HOUSTON -- Sitting in a cubicle in a building on Houston’s west side, Philip McCulloch Jr. works the phones and taps at a laptop like any other office drone earning a paycheck. But the photographs pinned to the walls and the knick-knacks sitting on his desk hint at a remarkable history.
“This is myself and the former secretary of defense, Mr. Rumsfeld,” he says, pointing to a picture propped up on his desk, near the bayonet he took off an enemy fighter and the white flag he took from an Afghan rebel encampment.
Standing on the edge of his desk is a gnarled tube of metal with retracting fins, the remnants of a rocket propelled grenade that blasted into his vehicle and nearly killed him one day in Iraq.
“So it hit the vehicle and about half of it blew up,” he says. “I was injured. So this was sticking out of the window.”
McCulloch doesn’t like to brag about it, but his friends and co-workers will proudly tell you he won the Silver Star, one of the nation’s highest military honors, during one of his two tours in Iraq. The outgoing former marine sergeant isn’t one to complain, so he doesn’t care to say a whole lot about what’s happening right now in the country where he almost died in battle.
“A lot of Americans put a lot of heart and soul in there and gave the ultimate sacrifice,” he says. “It’s sad to see where it’s gone. It is a little frustrating.”
As the crisis in Iraq deepens and chaos spreads through the country where the United States lost thousands of lives and spent trillions of dollars, we decided to ask veterans of that war what they think about what’s happening in the land where they once served. So we dropped by an office building on Houston’s west side to visit a small business that’s also an unusual band of brothers.
Veteran Energy is an electrical service retailer, one of those companies selling electricity to homes and businesses, that gives part of its profits to non-profits helping vets. Its walls are decorated with flags, posters and certificates leaving no question that the staff consists almost entirely of veterans, many of whom saw combat in Iraq. Some of the guys had just returned from lunch, where they discussed the deteriorating situation in the country where they once fought.
“It looks kind of hopeless to me as a veteran,” says Bryan Escobedo, a former Marine sergeant who suffered multiple brain traumas during one of his two tours in Iraq. “And it was really discouraging to me. I personally worked with the Iraqi police and the Iraqi army. And it was really discouraging to see them drop their weapons and uniforms.”
He’s sad and frustrated, but Escobedo says he figured all along something like this would happen.
“We put a lot of effort into training them, you know,” he says. “I think we all kind of had the sense that they weren’t ready to face it by themselves.”
“I think we were hoping for better.” says Lu Vo, an Army veteran who served in Iraq. “I think we were all hoping for better.”
But like many other vets, he’s not surprised. And he’s not convinced there’s a military solution to the problems in that country.
“Whenever the Americans wanted democracy, whenever Americans wanted independence, what did they do?” he asks. “They took it. I don’t think we can purport to give people the independence that we think they deserve if they’re not willing to take it.”
A number of the combat veterans now working in cubicles in this business believe the only solution to Iraq’s problems – if there is a solution – is diplomatic.
“The best way to approach this situation is diplomatic, go about it the way we probably should have from the beginning,” said John Voerstler, a Marine veteran of the Iraq war. “Form a diplomatic solution with our allies, with our partners in the region and be able to insure that the people of Iraq will remain safe no matter who is in charge.”