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Locally, soul-searching on sacrifices; Reflections on war by those it touched

We've done our job.

Now it's up to you.

Those are among the thoughts that local Iraq War veterans and their loved ones expressed in reacting to the conclusion of the war when the last convoy of U.S. troops rolled out of Iraq earlier this week, leaving the country in the hands of the Iraqi people.

Western New York paid a high price in its contributions to the nearly nine-year war that began with a riveting display of U.S. military might in the predawn hours of March 2003. But the "shock and awe" bombing of Baghdad gradually turned into one of America's longest wars.

Dozens of local citizen soldiers lost life and limb, many were deployed not once but twice to Iraq, their families suffered in the long absences, and the United States emptied its treasury of hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to rid Iraq of a brutal dictator and nourish a new democracy.

But was it worth it?

To a mother who has lost a son, that's a hard question to answer.

"I'm not sure it was really all worth it. I do have a sympathy for all the families of anyone who had someone in the military, and more so for the families that suffered the loss of a loved one," said Lori Silveri, whose son, Jonathon M. Cote of Amherst, served one tour of duty in Iraq, then another in Afghanistan, and later returned to Iraq as a private security contractor only to be murdered by terrorists.

She says her son, who was abducted with four co-workers guarding a military convoy in November 2006, had returned to Iraq because he was not finished trying to help others.

"He just felt the need to go back. He felt the call to go back and try and make a difference, still contribute in a civilian capacity," Silveri said of her 23-year-old son.

Like him, his fellow workers suffered horrific deaths, with their remains not recovered for nearly 1 1/2 years.

Then there's Michael D. Hauser, the Army veteran from Cheektowaga who barely survived a 2007 suicide bombing in Iraq. As surgeons at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany fought to keep him alive, he says, he died twice on the operating table.

>Conflicted about Iraq

So, yes, Hauser says he is glad the war has ended, but he is conflicted about Iraq and what it cost him and other Americans, especially the more than 4,400 service members who gave their lives.

"I'm glad our troops are out. Let them kill each other over there. They've been doing it for thousands of years," said the 27-year-old Hauser, who has moved to Tacoma, Wash., to be with his 4-year-old daughter, Kyli.

Yet he worries about Iraqi children and wants democracy to succeed.

"I think they might actually be able to do it," Hauser said. "I met a lot of Iraqis who were pretty good people. They just wanted the war to end so that they could get on with their lives and not have to worry about their kids getting killed on the way to school."

The only thing that kept him going, Hauser said, was his daughter, who was born July 7, 2007, about five months before shrapnel pierced his brain, leaving him partly paralyzed on his left side and with tunnel vision in his left eye.

Now getting around with a cane, Hauser ended up divorced, but motivated by fatherhood. "Kyli was my saving grace. I knew I had something to keep fighting for," he said.

James T. Hackemer, an Army sergeant who lost both his legs and his left hip to a roadside bomb in 2008, also fought back from his injuries to be part of his two young children's lives.

In that battle, he died as a civilian.

Determined to reclaim his old life, he had attended a July family outing at Darien Lake Theme Park Resort. There, the 29-year-old Gowanda veteran was thrown to his death while on the Ride of Steel roller coaster, a favorite from his younger days.

And though he can no longer speak for himself, his older sister, Jody Hackemer, a staff sergeant and recruiter for the New York State Army National Guard, says there is no question that James would say his sacrifice was worth it.

"James 100 percent believed in what he was doing over there," she said.

But she has questions.

"In retrospect, was it worth it? Well, I lost my brother. I'm glad that it is over, and I just hope that everything that we accomplished in Iraq remains stabilized," she said. "It would destroy me to know that we had to send more troops back to that country."

She does not want other families to go through what hers endured.

"It was agony from start to finish," she said. "Agony."

Former Marine Mark H. Beyers, who lost his right arm and leg when he was hit by shrapnel from an improvised explosive device in 2005, is also glad the last of the U.S. fighting forces have left.

"But I don't know about the democracy lasting. It's in the hands of the Iraqis now. They have to go on their own. It's all up to them now," said Beyers, who runs a maple syrup operation in the Town of Wales.

Beyers recalled how Iraqi citizens had been afraid of democratic elections.

"The Iraqis did not know what to do with voting," he said. "They had no idea what it was about, electing someone into power. You could see it, they were pretty apprehensive. They wondered: 'Am I going to be killed or are [insurgents] going to hurt my family?' They didn't realize they could say whatever they wanted," Beyers said.

>Personal sacrifice worth it

As for his personal sacrifice, he does not hesitate to say that it was worth it.

"The Marines go to fight for each other. We're there for each other. I feel great about the sacrifice I made. If I hadn't done it, someone else would have been in my place," he said.

Also in 2005, then-Army National Guard 1st Lt. Frank E. Washburn of Lockport lost part of his left foot when he stepped on a roadside bomb. The wound, he said, serves as a constant reminder of his sacrifice for freedom in Iraq.

"I'm glad to see everyone coming home. It's time to move on to other things," said Washburn, a state corrections officer. "We left a democratic country over there and, obviously, they're never going to be like us with their democracy. They have a different lifestyle. I hope they can maintain a representative government."

In 2004, then-Marine Mark P. O'Brien lost his right arm and right leg to a rocket launched by an insurgent in Iraq.

"Part of me is glad that we are out of there, but then there is a part of me that feels there is unfinished business over there. I look back and we were basically fighting a war with one arm tied behind our back," said O'Brien, a Marilla resident and motivational speaker and trainer for DiVal Safety, a Buffalo company.

He pointed to the politics of Congress.

"They sat in their offices all day deciding how we should fight a war, and we were the ones out pounding the streets."

So was it worth it?

The answers vary.

"You talk to lots and lots of people, and a lot feel we never should have gone there," said Raymond Hauser, Michael's father.

"But you figure, in a way, President [George W.] Bush had a lot of weight on his shoulders," he said. "Our country was attacked. We lost a few thousand people at the World Trade Center. You knew because we were attacked that we were going to go, and, sure enough, we went, but I feel it was way too long."

And while the war is over, a price is still being paid in the form of grief and hardship that will only continue as newly returning veterans adjust to civilian life.

Starkly missing is any national euphoria.

There are no ticker tape parades or iconic photographs like the kissing sailor in New York City spontaneously embracing a woman when victory over Japan was announced and World War II ended in 1945, less than four years after the United States was bombed at Pearl Harbor.

Gratitude that the Iraq War is over is widespread, but Western New York and the rest of the country are still coming to terms with the sacrifices.

Consider this:

Jody Hackemer recently obtained monogrammed license plates for a 2009 Tahoe that once belonged to her brother, James Thomas Hackemer, but that she now drives.

On the plates is "RIP JT," which stands for "Rest in peace, James Thomas."

"My sisters said I couldn't do that and see it every day, but I wanted to do it and keep him with me every day. He was a huge New York Yankees fan, and so I took it a step further and had the Yankees emblem put on the plates."

>Afghan War unsettling

Jonathon Cote's mother volunteers with an organization called Forgotten Soldier, which sends mail to troops serving overseas who have no one to write to them.

"No one walks away from mail call without a letter or package," Silveri said. "I was a military wife for 20 years. I was with two children in Okinawa, Japan, when their dad was in Desert Storm."

As for Iraq, she said, "Well, they're on their own. We made a huge sacrifice, and that's what Americans do."

Then there's the continuing war in Afghanistan, an unsettling backdrop, according to veterans and relatives.

Margaret Hauser, mother of Michael, says her other son, Marine Cpl. Daniel G. Hauser, is scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan in the next few months. The war there, 10 years and counting, is the longest in American history.

"Danny was in Iraq when Michael was there. It's a pity for me. They're just pushing the troops over to Afghanistan," she said. "We should finally mind our own business and take care of America."

After all the sacrifices that Americans made in Iraq, no one can be certain whether democracy will survive there.

Only time will tell.