Rich Edenfield landed in the Middle East for the first time in June 2003, barely a month after President George W. Bush’s Mission Accomplished speech announced an early American victory in a war that is, in a sense, still going on today.
Edenfield was a lanky, fresh-looking 20-year-old Minnesota National Guard soldier from Eagan, newly married and the father of one young daughter. He had wanted to be a soldier since he was a kid – his father served in Vietnam and he adored his grandfather, a World War II fighter pilot. But he had no idea what awaited him in Iraq.
The war began on March 20, 2003 – 20 years ago on Monday. Even as US politicians claimed victory this spring, outbreaks of violence heralded a protracted, bloody conflict. This conflict would cost more than $1 trillion and more than 4,000 US military lives, including 14 members of the Minnesota National Guard, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.
As politicians defined themselves by early support or opposition to the invasion, the Iraq war also changed the role of the National Guard. The old joke about the Guard used to be “breaking glass in case of war” – a strategic reserve force typically deployed for domestic emergencies. Over the past several decades, members of the Guard have been regularly called upon to serve in foreign deployments to places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
But Edenfield’s original memories of Iraq had nothing to do with major geopolitical forces at play. His first memory was of the heat. When he landed at 3 a.m. it was 99 degrees. On that first day, the temperature reached 110 and 15 employees at his company were treated for heat-related problems.
The more lasting memory of the first of Edenfield’s three Middle East assignments, however, was the danger.
Three weeks after landing in Kuwait, Edenfield joined a 33-vehicle convoy bound for Tikrit, Iraq, near Saddam Hussein’s hometown. To protect unarmored vehicles from improvised explosive devices, they laid sandbags and metal sheets on the ground to protect themselves from explosions.
Edenfield was based in Tikrit until May 2004 as a communications equipment operator. With his wife, Liz Edenfield, a Minnesota National Guard Soldier, avoiding the news and focusing on helping their baby Jade walk, Rich Edenfield spent the year in a city known as the most dangerous place on earth.
He’s been shot at more times than he can count; he shot back more times than he can count. The most dangerous moments were in convoys between Tikrit and Baghdad. Somehow everyone in their unit made it home.
“Almost every time we spoke, you could hear gunfire in the background,” Liz Edenfield said. “Seclusion is a big part of what you do in the military. But there were a lot of nights I was afraid I was going to knock on the door.”
“We weren’t sure who was our enemy and who was our friend,” Rich Edenfield said. “But 95 percent of the population was very grateful that we were there. Saddam’s regime was pretty brutal.”
It is staggering to realize that 20 years have passed since the invasion of Iraq. Since then, we’ve seen the invention and proliferation of social media and smartphones, the election of Obama and Trump and Biden, a global pandemic, and the post-Cold War reshuffle of the world order. There are still 2,500 US soldiers in Iraq today, advising and supporting Iraqis and Kurds.
Think of the invasion in binary terms – success or failure? – is a foolish order. As David Frum wrote in a recent Atlantic retrospective, who called the war “a grave and costly mistake,” the war didn’t discover weapons of mass destruction and destabilized the Middle East — but it also removed a brutal dictator. We have no way of knowing how a Saddam regime would have turned out.
Retired Lt. Gen. Rick Nash of New Prague, commanding general of the US Army and multinational forces in Iraq in 2009 and 2010, remembers exactly where he was when Saddam was captured on December 11, 2003: on a US base in Bosnia. Governor Tim Pawlenty paid a visit to the Minnesota National Guard troops. Nash learned of Saddam’s capture when Pawlenty received a call from a reporter in Minnesota.
“‘Wow, that’s pretty cool — now this thing is over,'” Nash recalls as he thought. “And then, five years later, I’m in Iraq and this thing is still going on.”
Nash sees the biggest mistake of the war as Paul Bremer, who headed the Provisional Coalition Authority after the invasion, banned Saddam’s Ba’ath Party and disbanded the Iraqi army. Ba’athists were not all Saddam partisans; These people made the country work.
“They welcomed us with open arms until they saw the plan that we rolled out,” Nash said. “If you get rid of all these operators there is no electricity, you are not properly distributing the wealth from the oil revenues and that’s what we’ve had to recover from. We became the hated person because they didn’t have a job.”
The role of the National Guard has changed over the past two decades. Overseas deployments have become regular occurrences for members of the Guard as the Guard becomes increasingly intertwined with active forces. Nearly 8,000 Minnesota National Guard members have served in Iraq since 2003.
“We don’t have enough on active duty to do what this country asked them to do in 20 years in two theaters of war,” Nash said. “We also ran out of water with our NATO partners.”
Rich and Liz Edenfield now have two daughters. Jade is 20, Mackenzie is 10. Rich retired from the Minnesota National Guard last year and the family moved to North Carolina. When he thinks of Iraq, he focuses on the good: throwing candy at children or Iraqis hugging and thanking him.
“I’m proud of all of that,” said Rich Edenfield. “I did what I thought was right. I have served my country. We have done so much good for the Iraqi people. Getting Saddam out of there did so much for this country, for the women, for the children.”
“My concern,” Liz Edenfield said, “is that’s how it’s normalized. We’ve had so many outreaches for so many years, it’s like this is part of our culture now. It’s easy to take for granted what our soldiers have.” gone through. But I hope that’s never taken for granted. Never.”