In early 2003, I marched through downtown Washington, D.C., with my fellow University of Maryland students to protest the Bush Administration's push toward war with the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein.
The American people were being told that invading Iraq was a necessary part of the ongoing Global War on Terrorism, that Saddam's regime had weapons of mass destruction that could be used against the United States, and this would be an opportunity to bring freedom and democracy to the Iraqi people who had suffered for decades under totalitarian rule.
I and many other Americans feared the invasion would be a disaster, with an untold number of innocent people killed. We reasoned that the regime was contained by a 12-year-old brutally effective United Nations sanctions program, that an invasion of Iraq would take resources from anti-terror operations in Afghanistan and the Bush Administration was capitalizing on post-9/11 fears to start another war.
After the protest, which coincided with protests held in cities and towns around the world, I stood on the National Mall and wondered – with the naivete of someone in their 20s – if President George W. Bush would listen to the anti-invasion sentiment being voiced around the world and put the brakes on.
We protesters were not heeded, however, and the invasion began in late March 2003. I remember watching on television, in the entrance hall of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the university, the initial bombing of government buildings in the Iraqi capital Baghdad.
I couldn't watch a fireworks show for years after without being reminded of those bombings. I often thought, what do veterans think when they see the flashes and hear the explosions?
I followed the invasion coverage filed by embedded reporters who were riding with the U.S. troops with Baghdad in their sights.
The embedded reporter concept was controversial; how could a reporter fairly cover events and remain a neutral observer when he or she was depending on those troops for safety?
I, as a news consumer, thought it brought an amazing view of the war from the eyes of the soldiers and Marines who were braving repeated guerrilla attacks and massive sandstorms to get to the Iraqi capital.
It was a view the American people did not get during the 1991 Gulf War; rather, we had to be satisfied with black-and-white footage of "smart bombs" and daily briefings by generals.
Once it commenced, I hoped against hope that I and the other protesters were wrong, that this invasion would meet every goal set out by Bush and his advisers.
I hoped Iraq would become a shining example to the Middle East, that a government subject to a constitution and not the whims of one man, could take hold in that region.
I have watched, over nearly 11 years, Iraq torn apart by an insurgency that cost thousands of Americans their lives, and thousands more suffering with physical, emotional and psychological injuries.
As of Monday, Defense Department statistics show 4,410 U.S. troops were killed during Operation Iraqi Freedom and 31,942 were wounded.
Sixty-six more were killed during the 2010-2011 Operation New Dawn, the drawdown of U.S. military forces in Iraq; 295 were wounded.
The war in Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom, which has been fought since October 2001, cost 2,165 American troops their lives; 19,572 have been wounded so far.
I am dismayed as I follow the recent news coverage of al-Quaeda-linked militants taking over the western Iraqi city of Fallujah, where a number of American troops lost their lives in some of the bloodiest fighting of the war in 2004, clearing out insurgents.
I wonder, was it worth it? Was it worth the thousands of American lives, the untold number of Iraqi lives lost during the insurgency and sectarian fighting among Sunni and Shiite Muslims, to leave Iraq with a weak central government driven by corruption and religious infighting, and a military that might not be up to the job of clearing Fallujah and restoring Iraqi government authority?
In some ways, yes, it was worth it, to those of us here at home. I have had the privilege of interviewing about half a dozen Iraq veterans during my decade as a reporter, including a marine infantryman who fought in Fallujah, and a female F-15 fighter pilot who kept troops safe on the ground.
I have also had the sad duty of writing about young men who died during the conflict.
Veterans Day and Memorial Day have taken on new meaning for me, and it is wonderful to see the respect given to those who fought during the current wars, and those who served during past wars, especially the conflict in Vietnam.