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Published August 31 2010

Area Iraq war veterans: 'We made a difference'

For Staff Sgt. Kristel Amundson, today’s official end of combat operations in Iraq signifies the fruit of two tours of duty.

In 2003, she was part of the 142nd Combat Engineer Battalion that put the North Dakota Army National Guard’s first boots on the ground in Iraq, laying the foundation for Operation Iraqi Freedom.

In 2008 and 2009, the Jamestown, N.D., native again spent nine months overseas with the Fargo-based 191st Military Police Company, which trained the Iraqi security forces that will now take the lead as American soldiers move into more of a backup role.

“It’s kind of exciting for me to see that we’re taking a step forward and they can be able to do things on their own. I think being there twice, you kind of feel like you did make a difference and you helped contribute to it,” she said.

Today’s deadline for the drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq, from 144,000 in January 2009 to fewer than 50,000, is likely to evoke among Iraq War veterans a range of feelings as wide as their individual experiences in the conflict.

For Staff Sgt. Steve Hoikkala, who had just turned 19 years old when he, like Amundson, was activated with the 142nd in January 2003, the feeling is one of uncertainty.

“It’s just hard to say, because you don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know what the result’s going to be,” said Hoikkala, 26, a native of Oakes, N.D. “Hopefully, it’s the right decision.”

Six years have passed since his return from Iraq.

“Definitely, it seems like a long time ago, but you can remember some of it like it was yesterday,” he said.

Hoikkala vividly recalls the day he was keeping watch in the back of a 5-ton Army dump truck in a convoy when a roadside bomb exploded just behind the truck between Fallujah and Ramadi. The blast lifted the truck off its back wheels and nearly tossed him out. Shrapnel shattered the windshield of the Humvee behind him, but no one was seriously hurt.

“Definitely a lucky moment,” he said.

Since then, as the Guard’s coordinator for military funeral honors in eastern and central North Dakota, Hoikkala has worked closely with the families and friends of those who weren’t so lucky.

As of last week, U.S. military casualties in Operation Iraqi Freedom numbered 4,408, including 3,483 killed in action, according to the Department of Defense. More than 7,600 have been wounded in action.

Opinions on whether progress in Iraq has been worth the human toll vary among veterans and the family and friends of those who’ve died, Hoikkala said.

“You signed up to put your life on the line for your country,” he said. “So I think that’s really a case-by-case basis, but I think the families can be proud for what their loved one did and know that he was doing everything, while he was deployed, for the right reasons.”

After observing Iraqis’ living conditions under Saddam Hussein at the war’s start, Hoikkala said he knew U.S. troops would be in Iraq for some time.

“The thoughts go through your head: ‘Are we fighting another Vietnam?’ But I really don’t think so,” he said. “I definitely think we were winning. We were winning the battle, and I really think we changed stuff around.”

“I definitely think we made a difference,” he said.

About 60 North Dakota National Guard troops remain in Iraq, said Amy Wieser Willson, a Guard spokesperson. Roughly 50 members of the 2-285th Aviation Regiment are expected to return in October, and a sentinel radar group of the 1-188th Air Defense Artillery Regiment is expected home in November, she said.

U.S. troops remaining in Iraq will advise and assist Iraq’s security forces, conduct joint counter-terrorism operations and protect U.S. civilians, the White House said Monday.

Amundson said she doesn’t know what that means for her personally or whether the 191st will be called on to provide additional training.

“But it’s kind of better peace of mind just knowing that they’re officially ending the war,” she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528