Three Kansas City Veterans Reflect On Three Decades Of War In Iraq

May 9, 2017

American troops have been in Iraq for nearly three decades. From Operation Desert Storm under George H. W. Bush back in the 1990s, to a U.S.-led intervention that started in 2014 under Barack Obama and continues under our new administration. 

Three Kansas City veterans reflect on their service in the Middle Eastern country, and their lives before and after.

Senior Airman Kerry Steuart

Kerry Steuart visiting ruins in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in 1993. During his deployment in Iraq, Steuart occasionally had opportunities to be a tourist in downtown Riyadh.
Credit Courtesy of Kerry Steuart

Kerry Steuart joined the Air Force in 1991, a career move reflecting an economic depression in Oklahoma at the time, where Steuart was living.

"I also really felt it was my civic duty," Steuart says.

Coming from a long line of service in his family, Steuart feels his heart lies in community service. He was trained in signal analysis and electronic warfare, which meant he could analyze data to track target individuals of enemy forces.

When Steuart signed up to serve, he thought war in Iraq would soon be over. 

"I really never thought I would be in any type of combat zone," Steuart says. "I never thought we would continue in that type of war for that length of time. I thought we were at a point where we could find peace a lot quicker."

He was first deployed to Iraq in 1993. In 1995, there was a bombing at the Riyadh Airport. Minutes later, as Steuart's troop rushed back to secure their base, another bomb was dropped. Steuart remembers utter chaos, as essential personnel were evacuated, civilians were panicking and his superiors were trying to determine if the attack was chemical.

"At one point I remember standing back, looking in awe, just wondering, 'Am I going to live? This is not how I want to leave this earth,'" Steuart says. 

When he returned from his first deployment, he weighed 130 pounds. He developed fainting and vomiting spells, migraines and acute pain in his legs. In 1999, after seven deployments, he was medically discharged — but those symptoms remain.

"I live with pain, every breath, every moment of my day. I struggle to sleep, and to deal with life in general," Steuart says.

After he was discharged, he came to Kansas City, earned a degree and went on to work in IT for the U.S. Department of Agriculture before retiring in 2013 due to his physical limitations. 

A few years ago, he was diagnosed with "Gulf War syndrome," a chronic disorder found to have been caused by environmental factors, exposure to anthrax, insufficient vaccinations and more. It was around this time that he became a yogi. He changed his diet and lifestyle: He starts every day with an hour of meditation, and is very connected to Kansas City's yoga community.

"Physically, my pain is still there, but it's definitely calmed my mind and spirit. I find more unity within myself," Steuart says.

Staff Sergeant Jacob Crowder

Staff Sergeant Jacob Crowder during his deployment to Iraq from 2007-2009.
Credit Courtesy of Jacob Crowder

Jacob Crowder was a self-proclaimed "young punk" growing up in a small town in Indiana. 

"I did whatever I wanted, a little bit of crime and trouble ... I wasn't going on a very good road," Crowder says. "I joined for a way out of my town, a way to get away from my loser friends."

Before he met with a recruiter, Crowder had little to no exposure to the military. 

"I didn't think it through at all, just started signing papers. Next thing I know, [my recruiter is] giving me a ride to the airplane to head to basic training," Crowder remembers. 

He was deployed to Iraq in 2007, as a part of George W. Bush's surge operation, deploying over 20,000 soldiers to Iraq to secure Baghdad and the Anbar Province. It was the tail end of the surge, though, and Crowder remembers the soldiers he was replacing congratulating his troop, saying that the big battles were over.

But, on one of his unit's first missions, they ran into an improvised explosive device (IED), and lost a soldier.

"That's when it all became real," Crowder says. "I realized even though things weren't as crazy, there was still imminent danger out there."

His unit worked on building 12-foot tall cement barrier walls around Sadr City in order to invade and seize weapons from enemy forces. 

In 2014, after nine years in the Army, Crowder had the opportunity with his contract to leave. Now, he's pursuing a masters in economics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. 

"I'm a pretty far outlier in most of my classes," Crowder says. "Being on a campus, you hear cross-talk — I feel like a lot of students have a really strong opinion on stuff they don't really know much about, like foreign policy. I've got a bit of a different viewpoint."

At 30-years-old, Crowder is a young veteran. 

"I think I recognized my mortality sooner than most people do," Crowder says. "I feel pressure to do something good, something big next. I almost feel like it's a new start to a different life for me."

Lieutenant Colonel David Strange

David Strange with an Iraqi interpreter in 2009.
Credit Courtesy of David Strange

Growing up, David Strange was an Army brat. His father, both of his grandfathers and one great-grandfather were career infantry officers. His mother was in the Army Nurse Corps. But despite this legacy, Strange had no plans to join the military.

"I looked at everybody in my family that joined and said, 'I don't need to be a part of that, I don't really want to be a part of that,'" Strange says.

He planned to go to college and study architecture — that is, until his father approached him one day and asked how he planned to pay for it. At which point Strange remembers him whipping a stack of brochures out of his back pocket. Shortly after that, Strange met with a recruiter and joined the National Guard, all to pay for college.

"I joined for one reason, and stayed for another," he says. "I fell in love with Army culture ... the challenge, adventure, friendships, teamwork, sense of service. I found a home."

Strange went on to serve 20 years as an active-duty soldier. He was deployed to Iraq from 2009 to 2010, after the 2007 surge. Strange's role in Iraq was to mentor and train Iraqi forces to operate independently from U.S. forces. He saw them through to graduation ceremonies, when training was over. 

"To see the culmination of that training, then to have them stand on a parade field at a graduation ceremony and see pride in their faces, that they had graduated and were capable of taking care of security in their own areas, that was fantastic," Strange says.

Even after his retirement in 2015, Strange still feels vested interest in U.S. involvement in Iraq. In 2009, he spent a year working to help the thousands of Yazidis who were trapped on Mount Sinjar after fleeing northern Iraq, where the Islamic State had attacked Kurdish-held territory. He says that the Iraqi forces he trained are the forces currently involved in the Battle of Mosul.

"I have a sense of responsibility. Making sure we did our job well, looking for their success, because their success is our success," Strange says.

Kerry Steuart, David Strange and Jacob Crowder shared their stories on KCUR's Central StandardListen to the full conversation here

Andrea Tudhope is a reporter and producer for KCUR 89.3. Follow her on Twitter @adtudhope, and reach her by email at andreat@kcur.org.