Two years after the Islamic State swept into northern Iraq, the Iraqi army last week regained an airfield that some California National Guard veterans say the U.S. military never should have left.
The base, Qayyarah West Airfield, held hundreds of National Guard soldiers from the Central Valley for the better part of a year late in the Iraq War.
“I saw that and thought, ‘I was just there,’” said Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Clemons, 39, of Sacramento.
The airfield, known as Q’West to Americans, was a remote and sometimes desolate location far from populated areas. It was important for the U.S. military because it sat in open desert 40 miles south of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul.
The location makes it a key base today as the Iraqi army prepares to retake Mosul from the Islamic State. About 500 American military service members are expected to participate in that campaign from Q’West, according to the Defense Department.
Seeing news about American troops returning to Q’West stirred memories for some California National Guard veterans who served there in 2008 and 2009, when the U.S. military used the base as a logistics hub.
Back then, soldiers from the Modesto-based 1st Battalion, 184th Infantry Regiment led convoys to supply bases on Iraq’s borders with Syria and Turkey.
“We went, we did our jobs and then we just gave up the ground and went away,” said Jeremy Calgaro, a former National Guard sergeant from Patterson who recently moved to Kentucky.
At the time, soldiers expressed guarded optimism about Iraq’s future.
“It’s going in the right direction,” Capt. Guillermo Adame told a McClatchy reporter at Q’West in 2009. “Within a few years, this will all change. We won’t be here, or if we are, it’ll be a small footprint.”
Adame and other veterans experienced far less violence that year than on their previous deployments, but they worried about tensions between Iraq’s different ethnic and religious groups.
They also remembered arresting fighters coming in from Syria and Iran earlier in the war, which suggested to them that Iraq would be a battleground for a regional war.
“I saw it coming,” Calgaro said. “We knew about ISIS long before ISIS came out.”
Clemons watched the Islamic State’s advance in 2014 and felt saddened, particularly when it moved into Kurdish-majority provinces that were friendly to American troops.
The Islamic State “made them refugees again, and it’s frustrating to see that,” he said of the Kurdish and Christian communities in northern Iraq that suffered under Saddam Hussein’s regime.
U.S. forces departed Iraq in December 2011, when the Obama administration and Iraq’s former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki could not reach an agreement about keeping American troops in the country.
Today, about 4,600 American troops are back in Iraq. They mostly work as advisers to Iraqi forces or serve in artillery and aviation units that can attack Islamic State positions from a distance.
U.S. defense officials praised the Iraqi army for seizing Q’West, calling it a sign of the army’s growing ability to fight Islamic State militants.
“With the retaking of Qayyarah West airfield, the Iraqi security forces have once again demonstrated a serious will to fight,” U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in a news release. “I congratulate them on their recent successes and reaffirm that the United States, along with our coalition partners, will continue to do all we can to support Iraq's effort to serve ISIL a lasting defeat.”
In 2009, Clemons told a reporter he was hopeful for Iraq. This week, he acknowledged he wasn’t surprised that a movement like the Islamic State brought chaos back to areas he once patrolled.
Looking back, Clemons said he prefers to think about the days he and other soldiers made a small difference in someone’s life rather than dwelling on the larger scope of the war. He served on three deployments to Iraq and one to Afghanistan in his Army career.
“It was the little wins, like ‘Wow, we opened a school today.’ Or, the elections went stellar. You have to take those little wins, because if you think about the big stuff you’ll go nuts,” he said.