Out of Iraq

Guest post by Robert N. McLay, M.D., Ph.D.

Welcome back, vets . . . I hope that you really make it home, not just physically, but that you settle into all the happiness and peace that you have earned.

So as many of you know, the war ended on a Thursday. This was a little surreal because even though I work on a military base and am surrounded by Iraq War veterans, I could pretty much have missed it. On the 15th of December, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta presided over a flag-lowering ceremony in Baghdad that formally marked the end of U.S. military activities in Iraq.

The Monday after the ceremony, I went looking for the video of it online, but by then, news of the death of Kim Jong Il and the release of a trailer for The Dark Knight Rises had already filled the top spots on Google News. The Dark Knight Rises looks awesome, by the way. The events in Baghdad probably made poor television.

I did find a link to it eventually, even if I had to reload three times and sit through an annoying commercial about banking to see it. For that reason, I’ll skip embedding the link here. Panetta’s speech was given on a crudely constructed plywood stage, and his speech was simple, saying what needed to be said but little more. “The cost was high.”

The troops watching were dressed in fatigues–even General Austin, who probably could have cut a fine figure decked out in his dress uniform with all the medals from this very long war. It was as all things in Iraq have been for some time now: dusty, uncomfortable, and with a hint of danger lurking, but no fireworks big enough to catch the world’s attention. The celebration in Times Square at the end of World War II, it was not.

I’m not really upset that the U.S. withdrawal was met with so little fanfare. Much better that it be a boring series of speeches than film of helicopters evacuating embassies or news of an atomic bomb. I’m happy to put it behind me. But 4,474 service members are sure never to be so lucky. Countless others came home, but we don’t really know what their future will be. As a psychiatrist, I guess it gives me job security. I could easily spend my whole career finding these invisibly wounded men and women and doing what we can for them. I hope I’m out of this work earlier than I expect, but I’m not holding my breath.

I guess we may have heard this before, with “Mission Accomplished” and “the end of U.S. combat operations in Iraq.” The news, though, missed Army Specialist David Hickman, who was last on that list of 4,474.  I really hope that the news means something this time.

Welcome back, vets. Take a break. Thank you for saving my sorry ass while I was over there, and for going again so that I and others didn’t have to. I hope that you really make it home, not just physically, but that you settle into all the happiness and peace that you have earned.

And let’s all pray that there is a similar, boring, and difficult-to-find news story about Afghanistan sometime soon.


Robert N. McLay, M.D., Ph.D., is a psychiatrist and research director with the Naval Medical Center San Diego. He came on active duty in the United States Navy in 2001 and shortly after the start of the war in Afghanistan became primary investigator on two Navy programs involving virtual reality treatment for PTSD. His book, At War with PTSD: Battling Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with Virtual Reality, will be available from JHU Press in April 2011.