By Christian Zerbel Herald writer
Nearly 10 years ago, on March 19, 2003, the U.S. launched Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The goal was to topple Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime, which was believed to possess weapons of mass destruction.
Weeks later, on May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” from aboard the Everett-based USS Abraham Lincoln.
The U.S. would remain a powerful presence in Iraq until its withdrawal in December 2011.
Nearly 4,500 Americans and 100,000 Iraqis were killed in the conflict, which lasted eight years, eight months, three weeks and four days.
Of those, 286 servicemen and women from Washington were killed.
But behind the statistics are people who have stories to tell.
Stories of identity, family and the search for home.
Stories of small-town dreams, honoring friends, and recovery.
Stories of freedom, duty and lost children.
Stories of gratitude, struggle and building new lives.
These are stories of some who have been touched by a war that may have ended years ago, though its effects will never be forgotten.
Read their stories
Two giggly college students, wearing colorful hijabs, sit side-by-side and carefully spell out their names. Hadil Al-Tamimi and Zahraa Al-Salman are both 20-year-old Shia Muslims.
Al-Tamimi says they used to hate each other when they were girls, but now they’re best friends.
They came from similar backgrounds. Their families both fled Hussein’s regime during the first Gulf War, and they were both born in the same year at the same Saudi refugee camp, Rafha.
They traveled across the world, and now their families live in Everett, only minutes apart. Today, both women are American citizens.
At Everett Community College, Al-Tamimi is studying to become a nurse and Al-Salman is studying to become a pediatrician.
Brett Rickard was at Disneyland on Aug. 1, 2003, when he got the call.
His longtime friend U.S. Army Spc. Justin Hebert had been killed by a rocket-propelled grenade in Kirkuk, Iraq.
Rickard, also a soldier, had just returned from a tour in Afghanistan and was waiting to deploy to Iraq.
Rickard and Hebert grew up together in Silvana.
The two rode the same bus when they went to middle school, played on the same soccer team, and played basketball in Rickard’s back yard. When they were older, they’d often wind up snowboarding instead of going to class.
They were juniors, in 2000, when they talked it over and decided to join the Army. They chose an early entry program. As soon as they graduated from Arlington High School, they were in.
Rickard says they signed for “money for college, adventure and growing up — the whole shebang.”
Rickard says that he and Hebert just wanted to get out of their small town.
Rickard recalls something that makes him smile. Once they were in, he and Hebert both signed up for the exact same job — airborne fire-support specialist — without ever talking about it ahead of time.
He laughs. Justin hadn’t ever flown in an airplane before he signed up to jump out of one.
Rickard was in radio training when he learned of the 9/11 attacks and knew he would probably be going to war. He arrived in Afghanistan in 2002. He remembers the extreme heat, heavy packs and long walks.
“Your expectations change once you get over there,” he says. “It’s not all glory. It’s not a video game. And it’s not as cool as it looks in the movies.”
Rickard said that his family back home in Silvana, upon hearing about Hebert’s death, were terrified knowing that he would have to go to the country where his friend was killed.
Hebert’s death in combat didn’t scare Rickard any more than he already was.
“When I was on patrol going through Baghdad, I remember every single time when I was on patrol in the back of the Humvee just scanning the area thinking, ‘It could happen now. It could happen now. It could happen now.’ “
Rickard served as a pallbearer at Hebert’s funeral. He handed the folded American flag to Hebert’s mother.
“He was very proud of what he did. He was a terrific soldier,” he said. “And I don’t think he would have changed anything.”
Rickard says he experienced “the equivalent of survivor’s guilt” after Hebert’s death.
“You feel lucky, but at the same time he was a really good guy and didn’t deserve what happened to him.”
Rickard is a disabled vet. His combat service left him with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It’s terrible to lose friends, sons and daughters, husbands and wives and brothers and sisters. But the guys that are coming back deal with a lot of things people forget that they have to deal with for the rest of their lives.”
“They have to deal with not just the physical wounds but the mental wounds, and they last forever. I think that people who send you off to war forget that it’s a lifetime of hardships.”
Years later, he has had time to reflect. His thoughts tumble out.
“With the Afghanistan war, they had it coming, they attacked us. With the Iraq war, I think it was harder for some people to agree with. I didn’t care. I was young, I was a soldier, I went where they told me to go.”
Rickard says he keeps up with current events in the Middle East. He sees the turmoil that the newly established Iraqi government still faces.
“Now that I’m older, I do question. Was it worth it?”
He fears that the Iraqi government may crumble as it battles fierce resistance from Islamic extremists.
“I’m definitely afraid that we just fought in two wars where it’s just going to go back to the status quo,” he says. “If that happens, it’s really a mistake for going over there in the first place, at least staying.
“The freedom of others sounds like a very moral thing to fight for, but when it’s at the cost of so much blood, I don’t know if it was worth it.”
He feels the American forces did “most of the heavy lifting,” while it should have been the Iraqi people taking charge of their nation.
He draws an example from the American Revolution. He says that getting help from allies is perfectly fine; after all, Americans were aided by the French.
Americans held together because they shared a united identity they fought for, bled for. They died for the nation they wanted to become.
In Iraq, the majority of the fighting was done for the Iraqis.
“If Iraq is ever going to make their country what they want it to be we (American forces) need to not be there,” he says. “I personally think we stayed way longer than we ever should have.”
There are no easy answers when it comes to the Iraq war, says Rickard, 30, who now lives in Arlington with his wife, Keri Rickard, and their daughters, ages 3 and 6.
Keri Rickard, 26, is a veteran of the Army reserves, and she is also from Silvana. The two met when Brett Rickard was on leave.
Their youngest daughter’s middle name is Jae, in memory of Justin. If they ever have a boy, they’ll name him Justin.
The greatest irony of all, according to Shellie Starr, was that her son, Marine Cpl. Jeffrey Starr of Snohomish, was scheduled to leave combat on June 1, 2005. He was enrolled at EvCC to study psychology.
He was killed by a sniper in Iraq on May 30, 2005.
Jeffrey Starr didn’t regret going to Iraq the first time. He didn’t regret being deployed twice more after that.
He even may not have regretted dying there, writing as much in a letter he wanted read in case of his death.
However, he wrote, he regretted not spending enough time with his girlfriend, whom he hoped to marry.
Shellie Starr flips through a leather scrapbook filled with snippets of prayers, Iraqi currency with Saddam Hussein’s face, and photos of her son.
Many were taken while he was hanging around at base. In one photo, Starr, under thick layers of combat gear, smiles widely with one arm wrapped around a fellow Marine.
The scrapbook, with a Marine Corps medallion on the front, chronicles her son’s time in the service. Shellie Starr says she put the book together because she needed something to keep her occupied when her son was off at war.
“I had to distract myself from the horribleness of the news in 2003,” she says.
She carefully turns page after page, explaining her son’s time in the Marines. At one point she chokes up, but quickly collects herself.
When Jeffrey Starr enlisted in March 2001, he was a senior at Snohomish High.
By August he was part of Bravo Company, the highly decorated 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Division.
In 2003, Bravo Company would be the first to enter Iraq.
Jeffrey was 19 years old when his battalion occupied the Republican Palace, one of Hussein’s fortified strongholds.
He deployed to Iraq three times.
Shellie Starr shares a photo of one happy homecoming, and then another, with Jeffrey in the arms of his family and friends.
She sighs and says, “We didn’t get the homecoming for the third one.”
Soon the scrapbook’s pages are blank. She folds the book up and gently sets it down.
Shellie says she and her husband, Brian Starr, still keep in touch with their son’s old friends. Brian Starr likes to shoot pool with them and go camping with them in the summer.
“It lets him be a part of what Jeffrey would have been doing,” she says.
Shellie Starr says most Gold Star families, those who have lost an immediate family member serving in the armed forces, supported President Bush’s leadership in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“But there is a very strong 20 percent that are very resentful,” she says.
She says she falls more on the side of the supporters. Although, she says, the war could have gone much more smoothly if the military had been left to make its own decisions, and if it had been left unhindered by politicians in Washington, D.C.
“The politicians start directing the actions from D.C. and these guys are on the front lines,” she says. “It’s just an injustice to them.”
Shellie Starr is frustrated at the lack of forward thinking by the U.S. government, not for its decision to invade Iraq, but its lack of a plan for what happened after it invaded.
She wasn’t necessarily happy with the decision to withdraw from Iraq. She hoped that the U.S. could negotiate a lasting presence.
After all, she says, she shares the same view as her son did. She believes the troops were there to help the people of Iraq, to give them opportunities that they would have never had under Hussein.
Shellie Starr says troops stationed in Iraq weren’t able to transfer American values over to the Iraqi people — American values like independence, individuality and resourcefulness, values her son certainly held dear.
She isn’t optimistic about the future of Iraq. She says a pattern of restrictive and oppressive rulers who abide by a radical understanding of the Quran will eventually prevail in the country.
And although her son gave his life, she thinks some of the people most affected by the Iraq war are the surviving veterans — particularly those who have PTSD.
“I’ve lost my son, but these guys have to deal daily with life-changing situations,” she says. “It would break my heart to watch my child go through what these people have to go through.”
Shellie and Brian Starr are both grateful to the community that has supported them. “The Snohomish community has been wonderful to us and to Jeffrey,” she says.
That’s why, in 2006, the Starrs decided to honor their son by giving back.
From an initial fundraiser hosted at Mardini’s Restaurant in Snohomish, they raised $15,000 and put that money towards a scholarship fund in their son’s name.
Since then, the Jeffrey Starr Fund has provided $1,000 scholarships to students at Snohomish High School who can best answer the question “what is freedom?”
Students are asked to reflect on what freedom is by responding to one of Jeffrey Starr’s quotes from his last letter:
“I don’t regret going, everybody dies but few get to do it for something as important as freedom.
“It may seem confusing why we are in Iraq, it is not to me. I’m here helping these people so they can live the way we live. To do what they want with their lives.”
After surviving Saddam Hussein’s regime, years of warfare, and becoming refugees hopping around the globe, the Nasirs’ biggest concern is a fairly common one: finding work close to their Everett home.
Muntaha Nasir lived in Baghdad during the initial invasion in 2003. She owned a successful dentistry clinic. Her success made her a target of people who wanted her money. She fled to neighboring Jordan, where she was an illegal immigrant trying to find work.
That’s where she met her future husband, Nasir Nasir. In Iraq, he was a delivery driver at a chicken farm. In Amman, the capital city of Jordan, he found work in a warehouse in the shipping department. They married in Jordan in 2007.
The Nasirs worked in a big city like Amman because it was easier to find work.
They immigrated as refugees to the U.S. in September 2010. They settled in Everett a short time later; they live in a small apartment with their 4-year-old daughter, Ghadeer.
Their home is kept neat, and in one corner the computer displays an English-language tutorial, paused in the middle of a lesson.
Muntaha Nasir and Nasir Nasir practice a meticulous form of Arab hospitality whenever they welcome guests into their home.
Muntaha Nasir, delighted to learn that a guest enjoys her American coffee, will race to the kitchen to jot down the exact portions of cream and sugar she used, to replicate it the next time.
Nasir Nasir is equally excited, although he has a harder time expressing himself in English. He is taking English as a Second Language classes at Mariner High School.
He sits perfectly straight, nods, and smiles widely. His wife will sometimes translate for him if a sentence becomes too complex, but he is proud to exercise his English abilities whenever he can.
Nasir Nasir is hoping his new-found language skills can help him find a job. He recently attained a Washington Association of Building Officials certificate from Everett Community College and hopes to work as a welder.
Muntaha Nasir says her master’s degree from the University of Baghdad hasn’t helped her find work at a local clinic — as she had hoped — nor has her 16 years as a dentist.
She says that immediately after the fall of Hussein’s regime, Baghdad was a very dangerous place.
“We started to face something that we’ve never seen before or heard of,” she says.
Her dentistry clinic was only blocks away from a deserted military base. Once Hussein’s regime fell, the weapons inside the base were left unprotected.
She remembers that gangs would steal weapons from there, and kill people randomly on the street.
One time a bomb was found near her clinic. Thankfully, it was a dud.
Muntaha Nasir isn’t sure whether America’s decision to invade Iraq was a good one.
Although the war brought the freedom for Iraqis to speak their minds, the country was a more dangerous place, at least during America’s time there, she said.
She says poor Iraqis have suffered both under Hussein and with the new government.
“Maybe the decision was good, but the war is wrong,” she says.
But to Nasir Nasir, there is no question: If the United States hadn’t come to Iraq, Saddam Hussein would still be there.
Nasir Nasir smiles, bobs his head and says,”(The war) is good for us because we’re here.”
Despite the Nasirs’ trouble in finding work in the U.S., they’ll never move back to Iraq. Besides, they say their families back in Iraq are having trouble finding work there, too.
Their daughter, Ghadeer, has never been to Iraq. She was born in Jordan.
At first, the Nasirs didn’t know what people were upset about when they told them their daughter’s birth date. She was born on Sept. 11, 2008.
When someone told them that it was because of the al-Qaida attacks in 2001, Muntaha Nasir went to Everett Municipal Court and asked if her daughter’s birthday could be changed. She was afraid that her girl could be bullied when she started school.
She says the court wouldn’t let her, and she would have to work with the government of Jordan to do that.
The Nasirs are grateful to live in America, where they can raise their daughter safely. They say they will continue to help other Iraqi refugees who come to the Everett area get settled in.
Muntaha Nasir hopes to return to Everett Community College so she can finally get back into dentistry.
Nasir Nasir just wants to get to work.