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Former Marine Corps Sgt. Jose 'Raf' Mesta shares a moment with his daughter, Gianna Mesta, 5 months, at his home in Central Point Friday. Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch

The Faces Of War

When the Iraq war began on March 21, 2003, Medford resident Jose "Raf" Mesta was on the tip of the spear.

Just two days into the fray, the former Marine Corps sergeant was among the troops fighting Iraqi forces in the southern Iraq city of Nasiriyah for key bridges over the Euphrates River and the Saddam Canal. The Marines lost 18 in that battle, which flared for a week.

"After the intense combat was over, the Iraqi people loved us," recalled Mesta, 30, who lives in Central Point. "When we drove down the street, they would stand by the side of the road and cheer for us.

"I remember telling some of my guys that, when this war was over, the Iraqi people would be cheering us as we leave," he added. "I pictured everybody cheering, everybody happy."

Fast forward to 2005, when the TOW gunner — an anti-tank missile man atop an armored vehicle — and his unit were deployed to a town about 30 miles south of Baghdad. They were met with cold stares, shaking fists and shouts of anger, he said.

"Unfortunately, the war lasted too long — now the Iraqi people are happy we are leaving," said the 2000 Eagle Point High School graduate. "We overstayed our welcome.

"I am happy the troops are coming home at the end of the year," he continued. "When I first heard that, it made my day. It was a big relief for me."

President Barack Obama announced earlier this month that the last of 39,000 U.S. troops deployed to Iraq would be home by the holidays.

Since the war began, 4,479 Americans in uniform have died in Iraq. Of those, 3,530 were killed in combat.

That includes at least 131 deaths of those whose home of record was in Oregon or who had strong ties to the state. Five young men from Jackson or Josephine counties, or with ties to the area, have died in Iraq; many others were wounded in that war.

Recent polls indicate that about 66 percent — some two-thirds of the nation's population — support the plan to move all U.S. troops out of Iraq by year's end.

Medford resident Shirley McNair, the mother of a Marine wounded early in the war, fears that pulling out of Iraq will create a power vacuum, which Iran will quickly occupy.

"I don't think pulling out completely is a good idea," she said. "I think the Iranians are waiting for us to leave. There is just too much going on in the Middle East for us to leave right now.

"Yet we continue to grieve over every death — Tavis lost a lot of friends there and in Afghanistan," she added.

Tavis McNair, the eldest son of Chuck and Shirley McNair and a 1995 South Medford High School graduate, was a 2nd lieutenant when he found himself in a fire fight April 10, 2003, in Baghdad. The officer was in the hatch of an armored vehicle when a rocket-propelled grenade slammed into the vehicle, lacerating the right side of his face and neck with shrapnel.

McNair is now a captain stationed in Southern California, where he is training young Marines, his mother reported. He was married four years ago this Thanksgiving, she noted.

"He was the face of war," she said. "After that first deployment, he had two more tours of Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He is on the ground for a while now.

"He is doing great," she added. "He recovered well."

Like many families with a loved one who has served in Iraq, her family has often discussed the war, she indicated.

"We've all been concerned about how it has been handled over the years," she said. "We could have made a difference in the beginning by getting in and out."

The surge, sending in a large number of reinforcements two years ago, also made a huge difference, she said.

"But it (war) is a very confusing, contentious thing," she concluded. "I think we will be fighting this war again. At some point we will probably have to go back and fix things."

Over in Grants Pass, David and Barbara Irish are also concerned about the impact of withdrawing and leaving a relatively weak Iraqi government. They are the parents of former Marine Cpl. Patrick Irish, a 1998 graduate of Hidden Valley High School in Murphy who was perhaps the first local resident wounded in the war.

"I was never for that war in the first place," said David Irish, a retired Marine master sergeant who served in Vietnam.

"If they are stable enough and can handle it, I guess I support it," he added of the planned withdrawal. "But I see a lot of similarities with Vietnam. I'm very concerned that Iran will step in when we leave."

"I think it's awesome," Barbara Irish said of the planned withdrawal.

However, noting her father was a POW in the Philippines during World War II, she was quick to observe the family supports the military.

"I just think the money we are spending over there should be spent over here," she said.

Their son, who was shot in the left clavicle on April 3, 2003, during a shootout with an Iraqi soldier near Al-Kut, is now an Oregon State Trooper based in Klamath Falls.

Grants Pass lawyer Greg Day, a lieutenant colonel with the Oregon Army National Guard who led a roughly 10-month mission of the Guard's 1st Battalion 186th Infantry, figures getting out is a good move. Headquartered in Ashland, the unit returned in April of 2010.

"If we don't have a status-of-forces agreement that provides immunity to our forces, it is the right decision to pull us out of there," he said, stressing that is his personal opinion and that he was not speaking for the Guard.

He was referring to an agreement requested by the U.S. that would have provided immunity for its military personnel while serving in Iraq.

"Iraq is a sovereign nation," observed Day, who also served in Afghanistan and the Sinai with the local unit.

Meanwhile, Mesta, who continues to deal with a back injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, is now married with a baby daughter.

"I lost 18 friends my first tour, and another 18 on my second," said the family resource manager for the Oregon Department of Human Services office in Medford.

"It was worth it to get Saddam out, to take that power away from him," he said. "But after we accomplished that, I don't think it was worth it to stay. It should have been handled a lot differently."

One day, Mesta said, he hopes to return to Iraq.

"I would like some day to go back and visit some of the people I visited when I first got there," he said. "I'd like to see them again."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

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