Sonoma County veterans watching from afar as Iraq gains slip away

  • Iraq veteran Matt Jensen, left, speaks with his mentor and executive director of North Bay Veterans Resource Center, Peter Cameron, at their offices in Santa Rosa on Thursday, July 3, 2014. (Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)

The prospects for peace in Iraq seemed in be in place when Air Force Reserve Maj. Mindy Yu left the country in 2009. Museums and public pools were opening, marketplaces were bustling and the nation's fledgling security forces were taking the lead in defending their land.

"I was hopeful," said Yu, 34, a Piner High School graduate who enlisted in 2001.

But for Yu and other Sonoma County veterans, that optimism has been chilled by a deadly insurgent assault that swept out of Syria six months ago and now is poised within striking distance, less than 50 miles from Baghdad.

The veterans, from field troops to a top commander, won't say that America's nearly nine-year war — at a cost of almost 4,500 lives and more than $2 trillion — was wasted. War fighters are inclined to keep their emotions in check and many are averse to political debate, but they see many of the gains and much of the good they accomplished being undone by a relentless foe, an impotent Iraqi army and inflexible Iraqi leadership.

"It hurts," said Matthew Jensen, 31, of Santa Rosa, who served three tours in Iraq with the Marines and the Army and came home with post-traumatic stress disorder. "We thought we were going to be in the history books for liberating a country."

"If they can't defend their own country against a militant group, there's not much hope," said Santa Rosan Evan Kubota, 29, now a Marin County sheriff's deputy who served in Iraq in 2004-05 as an Army National Guard sergeant.

But the veterans say they are not surprised by the bloody onslaught wrought by the Sunni Muslim extremist faction, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The group, known as ISIS, recently declared the formation of a caliphate, a religious state in which only Islamic law, or Shariah, applies, over the vast swath of Syria and Iraq it now controls.

"I don't think it comes as a surprise to anyone," said Army Reserve Maj. Gen. Gary Medvigy, who commanded a psychological operations unit in Iraq in 2003.

The concept of an all-powerful caliphate has echoed through 1,200 years of turbulent Middle East history, with the names of its fundamentalist Muslim proponents changing through the centuries. "They've been in power and been out of power," said Medvigy, 58, of Sebastopol. "When they are out of power, they kill to get back in power."

Americans fail to grasp the importance of tribal and religious allegiances among the people of Iraq, said Medvigy, who is also a Sonoma County Superior Court judge. The cradle of western civilization along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Iraq's current national borders were drawn by the British after World War I with little regard for the age-old hostilities between the Shiite and Sunni Muslims as well as ethnic Kurds within those lines, he said.

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