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Obama's Iraq war speech garners mixed reaction in bay area

Mike McDonald piloted Army helicopters in Vietnam and said the draft should be reinstated if the United States is going to keep fighting in the Middle East. 

MELISSA LYTTLE | Times

Mike McDonald piloted Army helicopters in Vietnam and said the draft should be reinstated if the United States is going to keep fighting in the Middle East. 

President Barack Obama sat before a TV camera in the Oval Office on Tuesday and told the nation, "The American combat mission in Iraq has ended."

The announcement came without a peace treaty, without ticker tape. No helicopter lifted Americans off a roof. No sailor kissed a nurse in Times Square.

We asked people in the Tampa Bay area what they made of the subdued ending.

• • •

Trey Rustmann, 40, of Tampa was deployed to Iraq in 2003 as a Marine reservist just after the invasion.

"It offers hope that a stable and free Iraq is possible. It is a good feeling to know that the over 4,000 U.S. servicemen and women died for a noble cause … the cause of freedom.

"But in modern warfare … defining winning and losing and when combat operations end is extremely hard to determine. I think we will always have some sort of military role in Iraq, much as we do in Korea and in Japan and Germany."

• • •

For almost six years, Bianca West-Fehring spent Friday afternoons waving an American flag on Tampa's Bayshore Boulevard with the Bayshore Patriots.

"I hope (Obama) packs them all up on boats and airplanes and brings all those boys home. Every single one of them. And I want him to leave Iraq to its own devices. Let them pull themselves out of their own problems. The next time this happens, I hope we have a president with spine who will go over there and bomb them all to perdition."

• • •

Jayne Blacklin, 42, is a licensed clinical social worker who has worked at the Bay Pines VA Medical Center in St. Petersburg for 17 years. She heads a program that helps Iraq and Afghanistan veterans return to civilian life.

"I felt a sigh of relief. I know they are moving into a new mission in Iraq. And I just wondered how things will ultimately go. I'm kind of holding my breath."

She added, "Basically internally I felt more committed and I have a greater obligation now to serve these men and women."

• • •

Joshua Steinhauer, 32, of Brandon was an Air Force "linguist debriefer" in Iraq in 2007. Out of the military, he has visited Iraq working for a private intelligence contractor.

Steinhauer wrote a book upon his return from Iraq, Dinner With a Terrorist.

"Part of me is glad (the war) is over. But it's not 100 percent over yet because we still have troops there and there is still reconstruction that needs to be done.

"I just hope it doesn't all go to hell and I'll feel like I wasted the time I spent there. But at some point, you have to call it and say, 'You know what, we've invested seven years and at some point, you have to be willing to stop.' "

• • •

Mark Skogman, 54, of New Port Richey is a former telecommunications repair technician who joined Veterans for Peace in 2006. Two years later, he helped stage a protest in St. Petersburg's Williams Park.

"The war is definitely not over. The U.S. still has more than 50,000 troops in Iraq. People are still going to die over there.

"I voted for Obama because I thought he would end these wars. Both of them. But the president seems to be willing to support these conflicts for much longer than I am. When I think about all these people who have already died, all the soldiers who are never going to come home, all the ones still there, still being sent there …"

He choked up. Took a breath. "It's just a useless war."

• • •

Mike McDonald, 64, of St. Petersburg was an Army helicopter pilot in Vietnam. He enlisted and served 18 months in combat. Now, he is the senior vice commander of VFW Post 6827 in St. Petersburg. On Wednesday, he was having a beer at the bar.

"To me, this is just shifting things around. You're just going to move them all to Afghanistan. And I totally disagree that these young soldiers should have to serve two and three tours of combat. If we're going to keep waging these wars, we need to bring back the draft. I wish the president had said that."

• • •

Mike Prysner, 27, grew up in Tampa. His U.S. Army unit was sent to Iraq in the first weeks of the war to secure oil fields. He said he came to believe he was really there "to seize control of their natural resources." He now lives in Los Angeles and works for the ANSWER Coalition: Act Now to Stop War and End Racism.

"That speech was just a bunch of double-speak. The president said he is going to change combat soldiers to advisers to assist Iraqi soldiers, but they'll still get killed. And Iraq will continue to be destroyed because of our colonial interests.

"I would have liked to hear the president say that the Bush administration will be indicted for war crimes. I wanted to hear him say something about repaying Iraq for all the damage we caused. The people there, their lives have only gotten worse."

• • •

Bryan Ott, 47, of Riverview spent nine years on Navy subs and served in the first Gulf War. His stepson, John "J.T." Doody, was shot twice in the leg while serving as a Marine in Iraq.

"I think the president missed the boat. He should've talked about why we went into Iraq in the first place, how Saddam was gassing his own people, ignoring UN resolutions. He should have talked about what we've done there, what the soldiers accomplished, the sacrifices they made.

"We've had a few elections in Iraq. That's a big success in itself. The guys coming back are pretty proud of the work they did there, building schools and roads.

"But I don't think we should pull all our troops out of there now. That's just going to leave chaos.

"And don't get me started on Afghanistan. We're just playing patty cake there. We ought to just blow up the place and leave."

• • •

Stephanie Lincoln spent a decade in the National Guard and now directs the guard's Psychology Health Center in St. Augustine. When she joined in 1997, she said, Guardsmen never dreamed of being deployed overseas. Now, thousands are sent to war. The announcement that troops are leaving Iraq and more are heading to Afghanistan doesn't change anything, she said.

"We still know we always have to be mission-ready, for wars or floods or hurricanes. They can bring those troops home today, but they can be sent right back there — or to another war. We know, even if the president says this war is over, that it can happen again. Tomorrow."

Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8825. Times staff writer Mike Wilson and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Obama's Iraq war speech garners mixed reaction in bay area 09/01/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 2, 2010 12:36am]

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