Iraq war veteran Tim Pickard, 23, of York City displays reminders of his tour in Iraq. From left: his Army uniform, a propaganda banner and a  dishdashah
Iraq war veteran Tim Pickard, 23, of York City displays reminders of his tour in Iraq. From left: his Army uniform, a propaganda banner and a dishdashah garment worn by Iraqi men. Pickard served a 15-month tour in Iraq. (Bill Kalina photo)

A statue of Saddam Hussein was easily toppled, creating an iconic image as an Army combat vehicle built at BAE Systems in West Manchester Township pulled it to the ground.

Baghdad fell just as fast after the U.S. and allies sent 200,000 troops to Iraq on March 20, 2003, claiming the country's dictator was hiding or making weapons of mass destruction.

Just as young Iraqis strive to put a democracy in place, one local veteran is rebuilding his life much like the country he invaded.

"I've had my struggles," said veteran Tim Pickard.

The 23-year-old York City resident served a 15-month tour in Iraq as an Army specialist.

Less than two months after the war began, former President George W. Bush stood on

an aircraft carrier off the San Diego coast with a banner behind him that said "Mission Accomplished."

But the mission continued for nine years, racking up casualties and sending many troops home with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The 'surge': In 2007, the Bush administration ordered the "surge" -- a combat strategy that sent an additional 20,000 soldiers and Marines to Iraq.

Pickard, who enlisted at 17 during his junior year at Central York High School, was part of that surge.

"I was deployed during what would've been my senior prom. While my friends were graduating, I was getting shot at as roads were blowing up in front of me," he said.

The only physical injuries he sustained during the war were some back problems after surviving an explosion, Pickard said.

But he's learned from the various services he's used through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that mental scars can be harder to heal.

"You learn you're not alone in this. There's a brotherhood even when you come home," he said.

Pickard chose not to elaborate on the specific issues he's struggled with as a young veteran. Instead, he's focusing on what lies ahead.

In college: He's studying math and philosophy at Penn State York and through online courses, with hopes to eventually become a middle school and high school teacher.

"I think the best way to solve problems is through education," he said.

An avid reader, Pickard is currently flipping the pages of Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" and George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four." He's also training for a marathon, is involved with the York County veterans court and volunteers for the SPCA and Habitat for Humanity.

"I really like working with animals. I've been thinking about getting a service dog. They're a big help to vets," Pickard said.

Work: As for a job, he doesn't have one. He's been living off veterans benefits and money saved during active duty.

Tim Pickard s division patrols in Iraq during his deployment, which ended in 2009. The war veteran is currently attending Penn State York and hopes to
Tim Pickard s division patrols in Iraq during his deployment, which ended in 2009. The war veteran is currently attending Penn State York and hopes to become a teacher. (Submitted photo)

When Pickard chose not to re-enlist in 2010, he said he "applied all over" to no avail.

He was among the thousands of jobless veterans logged last month by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In February, the unemployment rate was 9.4 percent for veterans who have served since September 2001, according to the agency.

"It's more of a factor for younger veterans. The unemployment rate among older veterans is much lower (at about 6 percent)," said Gary Steinberg, spokesman with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The unemployment rate among young veterans follows a trend recorded after previous wars and rates applied to non-military workers who are young, he said.

"Younger people have always had higher unemployment rates than older people," Steinberg said.

The bureau doesn't track reasons for the unemployment.

It might be due to the economy and skills, said U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-Dillsburg, who led combat flights in Iraq in 2008.

"In a weak economy with a slow recovery, there aren't a lot of jobs available -- vets or anyone else," he said.

Also, skills on the battlefield don't always easily translate to the private sector, Perry said.

Poll: Not worth it: Invading Iraq was not worth the casualties of war and the struggles of returning vets, according to the majority of Americans.

A Gallup poll conducted earlier this month revealed 53 percent of respondents said the U.S. "made a mistake sending troops to fight in Iraq," while 42 percent said it was not a mistake.

The conflict cost the American people $2.2 trillion, according to a report released by Brown University this week. Included in the number of casualties were 134,000 civilians, 4,488 U.S. troops, 3,400 U.S. security contractors, 231 journalists and 62 humanitarian workers.

Pickard signed up knowing death was a part of war, and he doesn't regret fighting for his country.

"I felt very patriotic and signed up wanting to defend the U.S. I definitely believe in the war, but not in the way it was being fought. We played more defense than offense," he said.

Time will tell how the war that officially ended in December will be remembered, Perry said.

"Many people are still gauging the value and final outcome of the war," he said. "After all the blood, sweat, tears and horrific sacrifices, the history is still being written."

-- Candy Woodall can also be reached at cwoodall@yorkdispatch.com.