Smoke rises from the Trade Ministry in Baghdad after it was hit by a missile during US-led attacks, March 20, 2003.

An Iraq vet grapples with lingering toll of war

Former US Army Sgt. Kayla Williams, who is currently a senior policy researcher at RAND Corporation, was among the 160,000 coalition troops who were deployed for the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. Now, 20 years later, she reflects on her experiences with The World’s host Marco Werman.

The World

This week marks 20 years since the US-led invasion of Iraq. Many of the 160,000 coalition troops who were deployed for the invasion are also looking back, remembering and reliving those tumultuous events.

Among them is Kayla Williams, a former US Army sergeant who was part of the Iraq mission in 2003 as an Arabic linguist. She was assigned to a signals intelligence team with the 101st Airborne Division.

Williams has also written about her experiences in two books, “Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army” and “Plenty of Time When We Get Home: Love and Recovery in the Aftermath of War.” And she currently works as a senior policy researcher at RAND Corporation.

She joined The World’s host Marco Werman from Reston, Virginia, for a conversation about her experiences and her evolving thoughts and reactions to the war over the years.

Marco Werman: Take us back to 2003, if you would. Who were you and where was your head at before deployment?
Kayla Williams: So, by the time we were preparing to cross into the berm, I really felt like I was in a Dr. Seuss book where the waiting place is the worst place to be. Nobody wants to go to war, but somehow going into Iraq seemed better than continuing to sit around and wait, not knowing what was going to happen. I had spent so long training, 63 weeks learning Arabic and then additional time learning to do my job and use our equipment. And I think we were all just ready to go. Despite having heard really dire prognostications about what we might face, I mean, we were in chemical protective gear. We really believed at that moment that we might be exposed to chemical weapons and we wore that gear for weeks. It’s so surreal looking back and wondering who I was, as you asked, and knowing that I am the same person, but also feeling so removed from that person with the life that I’ve lived since.
So, how did you feel about the invasion of Iraq when you received orders to deploy?
I didn’t think that the reasons we were being given seemed reasonable. But when you’re in the military, you don’t vote on whether or not you go to war. You trust that the American people have voted for folks who will make the right decisions.
You had only recently signed up to join the Army. Were you regretting that decision?
I enlisted in 2000 and was learning Arabic on 9/11. I knew right away that we would be going to war. It was just a question of when and where. And I’m not sure that “regret” is the right word. I mean, the reasons that I personally had for joining the military had not changed. And I held onto some hope that as an Arabic speaker, I could make things better for both the people I served with and Iraqi civilians.
You followed orders, though. I mean, looking back 20 years later, how did the experience of being in Iraq change you and your opinions about the war?
My experiences taught me a lot about who I am and who I want to be. And some of those lessons came from the moments when I did not live up to my own values — not speaking up to stop detainee abuse when I witnessed it, for example. That really shaped my commitment in the long term to living an ethical life and doing what I can to make things better for those coming after me as veterans, and in other ways. It’s hard to look back and know that I didn’t always make the right decision and to know that our entire nation making the bad decision to go to war has led to so much pain and suffering and death.
Yeah, help us understand some of those experiences, Kayla. Like witnessing the abuse of Iraqi detainees. How did that impact you over the long run?
It was hard to sit with the knowledge that I had not stayed true to my own values in that moment, that although I refused to continue participating, I didn’t blow the whistle the way somebody with a lot more moral courage than I have did at Abu Ghraib later. And folks need to know the risk that people under them will feel this pressure to get information at any cost and guard against that.
Do you think those lessons have been taken on board by Washington?
No. I think that the US populace has been sucked into some belief that “by any means necessary” is still the right way to go about things. And that persists despite all the lessons to the contrary that we’ve seen come out of it. And it’s just incredibly depressing.
You met your husband, retired US Army Staff Sgt. Brian McGough, in Iraq. Five months after you met, Brian was riding through Mosul when the bus he was in hit an IED. What’s your most vivid memory of that time?
I was at our forward operating base up in Tal Afar, and we got news that the convoy had been hit, that Brian had been evacuated by helicopter to Baghdad, where I later learned he had neurosurgery in a tent. I was helping wash out the gear of a fellow soldier in my unit, getting the blood out of it. You know, this was when we were still very naively confused at why the local populace was turning on us and our own anger and resentment that people were trying to kill us when we “were there to bring freedom and democracy.” That was really a confusing time, but a time also when it was just impossible for me to not feel angry at the local people, given that people I knew were getting hurt.
Were you surprised at your reaction?
At the time, I wasn’t reflective enough to be surprised by my reaction. And with the time to separate emotionally a bit, I was only surprised that we didn’t see it coming, right? Like, I grew up in the era of watching movies like “Red Dawn” and you root for the insurgent in that movie, right? So, of course, this is what happened. Of course, the local people did not want a foreign military setting up checkpoints on their roads and breaking into their houses in the middle of the night.
You alluded earlier to the Iraqis and working on their behalf, but also your anger after your husband was injured in that IED explosion. How do you think that experience changed your husband?
He sustained a penetrating traumatic brain injury from shrapnel and it led to post-traumatic stress disorder, cognitive impairments, memory problems, emotional challenges that we’ve been living with ever since. Troops were also surviving with injuries that would have absolutely killed anyone in previous conflicts. Brian’s injuries would have been fatal, even I think as as recently as the first Gulf War. And we all had to learn so much about how to support troops with those injuries, how to support their caregivers. We have spent 18 years now recovering from that moment and trying to find a new path forward and take care of each other, take care of our kids.
I can imagine that you weren’t expecting any of that. How do you now understand the long-term toll of the war, psychological and physical?
The cost of the wars is estimated into the trillions of dollars. But I also think of it in much more personal costs. So, a few years ago, my husband had a seizure related to the brain injury and our daughter was sitting with him when it happened and saw her her daddy scream and fall down. And she was 7 years old and it was absolutely terrifying for her. So for me, the costs of these wars are very acutely being experienced, not just by those of us who went, but by our children.
Kayla, there’s been a lot said this week about how many Americans have moved on from the war in Iraq. If you had to leave us with one lesson from the Iraq invasion, what would it be?
I would like all Americans, and particularly elected officials, to truly think about the long-term costs of war for everyone involved, which includes the families, caregivers and survivors of those who serve themselves, before making the decision to engage in any future conflict.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Related: Young Iraqis reflect on the US-led invasion, its aftermath and their hopes for the future

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