Local veterans recall service in Iraq War

The Iraq War ended in 2011, but for local military personnel celebrating Memorial Day today, their memories of service in Iraq are still fresh in their minds.

Of course, it’s not necessarily something they like to think about.

“It was a job,” said Army National Guard infantryman Jason Whitman of Mayfield. “I had to do my job … It’s not something I like to remember.”

This year is the 10-year anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, when an invasion force led by the United States marched into Iraq on March 20, 2003, and eventually captured Saddam Hussein. During years of armed conflict that followed, an insurgency emerged to oppose coalition forces and the Iraqi government.

The American withdrawal of military personnel was completed in December 2011. During the war, the United States lost nearly 4,500 military personnel and about 3,400 security contractors.

The 30-year-old Whitman, a staff sergeant who deployed with the Gloversville Armory-based New York Army National Guard’s Company C, 2nd Battalion, 108th Infantry Regiment, served one tour of duty during the height of the Iraq War from 2004 to 2005. He also served two tours in Afghanistan in 2007 and 2012.

Whitman said he remembers being in the midst of fire fights “pretty much every day” in Iraq.

“I’ll go back if they need me,” Whitman said. “I hope I’ve done all my service.”

National Guard troops made up 40 percent of the American troops on the ground in Iraq, according to an estimate from the U.S. Defense Dept.

Such soldiers are often in civilian job settings in the United States before being pressed into military duty overseas.

Whitman was then, and continues to be, an order filler at the Walmart Regional Distribution Center at the Johnstown Industrial Park.

“We served in Samarra, Iraq,” the local soldier recalled.

The Battle of Samarra, also called “Operation Baton Rouge,” took place in 2004. The city in central Iraq had fallen under the control of insurgents shortly after they seized control of Fallujah and Ramadi.

In preparation for an offensive to retake Fallujah on Oct. 1, 2004, about 5,000 American and Iraqi troops assaulted Samarra and secured the city after three days of fighting.

During his service in Iraq, he saw his Army buddies die, including fellow “Charlie” Company infantrymen.

“We lost Nathan Brown from Glens Falls,” Whitman said.

Whitman feels the Iraq War begun by former President George W. Bush was worthwhile and served a purpose. Whitman said he and other American troops many times saw their role as one of providing needed assistance to the Iraqi people.

“I feel [that] if I helped one Iraqi, I did my job,” said Whitman. “The main mission in Iraq was to help the civilian population.”

He said that assistance included shielding civilians from insurgent forces and locating improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

He joined the Army National Guard in 2002 to “serve my country,” he said.

Now, Whitman said his life in Fulton County has been “pretty good.” He feels he’s adjusted well back into civilian life.

Longtime Fulton County Veterans Service Agency Director Frank Ruggiero said what a veteran needs today – such as those from the most-recent Iraq War – are similar to World War II veterans discharged in 1946.

“The needs of the veterans are no different than a young person getting out of high school and college,” Ruggiero said. “They’re looking for respectable jobs and make a decent living. I think they’re looking for careers.”

Another area Iraq War veteran – Mario Cristaldi, commander of the Broadalbin American Legion Post – served in the regular Army from 1970-77. He was discharged and worked for the federal government for awhile. But for 29 years, Cristaldi served in the Army National Guard until his retirement from the military in July 2011.

During the war, the 60-year-old served one tour in Iraq with the Army National Guard from 2009-10, mostly in the Baghdad area. Up until that time, he had never served in a war zone.

“I volunteered for Iraq,” Cristaldi said. “The reason was because I was in the military and not serving in a combat zone. I felt it was my responsibility to serve in Iraq.”

Cristaldi served as a staff sergeant with a unit out of California, with the 1st Cavalry and the 4th Infantry. He remembers many incoming missiles.

“What really stands out is how many times we were attacked,” he said. “We were in there during a very critical time.”

Cristaldi said his unit often found themselves in the middle of fighting between two Islamic factions – the majority Sunnis and the minority Shiites.

He said the American soldiers had the job of providing security, helping the Iraqis vote, and generally keeping the peace between two religious groups.

“We were in support of the Iraqi people to try to make their country a better place to live,” Cristaldi said. “Sometimes, it was very difficult.”

He remembers one attack at 7 a.m. in which he witnessed several civilians being killed.

“It really made me realize how precious life is,” the veteran serviceman said of the Iraq War.

Cristaldi said he supported the mission in Iraq and he has come to realize how the American people “don’t know how lucky they are.”

Now that he’s retired from military service, the married village of Broadalbin resident said “life is good” and that he is generally “blessed” within his life.

“I feel the [Iraq War] had a very special purpose,” Cristaldi said. “It was nation building. It was to help the Middle East. I also think it went a little above that. We were there to make a presence in the Middle East.”