It has been two years now since the start of the Iraq war and American troops are still on the ground there. For the U.S. military, a relatively quick and easy invasion has been followed by almost daily and deadly battles against armed insurgents, and the slow, "hard work" of democracy building.
To find out what effect the war has had on the soldiers and their loved ones back home, VOA's Brian Padden visited Paris, Illinois, the home of 1544th U.S. Army National Guard Transportation Company. The 1544th recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq, serving with distinction and also suffering the highest casualty rate of any Illinois Guard unit in history.
Back home now in the rural midwestern city of Paris, Illinois, Specialist Kevin Shewey cares for his collection of exotic animals and remembers his first day in Iraq.
"We all intended on like going there, doing our jobs and coming back. I mean, we were there about twenty-four hours when something bad happened. And it was an eye-opener. Ok, this is real. This is not joke," says Specialist Kevin Shewey.
Specialist Shewey is part of the highly decorated 1544th U.S. Army National Guard Transportation Company. The unit was deployed to Iraq in December of 2003. They completed 1,200 missions and traveled over 500,000 miles, mostly within the deadly Sunni triangle. They came under fire over 100 times. Five died including the first female soldier ever from the unit. Thirty-two were wounded in combat. Sergeant Scott Johnson's tour of duty ended early when his convoy hit a roadside bomb.
"I was hit right here directly in the center of the trachea with shrapnel from the blast, which cut my airway off, there on the side of the road. They did an emergency tracheotomy on me," says Sergeant Johnson.
Many of the soldiers in the 1544th are from Paris, Illinois, where support for the troops runs high. Family and friends raised funds to send equipment and care packages. And Mayor Craig Smith says the city tried to do its part to relieve any financial burden on the soldiers' families.
Craig Smith, Mayor of Paris says, "we refused to make any payments, have them make any payments to us while they were gone. So water, sewer, anything that we would have collected from the city, we stopped as long as they were over there."
But while in the community support for the troops never wavered, the growing list of casualties became an increasing concern. M.D. Brading is a reporter for the Paris Beacon News.
"When we had our first casualty. It was hard. The first was Sergeant Ivory Phipps from Chicago, then Jeremy Ridlen and Charles Lamb from KC [Kansas City], and Shawna Morrison and Jessica Cawvey. And even though we didn't know them personally but we felt we had a connection because of the 1544th," says M.D. Branding.
In February the 1544th came home to a hero's welcome and have begun to readjust to civilian life. Sergeant Gary Trover says they did their duty.
"I think we did a lot of positive good. I feel good for what I've done serving my country, my community," says Sergeant Trover.
But the cost has been high. "The cost of life. I can't say what is worth the cost of life. The ultimate price. People left behind," says Sergeant Trover.
And the wounds are not all physical. Gary's wife Barbara Trover says so far it has been hard to readjust as a family. "We try talking. And it's hard. And we don't know what to do for them. They don't know what to do for you," says Barbara Trover.
The Trovers, like many here in Paris, Illinois, are trying to sort out their conflicting feelings about the war in Iraq, mourning their losses, supporting their troops, and hoping that their sacrifices will help shape a safer world.