"It's just hard to contextualize and conceptualize time, I guess. Especially with something like [the Iraq War]. And the memories that you have of that event are still so visceral and real. It still seems near and immediate in a lot of ways." -- Maj. Gen. Jon Stubbs, Arkansas secretary of the military and adjutant general of the Arkansas National Guard on March 22, 2023.
According to history books, America's second war in Iraq -- also known as "Operation Iraqi Freedom" -- began on Wednesday, March 19, 2003.
That's when President George W. Bush's 48-hour ultimatum for Saddam Hussein and his sons to leave Iraq or face war at the "time of our choosing" ended at 7 p.m. CT.
Sometime after, an arsenal that included 40 Tomahawk cruise missiles and 2,000-pound bombs called joint direct attack munitions were unleashed on the capital city of Baghdad in the early morning hours.
Within 24 hours, coalition forces began crossing the Iraqi border on their way to Baghdad.
The Iraq War, which would claim the lives of 4,598 American service members and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, according to Brown University, would not officially be declared over for eight years.
However, for some Arkansans involved in the conflict, their personal part of Operation Iraqi Freedom began well before March 2003 and ended years before 2011.
PICTURES OF ME
How long ago was 2003?
Just look through Michael Strawn's "About Me Books."
They're two three-ring binders full of certificates and pictures chronicling his first tour of duty in Iraq, from March 2003 to January 2004.
Strawn, 49, flips through the picture binder during a break from his full-time job at Camp Robinson as part of medical readiness for the aviation unit.
The world of 2003 -- when Strawn was a medic in the Arkansas National Guard's now-defunct 296th Ground Ambulance Company -- was one where physical film was still regularly used to document daily life.
Some of Strawn's photos have the bright red dates in the lower right-hand corner -- like one documenting an apocalyptic-looking sandstorm on May 14, 2003 -- that say "you had to be there."
There are plenty of moments not captured in Strawn's binder.
Like his vivid memory from the week of Jan. 18, 2003.
At the time, he worked in the Pulaski County sheriff's office.
On Jan. 15, Strawn's wife Melanie gave birth to their first son, Jacob. A few days later, they pulled into their driveway in North Little Rock.
As Melanie worked to get a baby seat out of their car, Strawn went to check the mail.
He found a letter addressed to him from the Arkansas Military Department.
"I remember seeing that letter and kind of having an idea before even opening it what was gonna be inside as she was fighting with the car seat," Strawn remembered. "That's what started it."
Within a couple of weeks, Strawn was on active duty.
When the 296th Ground Ambulance Company crossed the border from Kuwait into Iraq, Strawn's unit was a couple of days behind the initial invasion.
However, the moment was still "very busy, very scary."
They were driving in on ambulances packed to the brim with personal gear.
"We were kind of like the Beverly Hillbillies, had stuff tied to the roof of the ambulance and stuff just about everywhere we could so that we could still use the back portion of the ambulance," Strawn said. "There was fear, but you were too busy really to think about it too much."
As soon as his portion of the convoy was on the Iraqi side, "there were kids everywhere" crowding the vehicles as they drove by at 40 mph.
One child managed to grab a pair of Oakley glasses off a platoon sergeant in the Humvee in front of him.
"He lost his fancy sunglasses within the first minute of being in Iraq," Strawn recalled.
The week Operation Iraqi Freedom got underway, Jon Stubbs of Searcy wasn't near a modern battlefield.
He and his family were on spring break in Williamsburg, Va.
"Obviously, I was very distracted," Stubbs recalled while sitting in his office at the Arkansas National Guard headquarters in North Little Rock. "I had some friends there, friends that were on active duty, that were part of the initial invasion, people I knew. So I was very, very distracted and had a hard time concentrating on the vacation, but I certainly remember it."
In 2003, Stubbs was a 30-year-old captain in the Arkansas National Guard's 39th Infantry Brigade in command of Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, which was headquartered in Walnut Ridge.
He had never seen combat to that point.
"We knew [Iraq] was going to be an all-hands-on-deck-type endeavor, and we knew it wasn't just going to be a quick thing," Stubbs said.
That summer, his unit attended its annual training at Fort Chaffee in Fort Smith under the belief that they would eventually attend the Joint Readiness Training Center the following year.
"But we got indications there at the end of that training period that 'hey, you guys might not be going to JRTC next year. You might be somewhere else.'"
The weekend of July 27, the 3,000-member 39th Infantry Brigade was told to be prepared to be sent to Iraq. By Sept. 27, it received its marching orders.
The brigade would spend a year in Iraq.
After a month spent training in Walnut Ridge, the inevitable came Nov. 1 when Stubbs boarded a bus to Fort Hood in Texas.
"It's one of those things you never forget," Stubbs said. "The reason I don't forget it is because I remember trick-or-treating with my young daughter. She was 7 at the time. And we were trick-or-treating in Pocahontas, Arkansas. That was our last night together before we left."
Stubbs' first "No Kidding Mobilization" was in full swing.
Five months later, on April 8, 2004 -- Stubbs' 32nd birthday -- he crossed from Kuwait into Iraq as a "lead element" of one of his battalion's first convoys.
"As you come into Iraq, as you come closer to Baghdad, the intelligence reports pick up that troops are in contact and there are casualties and there's like a crescendo where all the training and all your experience and all your education that you've gone through up into that point in time, it kind of culminates and then you realize OK, you're fixing to put all that into practice."
THE FORBIDDEN WORD
Unlike Strawn and Stubbs, Brig. Gen. Riley Porter had already seen action in the Middle East when the Iraq War began.
A former mayor of Helena with 20 years of National Guard experience, in 2002 Porter had a command position with the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing at Ganci Air Base in Kyrgyzstan as part of support for Operation Enduring Freedom.
When he got the call to deploy to Iraq, Porter was a colonel in command of the 189th Airlift Wing at Little Rock Air Force Base.
Also unlike Strawn and Stubbs, Porter would only spend four months in Iraq, from July to October 2003.
Deploying by himself, Porter was the first Arkansas air guardsman to enter Iraq. He would command roughly 2,000 airmen in the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing at Tallil Air Basein southern Iraq.
At one point, Porter's mission was to make sure C-17 military transport planes were able to get to Balad Air Base, a former Iraqi base 40 miles north of Baghdad that was in "total chaos."
That was the setup to a surreal experience for Porter's first time being embedded with the Army.
"I had to show up there at night because of the security and we had no protection flying in there," Porter recalled.
Upon arriving, he was led into a little room right around the time mortar fire was directed at the base.
In the room sat a career Army general, "just a crusty old guy," and two colonels of Porter's same rank.
"I walked in there and I kind of picked up on the ice that was in the air," Porter said.
As the mortar fire was "pounding outside," the general asked Porter for his orders. Porter took them out of his green Army bag, which he called his "purse," and laid them out.
After reading over them, the general told Porter to "tell me what you're going to do here."
In the middle of Porter's spiel, he began saying "... I hope to have an easy ..."
"Stop," the general ordered.
"We don't use the word 'hope' around here," he said. "We assign somebody responsible for making it happen."
Porter thought to himself, "what have I gotten myself into?"
Continuing his speech, Porter said "we're gonna get this stuff set up for our customers ..."
"Stop," the general repeated. "Soldiers are not customers. Customers have options. Soldiers don't."
Finally, Porter told the general "if you have problems with my orders, you can call Gen. Buchanan and discuss it with him."
The general relented and said, "at least you got your Army [bag]."
"You mean my purse?" Porter asked.
"Soldiers don't carry purses!" the general exploded. "You're lucky I don't have you on the ground doing push-ups!"
"It really didn't start off on a good note," Porter said.
WORST DAYS, CLOSE CALLS
Nov. 20, 2004.
It's etched in Stubbs' mind, like the Halloween night spent with his daughter and the birthday spent entering Iraq.
"I'll never forget it," Stubbs says. "I think about it every 20th of November."
That day marked the heaviest fighting the 39th Infantry Brigade saw in its first eight months on the ground. Located around a Iraqi police station in the Adhamiyah district in Baghdad, it started just after dawn and continued throughout the day. Eight roadside bombs and two car bombs were found or detonated near Stubbs' unit, Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion of the 153rd Infantry.
According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's story from the time, the attack was apparent retaliation for a raid the previous day on the Abu Hanifa mosque -- the oldest Sunni mosque in Baghdad.
"It was just a complex attack in the neighborhood that started with one of my platoons engaging a large group of insurgents in the vicinity of the police station there and it grew to me putting in another platoon," Stubbs recalled. "We had an adjacent unit get caught up in the fight. They had a killed in action. ... and it included dismounted insurgents, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades and it included a [vehicle-borne] IED attack against one of my platoon ... had multiple wounded. It was just a very intense, intense day that, essentially it was an all-day thing. As I look back on it, that would probably be the most intense day that I had over there."
Strawn's worst day in Iraq didn't include his closest call, but it's "the biggest thing I think about quite a bit."
It occurred in the Ramadi/Fallujah area, where a group of five or six ambulances attached to different units had been sent.
Ambulances could be attached to a unit for anywhere between a couple of days or a month before being reassigned.
"My ambulance had been with this one unit for quite a while and we're getting ready to move to a new base," Strawn recalled. "The company commander was going out to scout the location and he got blown up.
"I was supposed to be in the vehicle with him. But due to some last-minute changes I wasn't."
"A lot of the time I wonder about that," Strawn said. "If I had been in the truck, what would have happened? Would I have made it? Would I have been there to maybe help him because he didn't make it."
Porter's closest call came in a rocket attack that could have been worse.
One day he was on his way to chow hall when insurgent forces began "lobbing in some rockets" at his base.
"We'd never had a rocket attack at that point."
Porter remembers an Army officer yelling "Get down! Get down! Get down!" and four rockets impacting nearby.
"One of them hit close enough to me that it blew me up in the air and put me up against ... a big concrete barrier" meant for protection.
Porter was knocked out and hurt his shoulder.
Unfortunately, four Army soldiers were killed.
"I considered myself very, extremely lucky," Porter said. "We found out the next day I think it was ... they had cherry-wired together eight missiles ... They kind of laid them on a bank, just kind of angled them to go off. ... Four of them went off and four of them didn't."
The process of leaving Baghdad and eventually Iraq after a year was "very, very surreal" for Stubbs.
"When you cross the border and you start to download all your ammo, and you turn all your ammo in in Kuwait and you're without bullets," Stubbs recalled. "You go from being hypervigilant for essentially a year, locked and loaded, to use a slang term, to turning in your ammo. And I remember that just being almost jarring in some ways."
Stubbs recalled being picked up in an SUV at a coalition staging area.
"I came off my combat vehicle, away from the [military] radios, away from all this stuff and you get into an SUV with a radio and an air conditioner and a CD player and ... you're just kind of back in civilization. That's a very strange feeling. It was at that point in time you realize that 'hey, I'm gonna make it home.'"
Eventually, back in the U.S., Stubbs drove home from Fort Sill in Oklahoma. He was greeted with a huge welcoming party by his family.
The first thing Stubbs ate? Gumbo.
"I love gumbo, so my dad fixed me ... homemade gumbo," Stubbs recalled. "There's no doubt I went on an eating frenzy in terms of good food."
Even after the celebrations, the transition from deployment in the Middle East to being back home in Arkansas was jarring.
"One day, you're in Baghdad," Stubbs said, closing a fist to emphasize his point while also briefly closing his eyes, likely recalling that stretch in the spring of 2005. "Three days later, or maybe two days later, you're in Kuwait. ... Then maybe five days later, you're back in the U.S. And then a couple of days after that, you're back in your living room."
Stubbs "struggled mightily" upon his return stateside.
"I'm not ashamed to share it," he says, recalling three or four months struggling in "relating to my wife, or relating to my young daughter at the time. I had a hard time communicating with people. ... I just wasn't ready to talk about it. I hadn't fully processed it."
Strawn, who had received a two-week leave the previous fall, experienced many of the same feelings. That was on top of having missed almost the entire first year of his son's life.
"I jokingly say I got to miss out on all the big diaper changes and the no sleeping at night," Stubbs says. "Staying on edge was difficult and it took a while, you know any little sound that everyone else is used to [would] make you kind of think about it for just a minute."
Stubbs and his wife, Jane, were provided counseling to help in their reintegration process after essentially spending a year and a half apart.
Stubbs acknowledges that as an active-duty Guardsman, he had access to resources that likely resulted in an easier time transitioning than others.
"I was very blessed that I got to continue to wear a uniform, so it wasn't like I came back and had to go reintegrate into a civilian job," Stubbs said. "I came back to work at Camp Robinson ... I still had access to this environment all the time. You think about our traditional guardsmen, they came back, same experiences as I did. ... But they came back and they went back to a civilian career or they went back into school or maybe they didn't have a job. And you just think about how difficult that transition was.
"Much more difficult."
In all, Stubbs estimates that it took him about six months to return to a sense of normalcy.
But normal only lasts so long in his field.
Stubbs observed that within five months of many Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans returning home, they'd be called to respond to a disaster at home in August and September 2005.
"I know that sounds kind of wacky, but ... a lot of the OIF veterans went straight into Hurricane Katrina down there in New Orleans," said Stubbs, noting that the fallout from the Category 5 hurricane "was a very chaotic, surreal environment in and of itself.
"That's not far removed from being deployed."
Stubbs, who will be 51 in April, leans back in an office chair, folds his hands in his lap and lets out a breath while looking at the ceiling, thinking about the question.
"When I think about the Iraq War what is the lasting image?"
Stubbs' eyes dart around a bit as he remembers the war, at least the war he experienced.
"I don't know, it's just the faces of my soldiers," Stubbs answers after about 20 seconds. "That's the image. The faces of those that I served with."
Stubbs sees some of those faces every day.
On the wall opposite his desk is a shadow box.
In it is a small American flag he bought in Kuwait before crossing into Iraq and put inside his body armor, where it stayed for his entire tour. Above the flag is a picture of Stubbs and three of his lieutenants posing in Baghdad.
"That's what made the experience was the people," Stubbs says. "You served with extraordinary people that did extraordinary things, heroic things. These are people, these are our Arkansans, that just did extraordinary, heroic, incredibly brave things. That are just living in our communities in relative obscurity. Nobody knows. These are people that just came back here and went back to work."
According to the Arkansas National Guard, 23 of its service members died in Iraq between 2004 and 2008.
Of the men and women who made up the Arkansas Army and Air National Guard in March 2003, 830 are still in uniform today. That's 10% of the roughly 8,500-person force that Stubbs now commands as its adjutant general.
What Stubbs experienced 19 years ago was a "foundational event."
"It was monumental, transformative," Stubbs said. "It really brought home the importance of good training, of good leadership."
He added that "it kind of put it all in perspective; it's not just training for training's sake. What we do, it has consequences if you don't do it right."
One of the 830 Guard members still serving 20 years after the war is Strawn, but his time is limited.
On the day he looked through his "About Me Books" at Camp Robinson, including the picture of him smoking a Cuban cigar with a friend after an ambulance run, Strawn was 52 days from retiring from a military career that began in the early 1990s.
During a phone conversation a few days earlier, Strawn was unsure what his future held.
"I'm ready for it," Strawn said. "Lately, I've been getting into a lot of hobbies, laser engraving, and I just got a 3-D printer."
As for Operation Iraqi Freedom, it doesn't feel like it's been 20 years for Strawn.
"When I talked to my buddies that were there, seems like it was maybe 10 years ago," Strawn observed. "I don't really think about the whys [of why we went to war] and especially the losses as much as what I did there and seeing the good changes that came out of it."
When asked to compare his time in Iraq to Afghanistan, Porter called it a "loaded question."
"Both of them were totally different motivations," Porter noted. "I was honored to serve in both locations, and honored to serve with all the people. I felt the Iraqi tour was most rewarding to me personally because of what was accomplished. I could sense that the Afghan [war] was going to drag on forever. ... Whereas Iraq ... I could see what we were doing could have an ultimate end. Of course, I didn't call that too well, did I?"
While major combat operations were declared over in 2011, America continues to have a presence in Iraq.
Twenty years after the bombs first fell and veterans like Strawn streamed into the country, roughly 2,500 U.S service members still report for duty in Iraq.