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Saturday, October 23, 2021

Five Years in Iraq: Part One

Editor’s note: This March marks the fifth anniversary of the initial stage of Operation Iraqi Freedom. While UC Davis lies a world away from Iraq, the events occurring overseas can be felt close to home. In the first half of this two-part series, UC Davis professor of military science Stephen Heringer’s story is told.

Baby Grace was born Jan. 20, 2003, and just one month later, Stephen Heringer was not home to hold his child.

An Army pilot, Heringer was instead crossing from Kuwait to Iraq, carrying out the initial stage of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Baby Grace, like Operation Iraqi Freedom, is now 5 years of age – a stark reminder to Major Heringer how time flies.

The presence of American troops still looms large in Iraq. The United States is still in a time of war with no clear timetable to bring its military home – not until the mission is finally accomplished.

Heringer was one of approximately 250,000 American servicemen deployed to Iraq back in 2003. From the beginning, Heringer has had to sacrifice being with his family, including his infant daughter, to serve his country.

He praises his wife Sarah, for shouldering the burden of raising Grace during that first year. Despite help from family and friends, the Heringer family was incomplete as long as Stephen was in Iraq.

“Steve felt his sacrifice was [for] the betterment of the [Iraqi] kids,” Sarah said. “The sacrifice he was making was helping them.”

Much like how Sarah was raising baby Grace stateside, Heringer and the American military in the Middle East were trying to raise the Iraqi people.

“On a daily basis, [we are there] for the betterment of the Iraqi people and the future of an Iraqi government,” Heringer said.

Heringer understands the conundrum of going into a sovereign nation and telling the Iraqi people they need democracy.

”Put yourself in their shoes,” Heringer says. “The way the Iraqi people treated me would be the same if I was in America as a foreign force. The [Iraqi people] appreciated the security and opportunity we were providing for them. At the same time, they want their sovereign land back, and they want to govern themselves.

There is a sense of frustration that they cannot make things happen as fast as they want. There is tension, obviously. Understand, we are doing the best job we possibly can to promote their rights.

Heringer shies away from passing judgment about Iraq. He says it is not his job to judge the war in its current stage and will reserve his judgment till the war ends and all the facts are public.

But when will the war end?

He does not know, but he says history will determine the success or failure of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He said he does not have the desire to rewrite history, nor does he have any regrets about the war. Progress is incremental in Iraq, but has been made, Heringer said.

“There [were] elections that were held in November of 2004,” he said. They were really successful. I was in Tal Afar. They had a real large turnout. Seeing the people in the streets at the community buildings … I flew over them, and everybody was waving and showing their purple thumb.

That goes a long way in combating the stresses you have for leaving your family on the home front. Those types of moments solidify that ‘right now I am doing the right thing. I am doing the right thing.’”

Heringer returned home after his first tour in Iraq just in time to see the birth of his second child, Ella, who was born in December of 2005.

For the second time, Captain and Troop Commander Stephen Heringer was a dad again – not that he had much time to embrace his second child’s birth, either.

A month later, Heringer was summoned back to Iraq for his second tour of duty – and the second time was no easier.

“Those are my girls,” Heringer said. “When I left for the first time, Grace was 1 month old. It was very hard – even harder on my wife. When I came back, we were pregnant again, and I was short-noticed to redeploy. Ella was 1 month old when I was deployed a second time. I missed the first years of their life. It was difficult – very, very difficult.”

But now he can get some of his lost time back.

Heringer spends more time with his girls now that he’s back home at UC Davis. He is a professor of military science for the Reserve Officer Training Corps program on campus – the very program he graduated from that commissioned him as a first lieutenant.

He remains in Davis, serving a three-year rotation, training the Aggie cadets to also become second lieutenants within the Army. He expects the vast majority of his pupils to see action in Iraq.

“Steve is a pro,” says Lieutenant Colonel Mark W. Connelly. “I respect and admire him. He has lived, seen and breathed it in Iraq. [His story] is something you won’t see on CNN or MSNBC.”

When Heringer is done with his three-year assignment, he will be eligible to be sent back to Iraq once again.

“We have been through it,” Sarah said. “I hope it doesn’t happen, but we will get through it if it does.”

For now, he simply overlooks Toomey Field in his office. A dog tag and cap hang to his left. His computer is turned on, but not in use. Its screensaver slowly cascades with family pictures of his wife and two children.

JACKSON YAN can be reached at features@californiaaggie.com.

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