By Ernesto Londoño
Copyright 2014 The Washington Post
The towering former three-star general keeps a wooden box on his desk with the photos of 257 service members who died in Iraq under his command, sorted by date. During quiet moments, usually a couple of times a week, Mark Hertling opens the lid, inscribed with the words “Make it Matter,” flips through the laminated portraits of uniformed troops and reflects on their loss.
“I try to keep track of anniversaries of the deaths and say a prayer for them and their families,” said Hertling, who now works at a hospital in Orlando. “During the holiday season, you think about the young men and women killed in 2003, 2004 and figure they would have been in their 30s now, with a couple of kids.”
The ritual was never easy. It has become increasingly painful over the past two years, as Hertling and a generation of troops and civilians indelibly shaped by harrowing tours in Iraq have watched the country unravel from afar.
The Iraq war may have never been declared lost. But the stunning surge in violence over the past year — and the return of al-Qaeda in the western province of Anbar this month — is forcing Americans who invested personally in the war’s success to grapple with haunting questions.
“Could someone smart convince me that the black flag of al-Qaeda flying over Fallujah isn’t analogous to the fall of Saigon?” former Army captain Matt Gallagher asked on Twitter. “Because. Well.”
Gallagher, 30, who left the Army to pursue a writing career in New York, has kept close tabs on Iraq since the end of his deployment as a platoon commander in the outskirts of Baghdad in 2009. He has a Google alert for Saba al-Bor, a small village northwest of Baghdad where his infantry platoon spent 15 months living in terror of armor-penetrating roadside bombs and in awe of the complexities of tribal politics.
Gallagher, who was part of the troop surge ordered by the George W. Bush administration, felt his stomach churn a couple of months ago when an alert prompted him to click on a video of a suicide bombing in his old battleground. He had the same reaction watching grainy footage of masked al-Qaeda militants raising the black flag of jihad in Fallujah.