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"We Need to Stay and Finish the Job"

Local service personnel, supporters share thoughts on Iraq war and mission remaining.

For six years now, the United States has sent tens of thousands of young men and women to Iraq and Afghanistan in the war on terror. They have gone, voluntarily, to serve their country, to keep those who remain here safe, in the hopes of preventing another attack on U.S. soil like those on Sept. 11, 2001.

Burke resident Maj. Taun Pham was among the first servicemen to arrive in Iraq. A veteran of the first Persian Gulf war, he said he knew what he was getting into when he was deployed.

"When I first went, I was a young lance corporal, just into the Marines," he said.

Pham came to the U.S. with his family shortly after the end of the Vietnam War. His father had been the equivalent of a Green Beret officer with the South Vietnamese army; his grandfather and great-grandfather had also been soldiers. Enlisting was something he always knew he would do, part of his family's heritage.

"The men in my family usually don't live past 30," he joked. "We supported the American effort in Vietnam. Not only did we lose when the American forces were withdrawn, we lost the fight against Communism. We had no choice but to leave."

Now that he has served in Iraq twice, Pham believes the work is not yet finished, and the American government has a responsibility to do what it can to fix Iraq.

"It's the Pottery Barn rule, if you break it, you own it," he said, paraphrasing a popular statement made by former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Pham said he understands people who have become frustrated with the war, who want to see soldiers withdrawn immediately and brought home.

"It's regular politics," he said. "We're in there now. Are we going to just leave and walk away? Probably not. There are Iraqis who supported our efforts and have totally supported the war, we owe it to them to help."

Pham remembers what life was like in Vietnam after the American soldiers left and said if history repeats itself and the U.S. leaves Iraq before stabilizing the country, it would damage the nation's already weakened credibility around the world.

"We need to stay and finish the job, we can't just wait for the U.N. and humanitarian efforts," he said. "That won't fix anything."

BILL HURD, a Vietnam-era veteran and member of the American Legion Post 176 in Springfield, agrees with Pham that the U.S. needs more time to finish its job.

"I support the action in Iraq and have done enough research and reading that no one can persuade me the world isn't a better place without Saddam," Hurd said, referring to the former Iraqi ruler taken out of power by the U.S. in early 2003 and executed for crimes against humanity almost a year ago.

People who oppose the war need to realize that orders have been given, and a job has been assigned that needs to be completed, he said.

"We need to think about what happens when we leave, because if we leave before the country is ready, we'll create a vacuum that Iran would be happy to step up and fill," Hurd said.

He cautions some war protestors to reconsider their position on the war without letting their personal political ideas get in the way.

"I think so many people are so hung up on their dislike of the president they can't think clearly," he said. "Then again, one of the reasons people wear that uniform is to protect the right of dissent."

Both men agree that progress is being made in Iraq, slowly but surely, and credit Gen. David Petraeus' surge in troop levels for successes made this year.

"When I first got there, people stayed on base all the time, but he ordered us to get out and move around," Pham said. "We just have to accept that in war, there will always be casualties."

Hurd said the efforts are "going in the right direction," but the American people need to listen to troops coming home from Iraq, who often say the portrait given by the media is far more dire than what is actually found in Iraq.

"I really think we have a chance of winning, of pulling this off successfully," Hurd said. "Some things didn't go as planned at first, but that happens all the time. If we leave, there's nothing stopping Iran from taking over, and [Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] has made it clear he would like to blow Israel off the map and he wants to have nuclear weapons."

PHAM THINKS the American people should look at the war as a long-term investment: pay a little now, reap the benefits of being smart and patient later on.

"You have to commit to a long-term strategy, you can't just walk away. Right now, we might think it's a bad investment, but the truth is, we are at war. People want to kill us. We can't just leave," Pham said.

Much like his own parents, Pham said the Iraqis who chose to side with U.S. forces are risking their lives, putting their families in danger.

"I know of an Iraqi commander near my camp whose entire family was killed by insurgents," he said.

When it comes to supporting the troops serving in Iraq, Hurd said it is hard to define what that phrase really means.

"I think most people are doing a good job of it," he said. "I think we've learned the lessons of Vietnam, I don't see people spitting on soldiers or not accepting them back into society once they return home. We need to respect our soldiers and what they do even if you don't agree with them."

The best way to support the troops, Pham said, is to let them do the job they've been assigned in the best way they can with the resources available.

"We are in this until the end," he said.

OTHER WAYS, more tangible, exist to support the troops.

Bill Dunn, an Army veteran, served for more than a year in Iraq early in the conflict and was surprised one day by a care package he received from someone he did not know.

"I had a friend in Albuquerque who taught at an elementary school, and she had her students send me a box," he said. "I had never met these kids, but the box with their letters gave me a moment of peace."

When he returned from Iraq, he flew out to Albuquerque to surprise the children, who shouted and cheered when he walked into their room.

Inspired by their generosity, Dunn has started the Adopt a Soldier program in Fairfax County, collecting donations from people to send to soldiers overseas.

So far, Dunn has been able to send over 1,200 boxes to more than 250 soldiers, all of whom are strangers to him, since the program began in 2004.

Gifts of toothpaste, soap, wash cloths, hand sanitizer and other toiletries are incredibly helpful, Dunn said, because soldiers are not provided with any of those items and must purchase them out of their pay.

"You can never have too many toothbrushes," he laughed. "These are the sort of things you expect, or hope, your family will send you, but when you receive a box from someone you don't know, it just makes your whole day."

Dunn said he knows firsthand how those little pick-me-ups can make a huge difference in a soldier's day.

"It did so much to raise my spirits," he said. "You're sitting there, in the desert, away from your family, and this box comes along out of the blue. It's a great feeling."

Starting the Adopt a Soldier program was a way for him to keep a promise to a fallen comrade.

"I had a buddy who was killed over there, and I promised him and his son his name would live on," Dunn said.

The American Legion has been receiving a few new members as they return home from Iraq, but most of their support work involves older veterans in VA hospitals.

"The boys were there to do a job," said Jim Jones, a member of the American Legion who served in the Air Force during the Korean war.

Jones said members of the American Legion will spend time talking with wounded or poor soldiers in the hospital, sharing stories or just listening to them talk. The hospital also cares for homeless veterans, helping them receive the medication they need along with warm clothing in the winter and a hypothermia shelter when it gets bitterly cold.

"I do what I can to help," he said.