BELLEVILLE — James Camerer, 29, remembers where he was 10 years ago today.
Stationed with his Illinois National Guard unit at Fort McCoy, Wis., Camerer's transportation company was there to train for its role in the impending invasion of Iraq. The plan was for them to be sent to Turkey, and from there invade Iraq from the north.
"But Turkey closed their borders, so that scrapped our mission," said Camerer, of Granite City.
Camerer eventually spent two tours in Iraq, from 2004-05, and then from 2006-07. The first deployment, which coincided with the rise of the anti-American insurgency and the start of a bloody sectarian civil war, was more dangerous than the second, he said.
"One of the main things I did see, which makes me glad I went back a second time, is the progress that we made," said Camerer, a National Guard sergeant and a student at Southwestern Illinois College.
By then the security situation had improved noticeably, said Camerer, who was interviewed at the St. Clair County Veterans Assistance Commission where he works as a part-time intern.
"Because we started implementing new programs that were helping these young men who, instead of planting IEDs (improvised explosive devices), they were actually providing their own sort of security for the towns and villages," Camerer said.
With American military forces almost entirely out of Iraq, and the 10-year anniversary of the American invasion on Tuesday, Camerer recalled his months in Iraq.
"I have memories of the people I was with, the camaraderie, the jokes that we told," he said. "That kind of stuff is going to stick with me in the long run."
But what will the American public -- fewer than 1 percent of whom had any direct connection to the Iraq war -- remember about the war?
"The general public will remember the images, I think," Camerer said. "The initial crossing at the border. The toppling of the Saddam statue in Baghdad." And, some believe, American efforts to bring spread democracy to a troubled region of the world.
Wayne Marcus, of Highland, has a different take on the war.
Marcus, 65, spent more than three years, on and off, between 2004-09, in Iraq working on water projects as a civilian U.S. government employee.
Some of his most vivid Iraq memories took shape in the chow hall at Camp Summerall, a U.S. Army forward operating base 130 miles north of Baghdad.
The year was 2005 and the insurgents' IEDs were taking a terrible toll on troops serving at Summerall, said Marcus, a veteran of the Vietnam War.
This was when American troops still traveled in soft-skinned trucks and Humvees, making them easy targets for insurgent ambushes. In the food lines each day Marcus said he'd hear about soldiers he'd gotten to know -- "these young guys with freckles" -- who'd been killed or terribly wounded.
"Toward the end I'd start seeing these young kids as my grandkids," he said. "It works on you."
Marcus is proud of his service in Iraq, proud that he helped American troops and Iraqi civilians. But he predicted the Iraq war will not be remembered favorably by the American public.
"It'll be looked at as a war we shouldn't have gotten into," he said. Instead of making America safer, the war did the opposite, Marcus said.
"We took Saddam out of the picture, now Iran is going hog wild," he said. "So that was not a good thing."
A decade after America invaded Iraq, and 15 months after America's official military exit from that troubled land, metro-east residents who served in Iraq continue to sift their memories to determine the war's meaning and effect on themselves, their families, their nation.
Charles Shaffer, 28, was a junior at O'Fallon Township High School when the Iraq War started. At the time, Shaffer was headed for a career in the military, but had no expectation he'd ever serve in Iraq.
"Honestly, when I was in high school I thought it'd be over when I joined the military," Shaffer said.
Shaffer joined the Army's 4th Infantry Division as a combat engineer. On Sept. 1, 2008, while on patrol outside Mosul, Iraq, an insurgent grenade attack nearly killed him and the passenger of the vehicle he was driving.
Shaffer spent four months in hospitals recuperating from the attack, and underwent two dozen surgeries in three years. He lost his right leg in the attack, and today gets around with the help of a carbon fiber-and-steel, battery-powered artificial leg.
Allowed to re-enlist, Sgt. Shaffer is taking part in a Army-sponsored pilot program that enabled him to land a job at Scott Air Force Base's Surface Deployment and Distribution Command. There he spends his day helping coordinate the shipment of military members' household goods around the world.
Despite the wounds he suffered, Shaffer remained positive about his time in Iraq.
"I have no negative feelings about everything I did," he said. "Everything I did was for a reason."
When he thinks about his 10 months in Iraq, "The only stuff I really think back to are all the friends I had over there," he said.
The one lesson he wants people to remember about Iraq?
"When people think it's hot here, it's a lot hotter over there," Shaffer said of Iraq, noting that the temperature in a vehicle during Iraq's scorching summer could exceed 135 degrees Fahrenheit.
The only thing that got him through was drinking water -- lots and lots of it, he said.
"You could literally drink a liter of water every 20 minutes," he said.
Gary Short, of Alton, spent 19 months in Iraq as a civilian contractor in Iraq between 2004-06. He acknowledged some good things happened to him because of his time in Iraq. For one thing, that's where he met the woman who became his wife. And the good money he earned working on high-tech surveillance systems for military outposts enabled him to buy a nice house, he said.
But the war represented a series of giant mistakes based on ignorance, hubris and wild optimism, according to Short, 46, a former Marine.
"My analogy for our time in Iraq is like this: We walk into a daycare center, we shoot the teacher and say, 'You're in charge now. Have a nice day!'" Short said. "I think it was a shiny object that our politicians could hang in front of us and say, 'Here, look at this,' while doing everything else behind our back."
The nadir for Short occurred in 2006, when he was in an armored vehicle in a long line of backed-up traffic on an Iraqi highway.
An IED had exploded on the highway. While Short's driver waited for the go-ahead to pull forward, Short said he spotted a small Iraqi girl looking at him. Her eyes were like daggers, he said.
"And I look at this little girl, and she looks at me, and she looks at me like, 'What are you doing here? You brought this,'" Short said.
A long list of changes resulted from the war in Iraq, including the 2008 election of President Barack Obama. Obama, in contrast to other Democratic contenders, had gone on record as being opposed to the war, said Jeff Lantis, a political science professor at the College of Wooster, in Ohio.
"I believe that with the election of Obama, and reconsideration of the costs of this global presence, we are recognizing important limits and boundaries in U.S. foreign policy today," Lantis said, noting America's reluctance to intervene directly in such Middle Eastern hotspots as Libya and Syria.
"These footprints of American foreign policy today are lighter footprints than we seemed to be willing to use 10 years ago," he said.
Michael Boyle, a political scientist at LaSalle University in Philadelphia, said he believes the huge costs of the Iraq war have diminished America's appetite for an Iraq-style intervention for at least the next five or 10 years.
But political and media pundits also have noted that the run-up to the Iraq invasion also showed the inherent weaknesses of America's political system: A president bent on going to war could manipulate the media, public opinion and members of Congress afraid of appearing weak on national security.
And despite all the costly mistakes of the Iraq war, nothing fundamentally has changed to prevent a future ill-fated war, Boyle said.
"You still have an executive branch that thinks it can use violence abroad whenever it wants. We still have essentially a subservient Congress," he said. The system only works if "Congress exercises proper scrutiny over the use of military force. That is the only check they have."
Camerer, the National Guard member from Granite City, is in some ways grateful for his chance to take part in the war.
"It has opened up some doors in terms of education for me that wouldn't have been opened had I not been in the service," he said. But he doesn't talk about his war experiences with his classmates at SWIC.
And one day, if he marries and has kids, and they ask about his time in Iraq, what will he tell them?
"I will suggest to them that they listen to the things that I've said and that they do their own research," he said.