Vets for Freedom
The Iraqi army has its first major test in Basra, where it recently launched an offensive against radical Shia militias, a group of veterans visiting Lawrence on Thursday said.
"This is the Super Bowl for them," said David Bellavia, a former staff sergeant with the Army's First Infantry Division based at Fort Riley. "This is where the rubber meets the road."
Bellavia is co-founder of Vets For Freedom, a 2-year-old national group of 21,000 military veterans with chapters in Kansas and 43 other states. He and rotating groups of veterans are participating in a bus tour that began earlier this month in San Diego.
The bus rolled into Lawrence on Thursday and stopped at Kansas University's Dole Institute of Politics.
Called the National Heroes Tour, its purpose is to have highly decorated veterans answer questions and inform the American public about what is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We're here to get the truth out about what's happening on the ground from the guys who have seen it firsthand," Pete Hegseth, the group's executive director, said.
The wars have strained the military, but it won't break, said Hegseth, a former member of the Army's 101st Airborne Division who served in Iraq. He said the troop surge and counter-insurgency strategy led by Gen. David Petraeus is working. The bus tour will end April 8 in Washington, D.C., where veterans will meet with members of Congress.
A month ago, Hegseth returned to Iraq for a week to visit the troubled Baghdad neighborhood where he led patrols in 2005. There has been a major change for the better, he said.
"I walked through there for three days with no special security," he said. "I didn't hear a shot fired or a single explosion."
Shia violence has increased in Baghdad and Iraq this week because of the Basra offensive, but Hegseth and Bellavia said that violence has been caused by rogue elements that the Iraqi Army needed to stand up to.
In 2004, Bellavia's unit was in Fallujah fighting the Mehdi militia controlled by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
"I'm one of those guys who thinks Muqtada al-Sadr is long overdue his stay on earth," said Bellavia, who has been nominated for the Medal of Honor because of his actions in Fallujah.
Also on the bus was Tom Parks, a Marine who earned the Silver Star in Iraq. Iraqi soldiers are much better than they were when he worked with them, he said.
"When I started training Iraqi security forces in 2004, it was like training a kid in nursery school," Parks, an Overland Park resident, said. "We're watching these guys do great things now."