By Nash Kurilko
PART ONE OF TWO
Just over 10 years ago, U.S.-led Coalition troops poured into Iraq, overrunning the Baathist army and deposing longtime dictator Saddam Hussein. Many disaffected Iraqis rebelled against the occupation force, some using the chaos to launch attacks on rival ethnic or religious groups. The ensuing intractable conflict reached a peak in 2007 in the form of a virtual civil war. In response to the violence, then-President George W. Bush ordered a troop ‘surge’—a massive influx of fresh U.S. soldiers to help secure and rebuild the war-ravaged country.
Two years later, on May 2, 2009, a 22 year-old Inverness, West Marin County native, former College of Marin student and U.S. Army soldier named Jacob Robert Velloza was killed in action in the Iraqi city of Mosul. His death was one of 4,486 U.S. military fatalities in Iraq between March 2003 and December 2011. More than 100,000 people were killed in Iraq from March 2003 to April 2009, according to the Associated Press.
The war came after a dozen years of stringent sanctions imposed on Iraq in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War. Many Western intelligence agencies suspected Hussein’s government possessed weapons of mass destruction acquired or produced in the 1980s, such as Sarin gas, nerve gas, and other chemical and biological agents. Throughout the mid-to-late 1990s international inspectors toured Iraq and found no evidence of WMD production in the country.
Then came the horrifying terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, which heralded the beginning of the War on Terror. The nation grieved for its losses, and sought revenge. In October 2001, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, ejected the Taliban government, occupied the cities and continued to hunt Osama Bin Laden.
But the U.S. was denied immediate revenge. Regardless of how dubious Iraq’s complicity with Al-Qaeda was, the Bush Administration worked to build a case for invasion from 2002 onwards. Their cassus belli: Saddam had not dismantled or destroyed his weapons of mass description. They argued that his regime needed to fall.
Worldwide opinion polls showed that the population of nearly all countries opposed a war without a UN mandate. Mass protests broke out in cities all of over world, with the largest in Rome, London, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.
Yet, on March 19, U.S. and Coalition forces swept into Iraq from the south and north. They used air supremacy to overtake the disorganized Iraqi ground forces. American “shock-and-awe” tactics prompted mass surrender. By December 2003, Iraq proper been taken, the Republican Guard broken, Saddam captured and his government supplanted by the Coalition Provisional Authority. Former Iraqi soldiers, now out of work, joined ethnic and religious insurgent groups. Weapons and Jihadist volunteers flowed into Iraq from Syria, Jordan and Iran. The country quickly dissolved into bloody sectarian violence as various armed groups vied for power.
At the time, Jake Velloza was a junior at West Marin’s Tomales High School. Though born in Santa Rosa, he spent his childhood in West Marin living with his parents in Inverness. He was a football and baseball standout in high school. Football coach Leon Feliciano served as his athletic mentor.
“He was one of those young men who knew what he wanted to do and did it. Service to his country is what appealed to him,” Feliciano told the San Jose Mercury News.
Coach Feliciano recalled the 6’2” Velloza playing wing-back, defensive back, kick returner and kicker on a team that won the 2002 North Coast Section Class B championship with an 8-4 record.
Jake was remembered in the community for once competing in a school track meet in the morning, where he won several events, and then starring in a baseball game later that afternoon. He pitched a no-hitter and hit a home run.
“I think he knew from the first day he got into high school that he was going into the military,” Feliciano told the Mercury News. “He had in his mind since freshman year that he wanted to be in the military. He wanted to perform for his country and he was very patriotic. It was his destiny. That was it. We talked about college, but he said, ‘No, Coach, I want to be a ranger doing special ops.’”
Following his graduation in 2004, Jake enrolled at College of Marin, where he pitched for the Mariners, COM’s baseball team. COM also helped him foster an interest in photography. He started working with the North Marin Water District, where his grandfather had also worked for more than 20 years. But, he felt the burning drive to be a soldier, and on February 2, 2006, he joined the Army.
He did his basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky and then went onto Fort Sill, Oklahoma for the advanced training required to be a Fire Support Specialist. Afterward, he was stationed in Fort Hood, Texas with the 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division.
On September 1, 2006 Jake was deployed to Iraq for his first tour of duty. He spent 15 months at Forward Operating Base Warhorse, outside of the town of Baquba.
He returned to Fort Hood on November 30, 2007 for additional training, which completed in 2008. He got a furlough later that summer. He left Fort Hood to enjoy a short break in California, and in November he proposed to his girlfriend, Danielle Erwin, on top of the Golden Gate Bridge. His family was also present.
On December 15, 2008 he was deployed near Baghdad for his second tour. It was to last roughly a year.
“He kept saying, ‘Those guys are my brothers,’” said Jay Borodic, to the L.A. Times. Borodic, Jake’s best friend since eighth grade and a former high school baseball teammate, said, “He wanted to re-enlist—those were his new teammates, those were his new brothers.”
Speaking to the L.A. Times, Borodic said his old friend wasn’t entirely sure about re-enlisting for a second tour of Iraq. “He was hesitant, but I think the economy convinced him to go back. Plus, he always spoke so highly of the people he worked with. That was important too.”
Coach Feliciano agreed. “He was always going to bat for his friends,” he said.
Though Saddam Hussein was hanged on December 30, 2006, after being found guilty of crimes against humanity by an Iraqi court, the violence in the country failed to abate. In a January 10, 2007 televised address to the U.S. public, President Bush proposed adding 21,500 additional troops for Iraq, a job program for Iraqis, in-depth reconstruction proposals and $1.2 billion in funding for these programs. In his 2007 State of the Union Address, Bush announced “deploying reinforcements of more than 20,000 additional soldiers and Marines to Iraq.”
In Iraq, Velloza continued to plan his wedding to Danielle, though they had to do it via email.
A month after he had proposed to her, Jake was shot and killed in Mosul. Another soldier killed was his friend Jeremiah McCleery, 24. Three U.S. soldiers were also wounded. The attackers were later identified as Iraqi policemen.
“They opened the door a crack and [one man] started shooting,” Jake’s grandfather, Richard Velloza ABC7 news “He shot two dead and three were wounded and one of them was our grandson.” Jake’s grandfather had once worked as a gardener at the Olema Cemetery, where Jake is now buried. His father, Bob Velloza, who inspected the cemetery before Jake burial, found it overgrown with weeds, both inside the grounds and out by the road.
“It was a disgrace,” Bob’s brother, Mike Velloza, told the Contra Costa Times. “He knew he couldn’t have people parking in grass that’s five feet tall.”
Bob Velloza spent all of that day cutting the grass and straightening things up. He returned later that week to finish the job, and to make Olema Cemetery suitable for a proper military funeral.
“We have to honor Jake,” Mike said.
The May 15, 2009 funeral ceremony attracted a large gathering of fellow veterans, local police, fire and emergency service personnel. The family’s parish priest, Rev. John O’Neill, presided over the proceedings. “This is a West Marin kid,” he told the gathered crowd.
Army Captain Russell Toll, Jake’s commanding officer, told those assembled in a trembling voice that Jake had been like a brother to him. Captain Toll added that his friend’s sudden death had blindsided him, and he compared it to being hit without warning by a roadside bomb.
“He was a different breed of soldier,” Captain Toll said.
“[Jake] was a good-hearted person. He was a great soldier, but a better friend. I will always remember Jake for the rest of my life. My thoughts and prayers will always be with him and his family. For those who knew Jake, let us remember him in the best way that we can,” said then-Sergeant Michael Strausbaugh, who had served with Jake in his platoon as a 13F, otherwise known as Forward Observer.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, Rev. O’Neill read a posthumously released poem penned by Jake, prior to deploying on his second tour. “It’s from Jake to you, and it’s called ‘I Am Free,” he said.
“Don’t grieve for me now for I am free/I am following the path that God has laid for me/Be not burdened with times of sorrow / I wish you the sunshine of tomorrow/Perhaps my time seemed all too brief / Don’t lengthen it now with undue grief / Lift up your heart and share with me / God wanted me now and set me free.”
Over a quarter million returning troops are being diagnosed with mental or emotional health issues—from anxiety, depression, to full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder.
In part to counter the costs of PTSD and continuing medical treatment, the Veterans Administration’s budget has more than doubled over the past decade, going from $61.4 billion in 2001 to $140.3 billion in 2013. As a share of the total U.S. budget, it has grown from 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent over the same period.
There are conflicting views on the overall death count, as sectarian bombings and shootings still occur in Iraq.
Wikileaks released the Iraq War Logs in 2007, and data in the logs tracked from January 2004 to December 2009 claim 109,032 deaths in the war, including some 66,000 civilians. Yet the weekly medical journal The Lancet conducted its own surveys, in two parts: one in October 2004, and another in October 2006. The Lancet Surveys indicate that there were 601, 027 violent deaths from March 2003 through June 2006.
According to Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, the combined over wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will cost America as much as $6 trillion, the equivalent of $75,000 for every household. It is a staggering financial and economic burden, one that continues to adversely affect our national economy.
The Bush Administration led the nation into a war over alleged WMDs, none of which were ever found. Regardless of the economic costs, there is no restitution or comfort for the thousands who have lost family members in Iraq. Like the Vellozas, these families bear the pain, the anger, and the anguish of war—a sacrifice most of us have not had to make.
(Part two of this series will appear in the May Echo Times issue)
EDIT: Part two can be found on the “Students” page of this blog.