brown University, Smith is transitioning from six months working in the office of U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse to a position at Operation Stand Down.

He emphasizes that he isn’t speaking on behalf of Whitehouse when he reflects on the situation in Iraq and Syria and on his own tour in Iraq at the rank of Army specialist in late 2006, 2007 and early 2008.

Smith, a South Carolina native who now lives in East Providence, served in Iraq during a period of full-blown sectarian warfare between Shia and Sunni Muslims.

He says he believes U.S. troops could have stabilized Iraq much sooner, saving far more Iraqi and American lives, if they had more quickly adopted counter-insurgency strategies introduced by U.S. Army General David Petraeus late in the conflict, which brought U.S. troops off their bases to establish a presence in the communities.

At the height of the civil war, Smith was part of a contingent that provided security for a colonel as he moved about the battle space, trying to establish relationships with locals. The job gave him a chance to interact with Iraqis.

“They want the ability,” he says, “to experience liberties, to pray, to worship, to take care of their families and work and stabilize their government and to just lead … free lives … They deserve a life without turmoil.”


© 2018 The Providence Journal (Providence, R.I.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.