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Twenty years later: South Texas mom recalls watching sons go off to Iraq War

Posted at 5:46 PM, Mar 20, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-21 23:25:05-04

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Much like the rest of the world, twenty years ago this week, Debbie Zuniga remembered when U.S. President George W. Bush took to the media airwaves to declare war on Iraq.

The air campaign of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) was already underway on March 19, 2003. Beginning March 20, 2003, U.S. and a small coalition of other countries used overpowering air and ground forces to eventually topple Saddam Hussein’smilitary and political regime.

The U.S. was already engaged in a war in Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom after 9/11).

Now, it was a battle overseas in Iraq, a war that hit close to home for Zuniga. Two decades ago this week, two of her sons, Salvador and Stephen, were moments away from entering that fight.

She remembered the spine-chilling feeling of hopelessness, the same way other parents feel when they send their sons and daughters off to war.

“(Its) scary, because you couldn’t protect them anymore,” Zuniga said.

Knowing that other nearby families were feeling the same anxiety, Zuniga helped start the Blue Star Mothers of America, Inc. Coastal Bend Chapteron April 1, 2003, two weeks after the Iraq invasion.

“It kind of helped us to comfort each other. We all had concerns about our kids and the dangers that they were in,” Zuniga said. Her sons are still serving in the Army and are now approaching retirement.

Other Coastal Bend military service members saw action early on in the war. Some were just miles away in bordering Kuwait, waiting for the ensuing ground attack.

“It was a little scary. You’re going into a war,” Nueces County Veterans Service Officer JJ De LA Cerda said. He and his fellow U.S. Marines helped launch OIF.

“You’ve got these missiles flying over your head, but you get through it with your brothers there," De La Cerda said. "You fight for each other. And that’s kinda how we got through it."

De La Cerda served with an artillery unit with the 1st Division, 2nd Battalion, 11th Marines, Headquarters Battery. His unit was already prepositioned just across Iraq’s southern border about two weeks before the actual invasion.

When the actual order came to “push” into Iraq, De La Cerda described his unit's rapid tempo to reach the battlefield and eventually Baghdad.

“We were told to get our gear,” De La Cerda said. "We’reMarines. That’s what we are taught to do. Let’s get into the fight.”

De La Cerda would later return to Iraq in early 2004 to fight in Operation Phantom Fury (Operation al-Fajr).

Like De La Cerda, Raul Serantes was involved early on in the invasion of OIF. Serantes was a Navy Hospital Corpsman with 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, Charlie Company. He served in initial push into Mosul, Iraq.

Like De La Cerda, Serantes returned to Iraq and fought in the invasion of Fallujah.

“We had a mission at hand with very little resources at the time, and we were going to make do,” Serantes said. “But knowing we had a lot of training to make this mission happen. That’s what we did. We relied on each other - brothers left and right - to get in there and do what we had to to - liberate the people of northern Iraq and then just try to get everybody home together.”

“We were there in Iraq from the very beginning,” Corpus Christi resident Robert Burke Shelton said.

Shelton served eight months in the war, mostly helping transport troops by air from Kuwait to Iraq. Then on the evening of Nov. 15, 2003, Shelton became one of the war’s early casualties.

The U.S. Army Blackhawk crew chief with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) was on a training mission when his helicopter was hit in the tail by a rocket propelled grenade (RPG). It then collided mid-air with another American helicopter in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. Both airships came down in a residential area. Twelve personnel were killed. Shelton was one of nine soldiers wounded.

“People don’t usually live through a situation like that,” Shelton said. “It’s still kind of hard to talk about, but it brings back a lot of memories every day.”

Shelton said that near death experience made him become more spiritual.

“We lost some others that night," he said. "But … through the grace of God, I’m happy to be breathing now.”

Shelton is now a proponent of holy intervention to help veterans and their families cope with similar tragedies.

Shelton was awarded a Purple Heart for injuries sustained in that crash in 2003. Two other Purple Heart recipients who now reside in the Coastal Bend also remember their actions during the early years of the Iraq invasion.

One of them is Ryan Morse. He served in the U.S. Army's 5th Battalion, 3rd Field Artillery Regiment from 2005 to 2006. His main mission was clearing routes of insurgents and roadside bombs / improvised explosive devises (IEDs) from Taji and Camp Anaconda(Balad).

"There were times when you realize this is a massive mission," Morse said. "There are times you just wanna go home. You understood you just had to be there you had to do your job with honor."

Another Purple Heart recipient from the Iraq war is Skyler Barker. He joined the U.S. Marines soon after the war started. He served with the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, 5th Marines Division between 2006 and 2007. His mission was reclearing insurgents from Ramadi and retake the city ofRutbah.

"We did a lot more interaction with the elders in the community out there, so it went from very much (to) nobody came outside when we were out," Barker said. "As we were there longer and clearing buildings in finding cashes and catching targets. You started seeing them come out with white flags and then it slowly developed into where I'm it was almost was like a parade like they love seeing us."

Barker now serves with the Corpus Christi Police Department. Both Morse and Barker served at a time of increased Iraqi insurgency.

From 2004 to May 2007, Iraqi insurgents (including Al-Qaeda) targeted the American led-coalition forces.This mostly was the result of the CIA’s final conclusion that there were no Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs), the main intent main intent of the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Ann Marie Torres of Kingsville set foot on Iraqi soil in 2009 with the 812th Quartermaster Company out of Harlingen, Texas.

Their company helped provide critical water, fuel and supply operations for the Allied forces in Iraq. They also escorted third country nationals to their area of operations to help support the war effort.

“Everyone was spread out,” Torres said. “I did several jobs while I was there.”

Now, twenty years since the beginning of the Iraq War, Torres believed President Bush made the right call initiating the invasion.

“He had the right intel, the right information, and I think he made the correct decision and I support it," she said. Torres is now a Kingsville City Commissioner and the first female commander of the VFW Post 2375 and Commander of Texas District 6.

Zuniga also agreed with the OIF mission.

“As my oldest son would say, both of them really, ‘Mom do you want it to happen here like it did on 9/11, or do you want us to take the fight over there?’ And they were just doing their job. That’s the answer they would give," she said.

The war officially ended Dec. 18 2011, but American forces would later return.

In 2014, President Obama sent American troops back to Iraq to help combat the militant group ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). U.S. forces officially withdrew in December 2021.

In all, 4,491 American troops died in OIF and more than 32 thousand were wounded.

Editor's note: Pat Simon served with the 225th Engineering Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division in Iraq in 2009.

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