Col. Mitchell Paulin has never doubted that the Iraq war, with its enormous cost in lives and dollars, has been worth it.
But ask Paulin — who in 2003 was a surgeon attached to the 800th Military Police Brigade in Baghdad — about what he thinks the long-standing results of the war effort will be, and his answer becomes more complicated.
"Do I think that the job is really finished? No," said the member of Kesher Israel Congregation in West Chester. "I'm sure if they were able to negotiate a better agreement of forces, we would still be there."
The news wasn't good in the first few days after the U.S. pullout: A wave of bombings killed at least 70 people throughout the country, stoking fears of a breakdown of the fragile political order and resumption of an all-out sectarian conflict.
"You always hope that the rule of law will take precedence, but there is deep animosity in that country amongst the individual sects," said the 55-year-old reservist who has a private practice in Chester County. "How do you change generations of mistrust with a simple pullout of troops?"
With the formal conclusion of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the United States closed a chapter on one of the longest wars in its history.
For the better part of four years, the war in Iraq was the nation's dominant — and most divisive — political issue, especially in 2005 and 2006 as the situation seemed to spiral out of control.
More recently, the U.S. presence in Iraq has largely moved off the front pages as the conflict in Afghanistan became more intense and the state of the economy became the center of national concern.
But the pullout has refocused attention on the war that took the lives of nearly 4,500 Americans. Of those, 25 were Jewish, according to a report compiled by the Forward. Among the soldiers who lost their lives was 1st Lt. David Bernstein, a Phoenixville native who was posthumously awarded the Silver Star. He died at age 24 on Oct. 18, 2003, in Taza, Iraq.
Over the span of the war, the Jewish Exponent has periodically profiled some of the Jewish men and women from the area who served in Iraq.
A handful of veterans were interviewed by the Exponent in the days after the pullout. Each said that, once in uniform, the question of whether or not one supported or opposed U.S. policy became irrelevant: It was all about helping the person next to you.
"Political ramifications don't enter into it when you are given a job to do," said Paulin.
Like Paulin, each veteran interviewed said he would do it again.
Joshua Lipschutz applied to the Pennsylvania National Guard on Sept. 13, 2001, motivated by a desire to serve his country and help strike back at the terrorists who attacked it.
In 2005, the medical doctor, Bala Cynwyd resident and member of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El spent four months treating injured soldiers and Iraqi citizens at Camp Liberty, near the Baghdad airport.
Lipschutz, now 49, said that if you were going to be in Iraq, the base wasn't a bad place to be stationed. Sure, he had to treat patients who'd been terribly injured by bomb blasts, but he'd worked in an emergency room and wasn't particularly fazed by gore.
He had air-conditioned quarters and access to a gym and a cafeteria with plenty of dining options. The problem: The base took mortar fire on a daily basis. One came within 100 yards of Lipschutz and he felt the shock waves hit his body. (By contrast, when he was deployed in Afghanistan in the winter of 2008 he slept on the ground in a tent, but the base took no fire.)
The father of two children at the time — he's now got three, with two attending the Perelman Jewish Day School — said he promised God that if he made it home from Iraq he'd wrap tefillin every day. Lipschutz has kept up his end of the deal.
The doctor, who has earned the rank of lieutenant colonel and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania's medical school, said he felt he was serving the greater good all throughout his service.
"I felt that I was doing a good thing for America and also in Israel," said Lipschutz, referring to the threat that Saddam Hussein posed to the Jewish state.
The question of whether the United States should have gone to Iraq in the first place, or how historians will one day view the endeavor, are above his "pay-grade," said Lipschutz.
"Everybody just goes to help their comrades. You had a job to do and you go do it and you hope for the best," he said, adding that he thinks all Americans should perform some kind of national service, even if it is not in the military. "I hope it works out. It will be a real shame if it was all in vain."
Rabbi Jon Cutler, a chaplain and naval captain, spent the winter of 1991 with U.S. troops in the Saudi Arabian desert; Scud missiles were an ever-present threat. The Flourtown resident said he never thought he'd be involved in another conflict with Iraq, but four years ago, he spent 13 months as a senior chaplain overseeing about 20 other chaplains on Al Asad Air Base in western Iraq.
Like Lipschutz, Cutler was primarily focused on serving the needs of American military personnel. Long deployments were tough on families and the chaplains working under Cutler often consoled soldiers who were going through all kinds of personal difficulties.
He also led Shabbat services each week for about two dozen Jews on a base of about 18,000 soldiers. Cutler erected a giant menorah on the base and even helped build a semi-permanent synagogue there.
Having been in Iraq twice, how did he feel about the conclusion of Operation Iraqi Freedom?
"I was really happy. It is a relief. Finally, we are putting closure to this. Americans can actually come home," said Cutler in a phone interview from the U.S. base at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, East Africa. He has about a month left in his latest deployment.
Cutler said it is too soon to judge whether America succeeded in building a stable Iraq.
"It really is going to be up to the Iraqi people. How does one judge success? To me, one of the standards is meeting the needs of the people and having a multi-party system," he said. "Is it better now than under Saddam Hussein? Yes — but then again, it is so fragile."
Mark Hess, a civilian advisor and mentor to U.S. Army commanders, returned last week from 13 months in Afghanistan. Back in 2007 and 2008, he was deployed in Iraq. Reticent to divulge too much personal information, Hess would only say he lives in the Philadelphia area but would not be more specific.
Hess said that the United States succeeded in removing Hussein and beating back a resurgent Al Qaeda in Iraq.
"Sadly, our failure to act against a radical terrorist government next door in Iran left our soldiers in Iraq and the people of Iraq exposed to terrorist violence and intimidation from Iran," he wrote in an email. "The result is that Iraq now appears to be run by a pro-Iranian establishment of radical Shia. The moderate Shia have been intimidated and will probably not oppose them in the near term."
Paulin, the Chester County doctor — and father of a 23-year-old daughter and 21-year-old son — said that the American military performed admirably. He reiterated that in Iraq, the United States faced an extremely difficult task.
Paulin's homecoming in 2003 was doubly sweet: He celebrated his son's Bar Mitzvah just two weeks later.
The experience "reinforced to me that the United States was, without a doubt, the best place in the world to live. If you didn't think so before, you knew it when you came home. The U.S. military professionalism in all was unbelievable."