June 12, 2014 Updated: June 13, 2014 at 9:50 am
The rapid advance of insurgents that threatens to topple the U.S.-backed Iraqi government is a bitter pill for Colorado Springs veterans who spent years working to pull Iraq out of chaos.
Troops from Colorado Springs fired some of the first shots in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and soldiers from a Fort Carson brigade were the last American combat troops to leave when the U.S. pulled out in 2011. Eight years of fighting in Iraq claimed the lives of 258 Fort Carson soldiers.
On Thursday, insurgents affiliated with Sunni groups had claimed most of northern and western Iraq and were marching on Samarra, 70 miles north of Baghdad. The Obama administration pledged aid to the faltering Baghdad government, but Pentagon officials said ground troops were all but ruled out.
"It's a punch in the stomach," said retired Army Lt. Col. Jared Norrell, who helped lead some of the first invasion troops into Iraq and served two later tours with Fort Carson units.
"To see everything we worked so hard to secure, it's just so discouraging," said retired 1st Sgt. David Gonzalez as he watched television reports on the evacuation of Iraq's massive airbase at Balad. "You just can't describe it."
Backing the teetering Baghdad government was a key goal for local troops beginning shortly after the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein.
But germinating the seeds of western-style Democracy was difficult in Iraq.
"The reason Saddam Hussein had such a control of the country is he literally controlled the country by force," said retired Lt. Col. Sprague Taveau, who served two tours in Iraq with Fort Carson's 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment.
Americans were initially greeted as liberators in Iraq, but that sentiment quickly soured, especially after measures were put in place to demolish Hussein's Baath Party, a predominately Sunni coalition that had ruled the California-sized country since the 1950s.
As American leaders moved to form a government in Iraq, the Sunnis who had cooperated with Hussein were out and the long-oppressed Shiites were in.
Sunnis boycotted elections.
"The Sunnis didn't have a seat at the table for a long time," Norrell said.
American troops had a difficult time grasping the complexity of Iraqi society, where tribal identities go back for more than a millennium and an Islamic rift between Sunnis and Shiites has driven conflict for centuries.
Sunnis in northern and western Iraq quickly rebelled against U.S. stability measures, forming the core of a rising insurgency that would dominate much of Iraq by 2007.
?By the time Fort Carson troops wrapped up their first tours in 2004, they could name dozens of insurgent groups that targeted American soldiers and Iraq's fragile new government.
As Americans shifted toward counterinsurgency, the focus was on training Iraqis to solve their own problems.
?"I think we provided a lot of opportunity, resources and training to Iraqi security forces to secure their own nation," said retired Command Sgt. Maj. John Kurak, who spent 41 months in combat during three tours in Iraq.
"We fought side by side with those guys," Gonzalez said.
By 2005, a new American strategy emerged, dubbed "clear, hold, build" by the commander of Fort Carson's 3rd ACR, Col. Herbert McMaster, who is credited with pioneering the method to eliminate insurgents in the Iraqi city of Tal Afar.
Used from Mosul to Basra, the technique involved surrounding towns and going door-to-door to clear out insurgents. Once the town was deemed clear, American forces helped establish local government, rebuilt institutions and spurred the economy.
American troops knew that insurgents would fade into the populace.
"I guess our intent was never to eliminate every person who was in one of those organizations," Taveau explained. "We wanted to turn the country over to the Iraqis so they could serve themselves."
The grinding approach gained momentum in 2007 when thousands of additional troops were sent to Iraq for the "surge" to drive insurgents from Baghdad.
Norell, whose final tour was spent in northern Iraq working with the rapidly-improving Iraqi military, said the strategy gave the Iraqis time to create what seemed to be a lasting government.
"We partnered over there and we trained and we fought with some very good units," he said. "I guess that's what I'm confused about."
Insurgent attacks on American forces in Iraq were nearly non-existent when the last U.S. troops pulled out.
"When we left it seemed like we had really turned a corner," Norell said.
But Iraq remained troubled, and public trust of the Iraqi government seldom was more than lukewarm. The insurgency rose after Americans left.
"Maybe the corruption and nepotism and things like that are still rampant within their government," said Kurak, who saw the internal problems of the Iraqi regime first hand in Baghdad.
Veterans of Iraq fighting hold little hope that the Baghdad government can regain ground lost to insurgents before the capitol falls.
"I'm just not sure there is enough of a generational influence to make the ultimate sacrifice or go the full measure to secure their own nation," Kurak said.
The Iraqi military is known for fleeing from battle. Taveau said he saw that trait in 2003.
"As we went into Anbar province, the only time we saw the Iraqi military was abandoned equipment," he said.
The insurgency controls most of the main routes into Baghdad, which relies heavily on imported food and water.
"I think the big squeeze is going to be on Baghdad next," Norrell said.
And that could lead to chaos.
"You cut the flow of supplies into a city, cut the water and cut the power and I think the city will turn into one huge riot," Taveau said.
Thoughts of Baghdad falling to insurgents are painful for veterans.
Kurak said he fought there so his kids wouldn't have to.
"Are they thinking we're going to have to fight this all over again?" he asked.
Gonzalez said he fears that emboldened insurgents could reach beyond Iraq.
"I'm just worried about where it's going to go from here," he said.
Norrell and Taveau were thinking about the lives lost and the years that Colorado families spent separated to fight a war that now seems to have diminishing meaning.
"It just makes me sick," Norrell said. "It's hard to watch and know how many we lost."
"It makes me feel like all of those lives are being thrown away," Taveau said.