Final Briefing from Baghdad

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-- DoD photo (tweaked a bit)

Three thousand, one hundred and eight-five days after U.S. forces invaded Iraq, the U.S. military held what is expected to be its final formal press briefing from Baghdad on Wednesday. “With less than one month remaining, we are poised to complete our mission,” said Lieutenant General Frank Helmick, the deputy commander for operations in Iraq, 3,142 days after President Bush landed on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln under a banner proclaiming Mission Accomplished.

Helmick said he wanted to tell the American people about their troops, about the readiness of the Iraqi forces to handle their own security, “and number three: has this war in Iraq been worth the sacrifice by the United States?”

He said it was:

That is a personal question that, if you ask a number of soldiers that have served here, a number of Marines that have served here, any member of the service that have served here or the Iraqis, for example, you may get a different answer. But from where I sit, I have to say it was.

We enabled and facilitated elections. We’ve built a military. Violence in Iraq is at an all-time low. In 2007, as I mentioned, at the height, we had 1,600 attacks a week in this country against the United States, against Iraqi security forces and against the Iraqis themselves. Today we have less than 50 attacks per week. And we provided the Iraqis an opportunity for a sovereign country to choose their way ahead.

And I just have to cite two other reasons why I think it has been worth it. And one is — when I was back at Fort Bragg, I had an opportunity to attend some funerals for soldiers that have died in Iraq, who were killed in action.

And I went to one funeral, and the father whose son had been killed in Iraq came up to me and said:  “General, thank you.” And I thought he was thanking me for representing the chief of staff of the Army at the ceremony, but that wasn’t the case. Because I asked him why was he thanking me, and he said: “Thank you, because you allowed my son to do what he loved to do, and that was to be a soldier.”

Another example of why it’s been worth it for me is, there is a program called Operation New Exit, where we bring a select group of service members back to Iraq who had to be evacuated because of injuries. And till the day I die — there is a Marine who was on one of those events that came back here — Operation New Exit program, that came back here — a double amputee, and he was blind.  And he said to me: “General, I had to come back here. I had to leave here and get closure in a proper way because, you know, General, I wouldn’t do anything differently.”

So for those reasons, I have to say for me this has been a worthy endeavor.

Helmick has invested a lot in Iraq. Much of the last decade of his career has been spent there. He was serving as a one-star assistant division commander of the 101st Airborne during the war’s opening months. While on that tour he commanded the forces that cornered and killed Saddam Hussein’s two sons, Qusay and Uday, in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. Five years later, as a two-star general, he escaped serious injury when a suicide car bomber attacked his Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle in Mosul during his tour training the Iraqi military.

But whether or not the gains that have cost 4,500 American lives and nearly $1 trillion will last is another matter. As the U.S. military leaves, will the uneasy peace in Iraq prevail? “I wish I knew the answer to that question,” Helmick said. “We really don’t know what’s going to happen. But we do know this:  we do know that we have done everything we can in the time that we have been here for the Iraqi security forces to make sure that they have a credible security force to provide for the internal security of their country.”