At this hour, brave American pilots are once again patrolling Iraq’s uncertain skies. Their efforts are the latest in a long line of sacrifices made by the U.S. military in Iraq since 1990.
As American fighter jets target the terrorist army known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the legacies of so many patriots to serve in Iraq should loom large. This column has introduced you to several of these heroes and their loved ones.
U.S. Army Master Sgt. Michael McNulty was one of the Delta Force warriors who helped capture Saddam Hussein.
“He was glowing because it was such a historical moment and he was there,” Master Sgt. McNulty’s wife, Paula Boyer, said about the events of Dec. 13, 2003.
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Less than two years after the famous raid, Paula’s 36-year-old husband was killed, along with Master Sgt. Robert Horrigan, 40, during a June 17, 2005, firefight in al-Qaim, Iraq.
“I wouldn’t be who I am today without every part of Mike,” Paula, who is raising the couple’s children, told me in March. “I will continue to live with him, for him and about him.”
Paula and I subsequently met for lunch. The previous day, Paula had experienced an emotional reunion with the twin brother of the Delta Force hero with whom her husband was killed. In addition to both being twins, Master Sgts. McNulty and Horrigan shared many of the same traits.
“Robert would do anything for anybody,” his twin brother, John, said in March. “If he had a dollar in his pocket and you needed it, he’d give it to you.”
Like Mike, Robert had also played a crucial role in some of America’s most important post-Sept. 11 battles.
“Robert was in Tora Bora,” John, an Army veteran, told me. “Robert told me he was running through a field not far from (Taliban leader) Mullah Omar’s house.”
Incredibly, Master Sgt. Horrigan deployed three times to Afghanistan and five times to Iraq. He volunteered for his final combat tour.
“Robert was bigger than life,” John said. “He is and will always be my hero.”
U.S. Army Sgt. Matthew Sandri had already survived an improvised explosive device attack in Afghanistan when he made the ultimate sacrifice in Fallujah, Iraq.
“He was killed by a vicious enemy,” said Sgt. Sandri’s father, Bob.
Matt, a 24-year-old combat medic, was working in a trauma center when terrorists attacked the building with rockets. Lt. Col. Mark Taylor, 41, was also killed in the March 22, 2004 attack.
For families of the fallen, the wounds of Iraq will always be fresh.
“You wake up in the morning, and it’s the first thing you think about,” Matt’s dad told me in 2012. “At night, it’s the last thing you think about before you go to bed.”
Al-Qaim and Fallujah, where these four heroes and so many others lost their lives, have since been captured by ISIS. The pain of seeing terrorists take over cities and towns where so much American blood was spilled was recently put into words by retired U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen, who once commanded thousands of Marines in Iraq’s volatile west.
“Those of us who fought in Fallujah — who see the black flag of al-Qaida over the battle positions that we fought to clear and take possession of — it’s a gut wrenching, gut wrenching feeling for us,” Gen. Allen said at a May 22 American Enterprise Institute event in Washington.
The retired general, who went on to lead all U.S. forces in Afghanistan after serving in Iraq, qualified his powerful statement with a crucial point.
“It does not change at all any sense of the greater purpose that we tried to serve,” he said.
I was sitting in front of Gen. Allen when he made those remarks, and keep them in mind as new, harrowing events in Iraq unfold. While a war’s politics and outcome can always be debated, the heroism of warriors like Master Sgt. Michael McNulty, Master Sgt. Robert Horrigan, Sgt. Matthew Sandri and Lt. Col. Mark Taylor cannot.
“He was just so proud to do something that he knows really affected the world and made the world a better place,” Paula Boyer said about her late husband.