An Iraq War veteran on how his perspective has changed over two decades
Iraq veteran John Byrnes felt one way about war 20 years ago, but his position has evolved. Today, he uses his influence to help others see what we lose when we stay in quagmire.
March 2023 marks the 20th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. Today, John Byrnes – a veteran of both the Army and Marine Corps, and a 9/11 first responder – looks back at the past two decades and traces an evolution of thought: from interventionism to restraint, and from Afghanistan and Iraq war survivor to veterans advocate.
Byrnes’ call to service came in 1991. The Gulf War was just kicking off, and “it seemed like a good time to enlist, to fight alongside my brothers and sisters,” he says. Byrnes joined the Marines, was deployed to Somalia, and by 1995, decided to move back to his native New York, where he was the general manager of a restaurant.
By the summer of 2000, the urge to help defend had returned, and he enlisted in the Army-National Guard. He was able to take advantage of his pre-existing GI Bill benefits to enroll in school and stay where he was while undergoing drills. At the time, it seemed like a convenient best of both worlds, letting him stay in New York City in the fall of 2001.
That choice has chilling implications now.
“Of course, a year later my first deployment was Ground Zero,” he says.
He was in the city itself on 9/11 when the Twin Towers were attacked. He spent two weeks working as a first responder on-site. Over the next two years, he served active duty across the state, before being deployed to Iraq in 2004, and Afghanistan in 2008.
By July 2012, he was married and living a quieter life in North Carolina. A friend reached out to him inviting him to do some work for a brand new organization that had just started up two months before: Concerned Veterans for America.
When John began working casually for Concerned Veterans for America, he had no idea that ten years later, he would be one of the longest-remaining members of what would emerge as one of the country’s most influential veterans organizations.
He also never could have imagined when he went to Iraq in 2004 that, nearly twenty years later, young men and women would still be deploying there.
An Iraq veteran’s views on war then versus now
In the immediate aftermath of September 11th, Byrnes, like most Americans, supported the invasion of Afghanistan to bring to justice Osama bin Laden and the Taliban regime that provided Al Qaeda safe harbor.
Like most Americans, Byrnes also supported the invasion of Iraq two years later, in 2003, believing it was necessary to prevent weapons of mass destruction from falling into the hands of Al Qaeda and other sworn enemies of the United States.
“I believed I could be a realist and an interventionist,” says Byrnes, describing his belief at the time that using military power to intervene in foreign countries was, in reality, the best way to keep Americans safe. “I thought this was a wonderful idea,” he says.
But while Byrnes “was very much in favor of the war at one point,” in the years since he “came to realize it’s one of the greatest tragedies of foreign policy in the past decade.”
His time on the front lines has morphed his view of what having armed forces on the ground accomplishes, both for the U.S. and for other outside nations. He now views continued occupation as detrimental for nearly everyone involved — particularly Americans, Afghans, and Iraqis as individuals and as nations.
For the U.S., having troops at the frontlines puts Americans in unnecessary danger. Iraq war survivor stories are too prevalent already, and only continue as the years go by.
“There’s not much national interest for them to be there,” says Byrnes. “There are mortar strikes and drone strikes on a weekly basis … we’re foolishly putting folks in harm’s way to balance or constrain other powers in the region, like Iran.”
Furthermore, occupation harms Iraqis themselves, and not just through the physical risks.
Our prolonged presence overseas has stunted the country’s autonomy and legitimacy on the global playing field.
“We’ve spent 33 years with the military in or around Iraq,” describes Byrnes, dating all the way back to the first Gulf War. As he explains: Doing so has kept it not only from economic, political, and other developments, but also surrounded it with an international stigma of being damaged and inept, further keeping its ability to thrive out of reach.
As long as American troops remain inside their borders, both Iraq and the U.S. will continue to lose, Byrnes says.
Iraq veterans’ stories continue when they return home
We have been in Iraq so long that Byrnes now views it as an “ongoing fencepost” to measure the passing of time and evolving foreign policy. Our current situation doesn’t just threaten the wellbeing of veterans and military members, he says. It damages their families, and communities, as well.
Through his work for Concerned Veterans of America, John is advocating for veterans and young soldiers alike.
His work includes combining quality-of-life care for returned veterans alongside policy reform that keeps young Americans out of the frontlines unless absolutely necessary, exclusively when national interests are at stake.
For returned Iraq war veterans, grassroots advocacy works to protect their interests and ensure they are able to live lives “consistent with the principles of human flourishing,” says John, such as the dignity to live a meaningful life.
That is made more challenging by the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs health care system, which largely dictates the quality of life that former soldiers will have via a one-size-fits-all approach that allows too many to fall through the cracks.
Many veterans who are homeless or experiencing the mental scars of war such as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome – or PTSD – struggle to access the benefits available to them. Though the VA homeowner program and G.I. Bill both provide pathways to home ownership and education, there isn’t an equivalent for healthcare.
There are 16 million veterans in America today, around 9 million of whom are enrolled in VA healthcare. When their family members are factored in as well, around 5-6% of the general population is being affected.
The solution isn’t within the existing administration of VA benefits, says Byrnes. Rather, it is giving a voice to veterans themselves, and empowering them with the ability to drive the bottom-up solutions.
Concerned Veterans for America has been successful at giving a voice to veterans around the country to seek policy reforms from Congress, including the VA MISSION Act of 2018, which allows veterans the option to seek out medical care in their community, rather than wait for availability at a VA facility.
Allowing veterans to identify and seek out the care and solutions that work best for them places trust in the autonomy of those we have already entrusted with the care of our country.
The ultimate advocacy for Iraq war veterans
Byrnes views policy reform as complementary to advocating for veterans’ quality of life. Healthcare, housing, and education for returned veterans and their families is essential — but he believes it would be even more effective to reduce the number of veterans the U.S. produces to begin with.
“[We are in] danger of some of the best young Americans alive today (being sent) overseas for things that are just not in our core national interest,” says Byrnes.
His work with Concerned Veterans for America aims to “show some solutions” to this end, and to offer “a broader thinking around foreign policy and restraint” for Americans to consider.
Byrnes stresses that the organization is focused on proving the mutual benefit that happens when we send fewer troops abroad. For all Americans, “their loved ones are at risk,” he says. Though the “guild mentality has been built into the culture,” avoiding war unless necessary will benefit both sides of the political aisle.
Ultimately, no matter which party an individual belongs to, the best thing they can do for their community is to vote.
“We have a history of getting people who have never taken political action before, to think about participating because of the policies we’re fighting for,” says Byrnes. “Going into an election year, we’ll have to go into action.”
Learn more about Stand Together’s foreign policy efforts.