Veterans reflect on deployments 20 years after Iraq War began
March 21, 2023
(NEW YORK) -- ABC News National Correspondent Stephanie Ramos says she "never thought" the military would be in her future while growing up. But soon after the 9/11 terror attacks, Ramos joined the Army Reserve. Five years later, she was deployed to Baghdad, Iraq, and was there for a year before returning home.
Twenty years after the U.S. invasion, Ramos joined three service members who were deployed to Iraq -- retired Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Israel Del Toro, retired U.S. Army Specialist Shoshana Johnson and active-duty Air Force Lt. Col. Bree Fram -- to talk about their experiences and reflect on the horrors of war.
STEPHANIE RAMOS: So let's start with introductions.
ISRAEL DEL TORO: Israel Del Toro, Jr. Retired, CMS Sergeant. Served 22 years as a special warfare fighter. I was there in Iraq from the beginning.
SHOSHANA JOHNSON: Shoshana Johnson, U.S. Army, deployed in 2003. Shot twice, captured, 22 days as a prisoner of war.
BREE FRAM: Bree Fram. I'm a lieutenant colonel in the United States Space Force. I previously served 18 years in the Air Force, where I deployed as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2004, and then went back in 2017 and '18 as an international affairs officer.
RAMOS: Thank you for being here, all of you. You all have a very unique background. You all have different paths in the military, and that's what I love about the military. It really brings together this random group of people from all over the country, and you're working with them, you're in tight quarters with them, you're deploying overseas with them. It's very, very unique. We were all deployed to Baghdad, Iraq. We all have very different experiences. Shoshana, talk a little bit about your time when you deployed. You were a mom when you deployed to Iraq. And your daughter was how old?
JOHNSON: She was 2.
RAMOS: Two years old! As a mom, what was that moment like for you?
JOHNSON: It's what we do, you know. As a military family, we've gone through this process so many times. Our family is military. My dad is a Desert Storm vet. Great uncles, cousins, we all served. My sister served. I was in JROTC in high school, and everything like that. We're also immigrants from Panama. Emotionally, yes, you're leaving your kid behind. But I was also the kid that got left behind when my dad deployed. Of course, you want to see all those milestones. I had already missed her first birthday. I missed her first words. I missed her first steps, because we're training and stuff like that. My only thing was to get home to see her become a grown woman.
RAMOS: And talk to us a little bit about that. When you were there in Iraq, what happened?
JOHNSON: March 23rd. My company went into the city of Nasiriyah before it was secure. We were ambushed. We lost 11. Eight of us were captured, taken to Baghdad, where we spent 22 days in captivity. We heard the conflict going on constantly around us. You know, just hoping and praying that we'd be found. There were incidents where they weren't so nice. And there were other incidents where I was surprised at the kindness I was shown. During my captivity, they actually performed the operation to clean out the wounds of my legs. I'm very grateful that they took the time to do that. I don't know if I'd be here or if I'd have legs without that kindness.
RAMOS: And what was going through your mind during that time that you're being held?
JOHNSON: Lots of prayer. Lots of hope of seeing my daughter and my family again. I was thinking, "Why did this happen to me?" I think now that I've returned home, I asked more of the questions of, "Why me?" You know? Nine people died. Why am I here? And it's something I struggle with 20 years later, and I'll probably struggle with it for the rest of my life.
RAMOS: Bree, you deployed to Iraq in 2004, pre-transition. It was just a year into the into the start of the war. What was that like?
FRAM: My very first night there, I tried to go to sleep in a tent with a bunch of other people, and the air raid sirens went off. And I thought, "Oh my god, what do I do? Do I roll out of bed? Do I hide under the bed? Do I put my body armor on? Do I get out? Do I go somewhere?" And I look around the tent, and everyone who had been there a lot longer is just either sound asleep, or they looked around and they went right back to sleep.
And when I asked in the morning, "Well, what do we do?" And they said, "By the time the air raid siren goes off, either you're dead or you're fine. So just go back to sleep." OK, that's gonna be hard to do for a while. But eventually, you just pick up that attitude, and you're like, "I'm fine. I'm going to be okay. And I'm going to carry on with the mission."
RAMOS: You returned briefly to Iraq in 2018. What was that like, seeing Iraq early in the war in 2004, and then returning so many years later?
FRAM: Seeing the difference in the base, and how rundown certain aspects of it were. Yet they were still able to accomplish the mission. It was just a night and day operation. But still, to see the pride they had in their pilots. I mean, those guys were like Gods over there, with the skills that they had developed. It was just a dramatic shift in tone for what the base looked like, how it operated.
RAMOS: DT, you were deployed to Bosnia, to Afghanistan, to Iraq. Tell us about the job that you had while you were in Iraq.
DEL TORO: So my job, what we do is call in airstrikes. So we are the guys down to ground with Army, Marines, Navy, special operations as their fire element. Knowing that I had that opportunity, that ability to take care of my teammates, just by what I did, was awesome, because I knew I was going to take care of my guys. Was it dangerous? Obviously, you can see by my appearance. Yeah, it is dangerous. But I enjoyed it. I enjoyed being out there with my guys.
RAMOS: Talk a little bit about your journey and when you were in Afghanistan.
DEL TORO: I was out there with a team of scouts, when I got hit in 2005, December. You know, you hear the stories of, your life flashes in front of you. For me, I never really believed it. Then, when I got hit, going down the road, across this creek, and I feel this intense heat blast on the left side. And I was like, in my head, "We just got hit." That's where those flashes, things that were going to happen that were distinct that I remember was like, me and my wife had tried to get married three different times. We were finally going to get married by the church. Because every time we tried, I deployed. But lastly, was me teaching my boy how to play ball, because I was a ballplayer. And then something told me to get out of this truck and pop out of it and try to run to the creek. The flames overtook me, and I collapsed. And I'm thinking here, this is it. I was like, I've broken my promise to my family that I would always come back. 80% percent of my body had third degree burns. I was given a 15% chance to live.
RAMOS: You were definitely tougher than your disabilities and circumstances. What motivated you to stay in and re-enlist in 2010?
DEL TORO: I knew I could teach, get the next generation of operators ready. Sometimes people say, "Is that really the first face we want to show these young troops?" And my answer to that was like, "You know what? They'd look at me and see the reality of what this job could do and still want to do it. Those are guys I want right there."
RAMOS: When you look back at your time there, what do you think? Was it worth it? Would you do it all over again. Would you sign up?
DEL TORO: I would in a heartbeat.
RAMOS: What about you Shoshana?
JOHNSON: It's not about the conflict. It's about being in service. It's about being a soldier. I would do it all over again.
DEL TORO: That camaraderie.
FRAM: I think the fact that I hit 20 years a few months ago and I'm still serving answers that question. Absolutely yes. Because not only do I feel that my service has been valuable, and a part of something greater than myself that I truly believe in, but it also paves the way for the next generation to continue the legacy, to continue to protect the freedoms that we cherish and the rights that we hold so dear.
DEL TORO: How about you, Stephanie?
RAMOS: How about me? Absolutely. I think it was worth it. It was a worthwhile experience. I learned a ton while I was there in Baghdad. So yes, the answer to that question is yes, I would. Thanks DT, for putting me on the spot.
Thank you all. Thank you all for your service. And you know, we hear that a lot. "Thank you for your service. Thank you for your service." I don't know how it is for you guys, but I appreciate it every single time that I hear that, because it is a sacrifice. It's a sacrifice, not just for yourself, but for your entire family. And it is appreciated.
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