WASHINGTON — Think for a moment about the emotional seesaw of someone who has lost a loved one in Iraq and hears that the war is about to end.
At first, there is relief: Americans will finally stop dying in a distant desert. Then an indescribable sadness, because it comes too late.
Ami Neiberger-Miller was on a plane to Colorado filled with soldiers on the day before President Barack Obama's October announcement that all remaining troops would leave Iraq by the end of the year.
They were familiar company. She works for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, known as TAPS, which aids the families of fallen members of the military.
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The troops were on their way back from the war. They were dusty and tired. A homecoming with family and friends awaited them at the gate.
As they exited the plane, the other passengers and crew applauded. Quietly, Neiberger-Miller began to weep.
"Do you know someone in the military?" the passenger in the adjacent seat said gently.
She nodded. Her younger brother, Army Spec. Christopher Neiberger, was killed in 2007 by a roadside bomb, three days before his 22nd birthday.
"Our homecoming was a casket," she said.
The war began on the night of March 19, 2003. It was just past 9:30 in Washington, near dawn in Baghdad.
Millions watched it unfold. It was supposed to be quick, surgical and decisive.
"This will not be a campaign of half measures and we will accept no outcome but victory," President George W. Bush told the nation that night as the bombs began to fall.
But it became a slog; messier than anticipated, more costly in lives and treasure, and in possibly something deeper and more intrinsic as well.
If an iconic image of the Vietnam War was people lining up for an evacuation helicopter atop a building near the American Embassy as Saigon fell, for Iraq, among many images, it might be the disturbing photograph of a prisoner at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison.
He was standing on box in a twisted pose of crucifixion, arms outstretched, feet together. His head was covered in a dark pointed hood. His only clothing appeared to be a blanket, which hung from his shoulders. Electric wires were attached to his fingers.
It had an air of menace, like something out of a Wes Craven horror film, but also despair. You could not look away.
Somehow, it seemed that our moorings had shifted.
"It's not the defeat we got in Vietnam," said Larry Diamond, a Stanford University professor and former senior adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority, which the allies created to rule the country after the invasion. "There were real achievements in Iraq, but at considerable costs and considerable skepticism on the part of the American public as to whether it was worth it."
That question could haunt us for some time. Iraq has a fledgling democracy, but it's still torn by religious and tribal strife. It's taken nearly nine years and the price has been high: almost 4,500 Americans dead and a nearly $1 trillion unpaid bill.
The Bush administration's original projection was $60 billion, tops.
Meanwhile, the fighting in Afghanistan continues.
But Iraq, because it inexplicably shifted our purpose, and the world's support, away from avenging the 9/11 terrorist attacks, helped to usher in a period of political unease and mistrust.
And as the economy soured, anxiety grew. Being declared a hero by a patriotic public and smiling political leaders could provide little comfort.
"I come to the food pantry because I don't receive food stamps and my husband just got back from a tour overseas and is having trouble finding work," a woman in line at a Kansas City mobile food pantry said in a note to the organizers. "And, the pantry helps so much in feeding our children."
She wrote it on the back of a paper plate.
Now, as the 2012 presidential election looms, a long war of ambiguous purpose and results has led to wariness about more foreign entanglements.
"Any president is really going to think twice about one of these foreign adventures," said novelist Ward Just, whose stories can seem wistful for a time of more political clarity. "It would not be enough to say, if we don't go into Afghanistan the Taliban is going to run things. My guess is the next time that happens, some people might be entitled to say: 'So what?"'
The war has touched every part of America, from sprawling cities to remote prairie towns, where a single death can reverberate like the rumble of distant thunder.
But unlike the Vietnam War, which played in America's living rooms every night, Iraq was a bewildering, faraway drama. For a lot of Americans without a personal investment, it was simply background noise.
"You won't find anybody who says they aren't supportive of the soldiers, unlike with Vietnam," said Cindi Staats, whose website, fallen-coalition-heroes.com, is a roll call of every American fatality. "But when this war was just raging we'd have several dying a week, and no one seemed to really know unless it was a local soldier and it was local news. For people to really care, you have to get them involved. We didn't have any of that."
Staats is a 54-year-old disabled former aerospace worker from Walnut, Calif., who early on made it her mission to catalogue the war's toll. She built a website, got official casualty reports and searched for photographs. She scoured the Internet and hometown newspapers, and reached out to families.
Her tally is so exhaustive that The New York Times and PBS rely on her for their own periodic chronicles of the fatalities.
The weight of personal sacrifice that she — without fanfare — enumerates, the permanent emptiness that each of those nearly 4,500 deaths has left, can take your breath away.
Another 32,000 men and women were wounded in Iraq. Many face a lifetime of struggle.
Of the 28 Marines that retired Marine Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold, the Pentagon's top operations officer during the planning for the war, spoke to during a recent visit to Bethesda Naval Hospital, "26 had traumatic amputations, all but two had more than one amputation," he said. "Arms, legs, eyes. That's pretty tough."
Newbold, who left the service, in part, over his opposition to the invasion, regularly visits the wounded at the hospital.
Other vets bear less visible scars. Traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder became signature injuries of the war. Suicides among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan spiked.
At least 200 try to kill themselves every month, according to estimates from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Less than 10 are successful. But those are just the ones the VA knows about.
Since 2009, the agency's crisis line — 1-800-273-8255 — has received more than half a million calls.
"I think it's hard to say when a war is good thing," said Peter Richert, who was 22 and a member of the Kansas National Guard in 2007 when his leg got blown apart by a roadside bomb.
His unit was mostly from small-town Kansas. Richert was from Hillsboro, population 2,993. It was a close-knit group. In the attack, his sergeant was in the Humvee with him and was killed.
"I think (the war) was necessary," he said. "I truly believe that, being around the local people and seeing how oppressed they were. They became a people who couldn't fight for themselves. I know there's more to it, but it was definitely worth it."
At the beginning, most Americans thought so, too. Nearly three-quarters of the public approved of the war in April 2003, according to a Pew Research Center survey; now, less than half.
Iraq became "far more murky," said Brian Turner, a sergeant with the 2nd Infantry's 3rd Stryker Brigade. "There are no front lines. You don't know who might want to kill you. Psychologically, it has an effect. There's a whole nation you're living inside of and part of the population would rather kill you. Another part just wants you out."
Now the war is in its final days. Staats prays that she won't have to add any last-minute names to her website. It already contains heartache enough.
She will always remember one in particular, though. His name was Jeffrey Braun, a private first class from Stafford, Conn. He died Dec. 12, 2003, from a non-hostile gunshot wound. He was 19.
"He looked like he was 12," she said, "like he was still in middle school and should have never been uniform."
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