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September 19, 2014

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WINNING THE WEST:

Experiences similar, but views of war couldn’t be more different

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Leila Navidi

Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran Anthony Garcia sits outside his home on the outskirts of Albuquerque. Garcia, a 24-year Navy veteran, relieves some symptoms of his post-traumatic stress disorder out on his porch. “The best thing for me is sitting outside listening to the birds,” said Garcia, who retired as a chief petty officer. Garcia is now openly against the war.

Iraq Veterans Share Views

Like Las Vegas, Albuquerque, N.M., has an Air Force base and a strong veteran presence. Traveling through New Mexico on the road to the Democratic National Convention, the Sun sat down with two Iraq veterans in the Albuquerque area in order to hear their thoughts on the current war.

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Iraq veteran Shawn Bryan served as a Marine in Al Anbar province in Iraq in 2005. Bryan owns a used car dealership and auto repair shop in Albuquerque and still supports the war.

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They are both warriors, and they fought in the same war. But as in some geopolitical “Rashomon,” the events in question look completely different through different eyes.

Shawn Bryan and Anthony Garcia, who both live in the Albuquerque area, served in the Iraq war, and saw some of the worst of it.

One is a peace activist who detests the war and those who conceived it.

The other believes the effort has been honorable and worth continuing.

Their stories:

Shawn Bryan could be on a magazine cover and has a life many young American men would dream to have. He proclaims true brotherhood with his fellow Marines. He owns several businesses. He’s married to a tall and striking former news anchor. He gets an audience with Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, and occasionally — like this weekend — takes a fistful of dollars to Las Vegas to play roulette and party with the Maloof brothers, pals whose New Mexico roots go back more than century.

To protect this blessed life and the future of his five children, America must engage in wars, and lots of them, Bryan believes. And he’s willing to fight in them when called.

After the terrorist attacks in 2001, Bryan reactivated as a Marine. “I felt like I needed to be there for the guys.” He went to Iraq in 2005 and was in Al Anbar province, among the most violent in the country then. The casualties were relentless: “Things blew up every day for us.”

He has a tattoo on his arm commemorating fallen men and women, 48 in all from Third Battalion, 25th Marines. “We lost a lot of great guys. A lot of friends,” he said.

He earned a Purple Heart, but never disclosed it in the interview.

Bryan is helping raise money to build a war memorial in Albuquerque and is a leader of Vets for Freedom, a nationwide group of 27,000 veterans who oppose withdrawal from Iraq until absolute victory is achieved, defined as a free and stable Iraq.

He recently returned from about two weeks in Iraq, where he observed progress. “The changes I saw were astounding.” The increase in American troop levels has worked, he said.

“There’s a smell of success in the air.”

With added troops, he said, “When they ran out of the cities, we were waiting for them in the villages.”

Bryan said the media have failed to report on markets and schools opening, infrastructure being rebuilt.

He favors permanent military bases, with the kind of presence America has maintained in Europe and Japan since World War II. The United States would then be strategically well-positioned, able to project force in a region filled with enemies. “We’ve earned the right to have an installation there.”

America must now focus seriously on Afghanistan, he said.

“I say we make a parking lot out of the whole place. I say we level the place.” Give friendlies time to leave the country, and then begin carpet-bombing.

This may sound harsh, but it is consistent with Bryan’s world view and interpretation of American history: “One thing that’s guaranteed since our creation — we fight wars.”

As for critics of the war in Iraq, including those in the military who say the war is stretching U.S. military resources, he called them “whiners” and said he always questions these doubters and how genuine their motives are.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is real, he said. “There are nights when I wake up in the middle of the night and my wife has to have a chat with me.”

There are still problems in Iraq, he allowed. He compared the country to an abused child now in foster care, still adjusting to life without the abusive parent.

Bryan is in Las Vegas this weekend, celebrating his 38th birthday at the Palms, where he’ll take in a Poison and Dokken concert and party at Ghost Bar.

•••

Anthony Garcia was a Navy corpsman attached to the Marines in the initial invasion of Iraq. On March 23, 2003, they encountered vicious resistance at Nasiriyah. In a now famous battle for a bridge in the northern part of the city, 18 Marines were killed.

“When we first saw death — I don’t know if you can fathom that kind of violence and trauma,” he said.

After that, he said, the Marines operated with a different set of rules as they speared toward Baghdad. “If you were in the way, you were gone,” he said.

Garcia also served in Afghanistan. He was in the Navy 24 years before leaving in 2004. He loves the military but hates this war and the government that is prosecuting it.

“They lied to us,” he said.

Garcia cited the failure to find weapons of mass destruction. He also said the mission had been to take out Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. “Well, we got Saddam,” he said, questioning the need to stay. Finally, he said, the notion of spreading democracy is a farce.

The real reason for the war, Garcia believes, is oil, and even more fundamentally, money.

“There are still people dying because of oil, man!”

The conflict in Iraq will continue as long as Americans are there because Iraqis will always resent the U.S. presence, he said.

He referred to Marine General Smedley Butler, a famous maverick of the early 20th century who wrote “War is a Racket” and said he had been little more than a mercenary for American corporate interests.

Moreover, Garcia said, he knows too many veterans who haven’t gotten help for lingering injuries or psychiatric illness.

Garcia knows about this subject intimately. He suffers from the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. He’s hypervigilant, with his eyes on doors and windows. He suffers nightmares and rarely sleeps.

“I would give up everything in a heartbeat for a day of sanity,” he said.

His relationships became strained: “The people who suffer the most from PTSD are the people closest to you,” he said.

When he first started suffering the symptoms, he self-medicated, beginning his days with a handful of painkillers and some vodka.

Garcia is doing better now, though. He lives with his girlfriend in a house where urban Albuquerque runs into rural New Mexico. They have a garden, and chickens and horses roam, and his dog Malo’s tongue lolls about.

“The best thing for me is sitting outside, listening to the birds,” he said.

His son, who is in the Army, just returned from Iraq.

Garcia goes to high schools and speaks about what he’s seen.

He said what he longs for more than anything is money for outreach programs, so Veterans Affairs can help the many veterans he fears are suffering silently.

He said he hopes his activism will lead to a change in policy: “That’s the beauty of this country. It can change if enough people stand up.”

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