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Veterans Service Group Leaders Visit Iraq, Gain Understanding

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 8, 2007 – After a whirlwind trip to Iraq, the heads of three major veterans service organizations came home with a new understanding of the situation and of the morale of those serving there.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Left to right: Gary L. Kurpius, commander in chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of Multinational Force Iraq, Martin F. Conatser, prospective national commander of the American Legion, and Norbert Robert Ryan Jr., president of the Military Officers Association of America pose for a picture in Baghdad, Iraq, Aug. 2-4, 2007. Photo by Army Staff Sgt. Lorie Jewell, USA
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Retired Navy Vice Adm. Norbert Ryan Jr., president of the Military Officers Association of America, Gary Kurpius, a Vietnam veteran who serves as national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, and Martin F. Conatser, prospective national commander of the American Legion, visited Iraq Aug. 2-4 and met with U.S. and Iraqi troops.

The three were escorted by a Defense Department representative, and had the chance to talk with U.S. military officers, including Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of Multinational Force Iraq, and Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who commands Multinational Corps Iraq.

Ryan said, the message the group took away from these encounters is that the United States now has the right military strategy and military leadership in place and has achieved real tactical momentum on the ground.

“Those Americans serving there, from senior officers to junior enlisted, believe they are now on the right track,” Ryan said. “They, and many Iraqis, are making great sacrifices for a nation’s future, and we should be proud of their efforts.”

Kurpius acknowledged the remaining challenges -- especially in the political arena -- but said security is the priority, as nothing else can be achieved without it.

“Our troops are living with Iraqi forces in outposts scattered throughout Baghdad,” he said. “The nonstop security is making a positive impact on the safety and well-being of the civilian population, which in turn is giving them hope for a better future – a future without sectarian violence or foreign extremists,” he said.

Religious differences in Iraq are currently a major problem, Conatser said. But, he observed, it took the United States centuries to overcome many of its religious and racial tensions.

“I met an impressive Iraqi general who was a Shiia and commanding many Sunnis,” Conatser said. “It didn’t seem to be much of an issue to them, but it just demonstrates how the terrorists are able to stir things up among the masses.”

Like his contemporaries, Conatser got the same impression from his experience in Iraq: “Everything I saw points to the fact that the surge is working,” he said.

As evidence of that, Kurpius noted that seven of Iraq’s 18 provinces are completely under the control of Iraqi security forces. That number, which is expected to more than double within six months, is because the Iraqi military is stepping up to protect its country, he said.

“Security brings hope, and that’s what this country is experiencing right now,” he said, noting the VFW has expressed its support of the new strategy combining military, diplomatic and economic initiatives.

After discussions with servicemembers they came in contact with, all three agreed with Petraeus that the United States has the most experienced and professional ground forces in history.

“Naturally, most would rather be home, and tour extensions can be demoralizing,” Conatser said. “But I didn’t meet anyone who said the United States should abandon the mission there.

“If the troops serving there don’t want to cut and run, then neither should we,” he added.

Kurpius concurred. “Our troops are well aware of how long we’ve been in Iraq, and of waning public support of their mission, but their morale is super high because the new strategy is producing positive results,” he said.

“There is no question that there is another ‘Greatest Generation’ in our military that has picked up the mantle of leadership,” Ryan said. “Now we need today’s citizens to give this generation the same level of support and commitment that citizens gave to our World War II forces.”

(Compiled from American Legion, Military Officers Association of America and Veterans of Foreign Wars news releases.)

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