When U.S. air strikes began pounding military targets at the start of the Iraq war 10 years ago, Jose "Raf" Mesta and his fellow Marines were racing across the Kuwait border.

When U.S. air strikes began pounding military targets at the start of the Iraq war 10 years ago, Jose "Raf" Mesta and his fellow Marines were racing across the Kuwait border.

The Marine Corps unit was on the tip of the spear in the invasion, heading toward An-Nasiriyah. It was March 20, 2003 — Iraqi time.

"The initial push was pretty scary," recalled the former sergeant, a 2000 Eagle Point High School graduate. "I remember driving into a city that was just a ball of fire, flames pouring out of it from our air strikes.

"We were sent to Nasiriyah to secure the bridges," he added, noting his unit was ordered to hold key bridges over the Euphrates River and the Saddam Canal. "It was terrifying, our first time in combat."

The first combat for his unit began March 23 and lasted several weeks. The Marines lost 18 in that battle.

Mesta, 32, was interviewed via telephone at the Denver airport, where he was headed to a reunion Saturday with fellow Marine veterans of the battle of An-Nasiriyah. He expects 20 to 30 veterans he served with to be on hand for the gathering at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Va.

"I want to hang out with some of my buddies," he said. "I think it would be therapeutic to talk to some old friends. Maybe it will help put a closure to it.

"I still struggle a lot with PTSD, especially at times like this," Mesta said of post traumatic stress disorder. "I still think about it (Iraq war) every day. I think about the friends we lost."

Although the war was expected to be short, it continued for some eight years, with the last combat troops leaving at the end of 2011. During the war, nearly 4,500 Americans in uniform died in Iraq. Of those, 3,530 were killed in combat.

That includes at least 131 deaths of those whose home of record was in Oregon or who had strong ties to the state. Five young men from Jackson or Josephine counties, or with ties to the area, died in Iraq; many others were wounded in the war.

However, more than 100,000 Iraqis also died in the war to oust Saddam Hussein. After the invasion, Sunni and Shiite militants battled the U.S.-led forces as well as each other.

Mesta did two tours of duty in Iraq, serving as a TOW gunner — an anti-tank missile man atop an armored vehicle. The second tour came a little more than a year after his first tour ended.

A training and development specialist for the Oregon Department of Human Services, Mesta moved to Salem from Central Point last year for work. He is now married and has a 2-year-old daughter.

But he didn't leave his memories behind.

"When the war started, we were only in combat for a couple of weeks, then it was over," he said. "People were friendly. They loved us. We didn't wear body armor after the first couple of weeks. We didn't even load our weapons.

"Kids lined up to greet us — we threw them candy," he added. "We were invited into homes for dinner."

That had all changed by the time he returned for his second deployment, to a town about 30 miles south of Baghdad.

"It was completely opposite — kids ran away when they saw us coming, people didn't cheer," he said. "No one was happy we were there."

During his second tour, another 18 friends from his unit were killed, he observed.

In retrospect, Mesta has mixed feelings about the war.

"I was glad we went there initially, that we got rid of Saddam," he said. "But we stayed too long. It created a rift. They saw us as an occupying force."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or pfattig@mailtribune.com.