How tours in Iraq helped the careers of these naval service veterans

Two decades ago, as the United States poured forces around the world into Iraq, the top leaders of the Marine Corps, Navy and Coast Guard would see their future forever changed by what happened next.

Twenty years later, the world is now marking the one-year anniversary of the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the March 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that started the protracted armed conflict.

Marine Corps, Navy and Coast Guard troops worked alongside their service partners in the opening of the long war that ended in December 2011. From the initial invasion, to a prisoner of war rescue operation, to the Battle of Baghdad. That saw Marines toppling a statue of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, troops throughout the Marine services played a leading role in the first weeks of the conflict, and beyond.

Marine Corps officers Generals James Mattis and Generals Joseph Dunford are some of the most prominent veterans of the Iraq invasion, but others deployed overseas also flourished in smaller, less important ways, earning high-profile titles and promotions to commanding positions.

“The military is a team effort,” Mattis wrote in his 2019 memoir, though his rise is often attributed not only to the troops he worked with, but also to his commanding skills.

This brief look at the people who went on professionally with the invasion examines the role they played in the conflict and how it shaped their military careers.

A marine named ‘CHAOS’

General James Mattis He held numerous distinguished positions throughout his career as a Marine overseeing high-impact commands, from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force to US Joint Forces Command to US Central Command.

But before Mattis, “Chaos” callsign He’s taken on any of those roles, and before becoming Secretary of Defense in 2017, the popular Marine general gained recognition for leading troops in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

For Iraqi commanders like Mattis, their “performance was so public that it clearly elevated them to the highest levels,” retired Marine Corps Col. Mark CanciaA senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies told Military Times.

After leading forces in the invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, Mattis assumed command of troops with the 1st Marine Division. At one point, he and his teammates used thousands of Lego toy blocks to represent units in rehearsal exercises for an imminent ground invasion of Iraq.

“Mattis was intellectually and professionally made for it, but he was also quite the showman,” added Canciane, who served on two Iraq deployments with combat assessment teams.

The colorful episodes — such as when Mattis told Iraqi leaders, “If they turn on me, I’ll kill you all” — earned the general the nickname “Mad Dog,” even though he doesn’t like it. .

Within weeks of the invasion, Mattis was dismissed as commander of a regimental combat team, but played a key role against the Iraqi insurgency in the April 2004 assault on Fallujah, one of the bloodiest campaigns of the Iraq war. general’s career Although he later stated in his book that he did not support the launch or termination of that operation, it sent Mattis into the national spotlight.

‘Fighting Joe’ becomes chairman of the Joint Chiefs

Before becoming Commandant of the Marine Corps, and later the second Marine to become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he is now retired. General Joseph Dunford made a name for himself during the invasion of Iraq.

Under Mattis, then-Colonel Dunford led the 5th Marine Regiment during the invasion, some of the first major ground combat forces in Iraq, and later served as assistant commander of the 1st Marine Division.

He reportedly earned the nickname “Fighting Joe” for his actions in the early days of the invasion, a nickname he does not use, but joked at a 2015 congressional hearing for his wife to use.

Rapidly rising from a one-star to a four-star general after Iraq, he commanded all US and allied troops in Afghanistan as head of the International Security Assistance Force.

Many of Dunford’s peers consider his wartime experience a qualifier that landed him higher-level assignments.

Retired Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the first Marine to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs in 2005, he previously told Marine Corps Times Dunford’s wartime operational experience as a commander of ground troops would give him the wisdom and insight to guide decisions about when and how to use military power.

“General Dunford, with his new experience in this current war, will serve him very well,” Pace said before Dunford became president.

The creation of Commander Conway

Now retired General James Conway, the commandant of the Marine Corps from November 2006 to October 2010, was also well advanced in his military career before the invasion of Iraq. Commissioned as an infantry officer in 1970, the Marine served in various company-level assignments before later leading the 1st Marine Division.

Before the invasion, Conway was promoted to command the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.

During MEF’s first deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, he oversaw thousands of service members in major battles in An Nasiriyah, Al Kut, Baghdad and Tikrit. According to a Marine Corps release.

“While Marines don’t usually do nation-building, they’ll tell you once they’ve been given the mission, no one can do it better,” Conway said in a 2004 memo upon taking command of troops in western Iraq.

After two combat tours in Iraq and a brief stint with the Joint Staff, Conway was promoted to oversee the entire Marine Corps.

Other Marines who deployed during the invasion of Iraq also advanced in their careers, including retired Marine Lt. Col. Frank HoffmanNational Defense University researcher and former senior DoD official.

As Hoffman shared in an interview with Military Times, he saw a correlation between Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Julian Alford, Lt. Gen. William Jurney, Lt. Gen. Michael Groen and Maj. Gen. William F. Mullen III. They had creativity and promotion in combat operations in Iraq.

During other marine services

Nimitz class aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and its carrier group played a key role for the Navy during the invasion, hosting several warplanes that launched the first airstrikes in Iraq.

On May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush stood atop the carrier in front of a “Mission Accomplished” sign, declaring the end of major combat operations in Iraq.

Adm. William J. Fallon He was Deputy Chief of Naval Operations during the initial invasion and was promoted to Commander of US Fleet Forces Command and US Atlantic Fleet a month later.

The Coast Guard conducted a variety of combat missions during Operation Iraqi Freedom, from escort duties to Port Security Unit operations, in its largest overseas deployment since the Vietnam War. History by the nonprofit Center for Naval Analysis.

Few of those who commanded cutters in the early stages of the conflict, however, made it to the top echelons of the maritime security service.

There are some exceptions. Officers, for example Captain Sean MacKenzie, He commanded the patrol boat Adak Island for the invasion, later commanding the Coast Guard Sector Anchorage, Alaska.

Jonathan is a writer and editor for Military Times magazine’s Early Bird Brief newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @lehrfeld_media

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