Philadelphia-area veterans reflect after combat operations end

Posted: September 02, 2010

SHOTS RANG out shortly after dawn outside the schoolhouse where Army veteran Joshua Levy was stationed, helping to take back the Iraqi town of Baqubah, which had been overrun by insurgents.

Levy's infantry squad lost a couple of people that day in 2007, one of the worst battles he'd seen.

A day after President Obama spoke from the Oval Office to announce the end of combat operations in the seven-year war in Iraq, Levy - a four-year Army veteran - was among a group of local Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who visited the Philadelphia Zoo yesterday to reflect on their experiences, discuss Obama's decision to pull out combat troops and learn about benefits provided to veterans.

"I think it [Obama's decision] was one of the best ideas anyone has [had]," said Levy, 26. "To tell the truth, we really don't need to be there anymore."

Levy returned home to Levittown from Iraq in April 2009 and yesterday he did something he hadn't done since he was 10 - go to the zoo with his mother, Lynn.

"We try to use something to hook people in. What better than the Philadelphia Zoo?" said Dale Whitman, public affairs officer with the VA Medical Center in University City, which sponsored yesterday's Welcome Home event.

"The whole idea is to do the right thing by veterans and that's to tell them about their benefits," Whitman said, listing such perks as five years of free health care after leaving the service.

Eduardo Vega, 45, was especially interested in a VA-backed home loan and in help paying for college for his two youngest daughters.

The 19-year veteran, from Allentown, said that ending combat in Iraq was long overdue but that there's still more work to be done.

"We're seeing people shooting at our aircraft, the sky light up," Vega said. "That's something I'm never going to see again and never want to see again."

The daily toot-toot of car horns makes Vega think of a steaming Afghanistan desert more than eight years ago, when others in his unit would make that same sound to alert one another to don gas masks.

"It's nice to see everyone get back to their families," Vega said. "One minute you're alive, the next minute you're dead."

More than 4,400 troops were killed in Iraq and 30,000 injured.

But not all combat veterans support Obama's decision.

"I'm a little on the fence about it," said Ryan Klick, 21, of Phoenixville. "Their government is not really stepping up. My buddies are still going through stuff."

Klick, an Army veteran, was in Iraq for five months before he suffered a concussion, and back and arm injuries, when he was hit earlier this year by an improvised explosive device during a sandstorm.

He returned a month later to his wife and baby daughter, now 4 months old.

"I hated not having him around," said his wife, Ashley Klick.

When Theodore Smith returned from Iraq in December, his wife, Shereese Smith, 35, was just excited about having an in-house adult conversation again.

The West Philly native served in the Army National Guard for three years.

"It sounds good," Theodore Smith, 31, said about Obama's announcement. "But there's no way you can pull everyone out that quickly. It'll get worse and you'll have to go back."

In his address Tuesday, Obama said that it was time for Iraq to take control of their destiny, adding that "America has paid a huge price."

Twenty-one-year veteran Larry Norman served in the 56th Brigade with the Army National Guard and has been on medical leave since September 2009. Norman had surgery on his wrists and knees after he was injured.

"It's an up-and-down situation," said Norman, of Wallington, N.J. "They [Iraqis] don't want us there.

"How can you change somebody that doesn't want to change?"

When a member of his unit got hit, Norman wondered if he would make it back alive.

"I still have flashbacks," he said. "I want to leave Iraq in Iraq."

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