On October 17, the Iraqi military began its offensive to wrest Mosul from the control of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria two years after the terror organization seized the city. The rapid fall of Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city, in 2014 was a disheartening defeat for Iraq’s security forces, and one that saw its soldiers lay down arms and flee in the wake of the terror group’s advance.
It was also a severe blow to veterans of Iraq who fought there, some of whom see the recent offensive as a bloody example of history repeating itself.
On October 20, an American service member was killed by an improvised explosive device north of Mosul, reports Military.com, marking the fourth United States military death in Iraq since U.S. troops deployed there in 2014 to support the fight against ISIS.
The 94,000-member coalition taking part in the Mosul offensive consists of Iraqi security forces, Kurdish Peshmerga, and thousands of irregular fighters from various groups, backed by just over 100 American ground troops supporting the advance. ISIS is estimated to have a force of 6,000 militants within the city, but they have had months to prepare — creating an elaborate network of tunnels — and Coalition forces will likely face booby traps, car bombs and suicide bombs. The fighting is expected to be bloody, brutal, and grueling.
In fact, as history shows us, it’s certain to be.
In mid-November, 2004, during the early days of the Iraq War, insurgent forces launched an attack on Mosul, targeting police stations, bridges, and American military personnel. It was an attempt to relieve pressure on anti-Coalition fighters in Fallujah, where one of the Iraq War’s defining battles was underway.
“What happened there was we were en-route to go to Fallujah, to help out down there, and as that was happening, insurgents were coming up from the South to take over Mosul and we both ran into each other during that process,” said Tom Voss who was an infantryman assigned to a sniper platoon during a yearlong deployment to Mosul in 2004.
The 2004 Battle of Mosul, as it came to be called, cost the lives of 18 American service members, five Iraqi security forces personnel, and resulted in more than 170 American and 30 Iraqi soldiers wounded. An estimated 600 enemy combatants were believed to have been killed during the four-day battle.
“We were one of the first combat stryker brigades to go in there,” recounted the 32-year old veteran, who turned 21 during his tour in Mosul. “The first time we got attacked was, I dunno, it must have been a 10-year-old kid who threw a molotov cocktail at one of our strykers and that’s what kind of kicked it off. From then it was IEDs, VBIEDs (vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices), and we started to get ambushed more often.”
Over the course of Voss’ yearlong deployment to Mosul, the fighting was heavy and the toll high.
“Through the 12 months we were there, my platoon sergeant was killed in action,” said Voss. “My squad leader was killed in action. I took RPG shrapnel to the head during a firefight, which ended up being the Battle for Mosul. I literally got knocked unconscious and probably, if I had moved an inch one way or the other I would have gotten shrapnel across the neck. I was pretty fortunate during that time.”
More than just a scene of intense violence, Mosul was a political battleground as well. In 2005, the first Iraqi primary elections were held, and American troops were tasked with securing polling stations so the city’s populace could vote in the nation’s first democratic election.
“In ‘04 and I guess it was January of ‘05, that was a really special deployment and time in Mosul because we helped out with the first Iraqi primary election there,” explained Emmet Cullen, an Army infantryman who served alongside Voss during that deployment. Cullen spent a total of 18 months in Mosul over the course of two deployments between 2004 and 2006.
“We had a big fight for the city, and had to set up the polling stations, so the Iraqis could come out and vote, and did the whole purple finger movement,” said Cullen, who left the Army as a sergeant in 2007 and now works as a school teacher in California. “That was a really hard fought victory, because so many people showed up to vote. That was a pretty big thing for us, and I think some of that gets lost in the shuffle, with what happened in Iraq and how poorly everything turned out.”
For American troops like Voss and Cullen, Mosul is more than a city they explained. It’s a collection of vivid memories and the scene of deeply personal, life-changing events. Veterans of Mosul, fought, bled, and lost friends to secure the city, enable its populace to vote in democratic elections, and they defended it from repeated attack by insurgents throughout the Iraq War.
In 2014, three years after the U.S. military withdrew from Iraq, Mosul fell to a new enemy.
The city’s fall to ISIS in 2014 raised questions for Mosul veterans that persist today: What was it all for?
In June 2014 Islamic State fighters overran the city of Mosul after U.S.-trained Iraqi soldiers and police officers abandoned their posts, in some cases discarding their weapons and uniforms as they fled, allowing enemy militants to capture arms and equipment left behind, reports the Washington Post. Tens of thousands of civilians were also displaced following the attack, and days into ISIS’ advance into the city, its black flags flew overhead.
“They just laid down everything and rolled over,” said Voss, recounting how he felt after hearing news that Mosul fell. “It was pretty shocking to me, and for me having had friends that were killed in action in that city, it makes it even worse. You’re asking yourself: What was it all for? You hand it over to the Iraqi National Guard and they just turn tail. It was pretty upsetting, I think to a lot of us.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Joe Baringer, a former human intelligence collector who left the Army in 2006 as a staff sergeant. Baringer served in Afghanistan in 2002, and did two tours in Iraq, one of which was also in Mosul in 2004.
“To see a lot of our progress rolled backward, bit by bit, that was really hard,” said Baringer, referring to the Islamic State’s advance into Iraq in general, and Mosul in particular. “You already have some conflicted feelings about [Iraq] and literally not having anything to show for it at the end of the day anymore, that’s tough. Mosul especially, having been there and been a part of it, that was real hard to see ISIS kind of roll in unopposed.”
Two years after the city fell, there’s cautious optimism over the new offensive to retake Mosul.
Now just days into the offensive, those on the ground anticipate a grinding campaign, one that could last months as coalition forces push through the heavily populated urban center now teeming with booby traps.
“Now the city’s riddled with tunnels and it’s rigged to blow everywhere,” said Baringer. “I’m sure they’ve been disarming IEDs left and right and I’m sure there’s guys popping up in suicide vests out of nowhere. We didn’t have to deal with any of that. It’s a whole different ballgame and honestly that’s a lot scarier.”
It’s not a fight that Baringer envies, he said, but it’s one he wants to see won, and he candidly admits, there are times he wishes he could be there again. Actually being back on the battlefield is one way he could have a hand in the outcome, but that time is past.
“I look at the pictures and kind of wish I was there, thinking: That’s my city, I should be there. I should be helping,” said Baringer. “It’s not like I’m from there, but I think in some ways, being part of the push to take it and to hold, it and then losing it, even though I wasn’t there when it was lost, I feel a sense of responsibility. There’s a feeling of responsibility and regret for it having been lost at all, that maybe this can bring a sense of redemption.”
With victory in Mosul, a chance at closure?
“This is the first major offensive that has been really coordinated against ISIS,” said Voss. “Looking at it through that perspective, I’m hopeful that they’ll take this and continue pushing forward. It’s also kind of a relief that we’re actually making the Iraqis take some personal responsibility for their cities.”
For Voss and Baringer, and countless other veterans like them, Mosul’s fate is out of their hands. They’ve done their part, but letting go is easier said than done, especially when hard-fought gains are replaced by bitter defeats.
“I do feel that maybe we did all that we could, because our ultimate goal was to always give it back to the Iraqi people,” said Baringer. “I think if they can retake it now, I think that would make everything worth it. It’s not the ideal way to get there by any means, but if it can get to where we wanted it to go in the first place, that’ll certainly bring some closure.”