Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans: What did you leave behind?

Jeff Severns Guntzel
Senior reporter
Public Insight Network
The final section of the last American military convoy leaving the last remaining American base in Iraq crossed over the border into Kuwait the morning of Dec. 18, 2011. Nearly 500 troops from the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division ended their presence in Camp Adder by sunset that day. (Photo by Getty Images)

The final section of the last American military convoy leaving the last remaining American base in Iraq crossed over the border into Kuwait the morning of Dec. 18, 2011. Nearly 500 troops from the 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division ended their presence in Camp Adder by sunset that day. (Photo by Getty Images)

American forces are out of Iraq, and their exit from Afghanistan appears to be imminent.

When we hear about what U.S. forces are leaving behind in those countries, the stories tend to be about bases, equipment and the fitness of local security forces. But the men and women who served there have often left more personal things behind. If you’re an Iraq or Afghanistan war veteran, we want to hear what you left behind when you returned home from deployment. It could be anything; a physical object — or something less tangible. Help us tell a different kind of story about America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We also want to hear about what you kept. Take a moment to tell us your story.

Here’s some of what we’ve already heard:

Paula Merns of New Brighton, Minn., did her first tour of Iraq in 2009 as a staff sergeant in the Minnesota National Guard with the 34th Infantry Division. She was stationed in the southern Iraqi port city of Basra and a little north of there in Nasiriyah.

What she left behind: “A sense of purpose.”

“I got back and people were less focused, less diligent and less purposeful. The feeling of working together isn’t here, not even in workplaces or community organizations. It isn’t the same and it is disturbing to think that people are as disconnected from each other as I feel from them.”

What she kept: Her pink camouflage flip-flops. She picked them up on leave at Wald Disney World. “As a woman,” she says, “sometimes it is nice to have something that isn’t desert tan or green or camouflage.”

All the same, she says, “I hate them.” They were her shower shoes in Iraq. Showering meant a walk outside through the mud, from bunk to bathroom.

“I also keep a series of religious books I received from the chaplain,” she says. “They remind me of the travel and the nicer things I saw and experienced.” (Hear an interview with Paula Merns.)


Raymond Camper was a sergeant in the Army National Guard and served a tour in Iraq. He now lives in Minneapolis. (Photo shared by Raymond Camper)

Raymond Camper of Minneapolis served one tour in Iraq as a sergeant in the Army National Guard. He came to oppose the war during his time in Iraq, where he performed watchtower duties at a base outside of Ramadi. He left the military soon after his return.

What he left behind: ”Actually, what I left in Iraq was a pocket [U.S.] Constitution. I had developed this really good relationship with this one Marine, and we talked about lots of things. He had revealed to me one day that he had never actually read the Constitution and I was like, you know what, here you go…”


Maj. Jay Ferguson of Hermantown, Minn., served a tour in Iraq in 2005 with the Minnesota National Guard.

What he left behind: “A stone.”

He explains: “My niece Alaina was born while I was in Iraq. She was born with a rare birth defect. Her parents were told that her life span would be very short and that she may only remain alive for just a few minutes to hours after birth. She lived a beautiful life for a little over five months. At her funeral, my family attended, her parents asked everyone to take a stone and place some where you felt Alaina would have liked to have gone. My wife took a stone for me and sent it. I took the stone and placed in the ancient city of Ur.”

What he kept: “A brick. It was given to me by an Iraqi family who were brick makers. I took care of some injured brick makers and out of gratitude they gave me a handmade brick.”


Douglas Johnson of San Antonio did just one tour in Iraq in 2005 as a combat medic with the Army.

What he left behind: ”The guys I trained, and the interpreters who helped us train them.”

What he kept: ”My uniforms. I’m very attached to my boondocker hat and my CamelBak [water bottle]. I was issued the hat and the CamelBak. I keep them on my hat rack in the front hall closet, and I wear them when I go out as appropriate. The CamelBak works well on my son’s Boy Scout campouts.”

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