Tanya Bradsher felt a rush of relief each morning when the updates came in letting her know how many U.S. troops were left in Iraq.
Each time the number ticked closer to zero, it meant more of her fellow veterans had made their final trip out of Iraq safely. Her biggest fear was that the remaining U.S. troops would get hit on their way out. She would hold her breath and think, “today is a good day, tomorrow hopefully will be a good day.”
Sunday was the day Bradsher, a lieutenant colonel in the Army, had been waiting for. The last of all U.S. troops in Iraq safely crossed the border into Kuwait, bringing the divisive war to a close.
Bradsher, a lieutenant colonel in the Army, witnessed the war’s final days from a unique vantage point. The soft-spoken mother of three is one of several Iraq war veterans now working in the White House, helping President Barack Obama bring the war that defined them to a close.
In transitioning from the battlefield to the White House, they have given the war a face and voice in West Wing, serving as a constant reminder that, for a small percentage of Americans, the long, divisive conflict has also been a matter of life and death.
“It’s a bit of a gut check on everything you say and do about the policy of the war and the politics of it,” said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communication.
The end of the nearly nine-year war marked a promise fulfilled for Obama, who took office pledging to end the conflict. Mindful of the politics of war, some of the veterans who now work for Obama are careful not to draw a direct connection between the president's positions on the Iraq war and their decision to work for his administration.
Still, Steve Miska, Obama’s director of Iraq policy, said he had “an overwhelming sense of relief” when the president announced that the war was coming to a close. An Army lieutenant colonel and father of two, Miska did three tours of duty in Iraq, including a 16-month stint in Baghdad that spanned the height of the sectarian violence there.
“My goal was that my generation finishes this war so that my son, who is thinking about what he’s going to do in college in two years, would not have to complete it with his generation,” he said.
Like many veterans of the unpopular war, the military’s departure from Iraq has stirred mixed emotions for the veterans in the White House. It's surreal, they say. Bittersweet. A moment of contemplation.
“You go back to your personal recollections of people maybe you know that were lost in battle, to their families, and to the guys who came back very much changed. And I think most people do come back changed in some way,” said Matt Flavin, who joined the military after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and served in Iraq from 2005 to 2006, working in Baghdad and Ramadi.
Flavin now serves as director of the White House office on veterans and wounded warrior policy, focusing on how the administration can assist the veterans returning home from Iraq, as well as Afghanistan.
With no military background himself, Obama has often sought the guidance of veterans like Flavin, Miska and Bradsher, who serves as a spokeswoman for the National Security Council. Before delivering a speech last week at North Carolina's Fort Bragg, Obama had the Iraq veterans review the remarks he planned to deliver to service members and their families.
Darienne Page, an Army veteran now working in the White House on veterans and wounded warrior outreach, traveled with the president to Fort Bragg. The war’s finality hit home for her on that trip, she said, when she met a young service member who asked her to thank the president for allowing him to spend his first Christmas home with his family in four years.
“To be able to give that to someone and to know that you’re responsible for making sure that this guy is home for the holidays, there honestly is no better feeling in the world,” said Page, who deployed to Iraq in 2003.
Like the president, the Iraq veterans in the White House do not speak about the war as a mission accomplished. They are candid about the challenges Iraq still faces, yet proud of the work they did there: clearing insurgent strongholds, helping bring down the levels of violence, and restoring basic services for the Iraqi people.
“Iraq is not a perfect place,” Flavin said. “Hopefully it will get closer to the ideal, but it’s not there yet and maybe it never will be. But based on our tremendous sacrifice, I do think we're leaving the country in a better place.”
Each veteran has a vision for Iraq’s future: A stable, democratic government. Safe and vibrant cities. A place where they could one day return with their families to visit their Iraqi friends.
But for now, with all U.S. troops having left Iraq, their thoughts are increasingly with the families of the nearly 4,500 Americans killed in war and making sure they know a simple truth.
“Their sacrifices really were worth it,” Bradsher said.