While many veterans and their families planned to watch President Barack Obama's speech on Iraq Tuesday night, few seem to think that the formal end of America's combat role there will make much difference for them or for the strife-torn country where they fought.
Iraq War veterans and their families cited a number of factors that still generate uncertainty about Iraq, including the absence of a credible government in Baghdad and the recent resurgence of bombings, which suggests that insurgent forces are still active in the country.
Others criticize Obama for adhering to a timeline for U.S. departure — in both Iraq and Afghanistan — that tempts insurgents to wait for American soldiers to leave before renewing their attacks on government forces.
"I'm happy that the combat troops are coming home from Iraq, but most soldiers and veterans will tell you that we still have Afghanistan to face," said Michael Hawley of Chester, who served 16 months in Iraq in 2005 and 2006 with an armored personnel carrier brigade.
The formal end of combat actions in Iraq, Hawley said, elicits feelings of ambivalence more than a sense of closure. The outcome in Iraq, he said, is too mixed for soldiers and their families to share a sense of accomplishment about the war.
"Yes, we got rid of a vicious dictator, but I don't think we should have gone into Iraq in the first place," Hawley said. "We accomplished some level of democracy for the country, but they are always going to have trouble with sectarianism in Iraq."
Tom Butler, a retired Aetna executive from Simsbury, is the father of an Iraq War veteran. His son Mark, a Marine lance corporal now based at Twentynine Palms, Calif., served in a light armored reconnaissance unit along the Iraq-Syrian border in 2008.
No matter how effective Obama's speech, Butler said Tuesday afternoon, uncertainty about Iraq persists.
"The big unanswered question is: now that things over there seem to be getting worse, and they don't really have a government that is in working order, will our soldiers have to go back in?" Butler said. "Is the mission really accomplished? We don't have a real feeling of certainty about that and there are too many issues still to be addressed."
Butler also said he thinks that the impact of Obama's speech will be undermined by recent events in Iraq, including fresh reports of suicide bombings and the deaths of civilians.
"I don't think the president's speech will be that definitive because it's still just a horrible situation over there," Butler said. "He will say that he's fulfilled a campaign promise by ending the combat phase," he said of Obama.
"But in reality," Butler said, "the mission is not really finished, or we don't know that it's finished. What will America's role be with 50,000 soldiers still in the country? We don't really know."
Leslie Caron is the mother of a U.S. Air Force staff sergeant, Mark Caron, who has served seven tours in Mideast countries supporting the Iraq War as a flight crew equipment manager. She gained prominence in veterans' circles in Connecticut after leading a spirited fight over the right to hang yellow ribbons on trees on the Litchfield Green. She is sharply critical of the Obama administration's policy of establishing deadlines for U.S. troops leaving both Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Putting a deadline on when we pull out our troops just invites the insurgents to wait and then attempt to take over the country after the last U.S. troops leave," Caron said. "It's a big mistake, and now Obama is planning on doing the same thing in Afghanistan.
"After all the sacrifices made by soldiers and their families over there, you can't just put a timeline on us leaving," Caron said. " George Bush said that the war on terror was going to take years and years, and he was right about that."
But Hawley feels that the U.S. military has learned at least one important lesson from Iraq and Afghanistan. Pentagon leaders, he said, are finally paying more attention to the impact of wars on the emotional lives of soldiers and are at least trying to put programs in place that address issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder and the effect of long deployments on soldiers' families.
"We've certainly learned that it's not a good idea to stretch the military so thin, and to give soldiers more time off between deployments," Hawley said.
"And the government is doing a better job now dealing with issues like PTSD. But as long as we're fighting wars, that kind of problem will always be there."