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ISR Issue 50, November–December 2006

Creating a voice for veterans-a report on the 2006 Veterans for Peace convention

Sow Peace, Reap Justice


Camilo Mejía was the first U.S. soldier who served in Iraq to go public with his refusal to re-deploy. He spent nine months in military confinement for deciding to follow his conscience. He is a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War and is the author of the forthcoming book Road From Ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Sergeant Camilo Mejía (New Press).

THIS YEAR'S Veterans For Peace (VFP) convention, held at the University of Washington in Seattle, covered an impressive variety of issues in workshops for the more than 500 participants, who gathered August 10-13 to discuss strategies for moving beyond war. With the slogan “Sow peace, reap justice” the twenty-first annual VFP convention highlighted many important issues facing today's peace movement. Prominent among them were the voices of women in the United States military as well as the resistance against the Iraq War within the armed forces' own ranks.

Women speaking out

One of the most impressive testimonies during the workshop “Voices of Women Veterans,” moderated by former Army colonel turned activist Ann Wright, was that of Colleen Helmstetter, who served in Vietnam as a nurse. It wasn't until the Iraq War “sent her in a downward spiral,” that Colleen began to connect her trauma of many decades-nightmares, panic attacks, etc.-to her own traumatic experience in Vietnam.

While serving as a nurse at the age of twenty-one, Colleen got through her one-year tour in Vietnam by “acting like a robot and ignoring what I was doing.” At times taking refuge in a bitter sense of humor and referring to severe burn victims, soldiers in their late teens and early twenties, as “crispy critters.” Twenty-seven years after her experience, Colleen was shocked by her diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but soon she accepted it, realizing how “all the past twenty-seven years of my life suddenly made sense.” Today Helmstetter receives treatment for PTSD.

Another powerful presentation during the same workshop was given by Eli Painted Crow, a Native American and Army veteran of twenty-two years. She told the audience that she had joined the military to get off welfare and how this experience has led full circle because she is now back on county aid as she's unable to continue in her profession. She shared her experience of a briefing by a senior non-commissioned officer (NCO) who had just returned from a commanders' briefing in which he quoted the discussion to the unit by referring to enemy territory as “Indian country.” “It made me wonder what side I should be on,” remarked the veteran. Racism and discrimination in the military were the real enemies for Eli in Iraq. “Soldiers of color (mostly Black) were ordered to train white soldiers, and were told if they did a good job they could later become their assistants,” continued the former sergeant first class. “They stripped them of their authority, and many were shipped as far as Baghdad.” Her problems stemmed from trying to take care of the lower ranking soldiers on all levels.

After a reported incident of rape rocked Eli's base camp, a woman soldier from the civil affairs Criminal Investigations Division was called to the base to give training on sexual assault. Her advice: “There are a bunch of horny guys out there, so be careful.” Eli complained to the equal employment opportunity officer about the gravely inadequate solutions to several problems she was encountering with the commanders' methods of disempowering the soldiers of color, and the inadequate training that was taking place. Instead of dealing with the issues, superiors transferred her to a different location and banned her from the base. She was told the transfer was not punitive but that her new job would be on the shooter mission-providing security for civilian convoys. Previously, Eli had been working at a battalion level coordinating convoys from the battalion Tactical Operations Center.

Before being deployed to Iraq, U.S. Army medical personnel purposely deemed her fit for duty, even though Eli's medical diagnosis was identified as severe endometriosis. This is a common military practice to ensure units meet their required combat strength quota to deploy to war. The lack of available care for women at her base camp led to Eli having a hysterectomy when she returned home on leave. “The place where my children were made,” she reflected.

What was very painful for Eli was the recent news of a female soldier and friend who served in Iraq with her. This soldier was found dead at home after two days of not reporting for work. She had been suffering from PTSD and depression. It was reported that she committed suicide. A number that is not included in the toll of the deaths we hear about daily.

But in spite of feeling dissociated from her loved ones, in spite of all the hardships she continues to face since her return, and despite all the injustices she has endured, Eli does not consider herself a victim, but rather a survivor. “Women are healers and givers,” she said. “We need to speak out and tell the people that the war doesn't end when we come home.”

The workshop concluded with testimony by Sara Rich, the mother of war resister Suzanne Swift, who, like Helmstetter, suffers from PTSD. But Swift's trauma is not the result of her combat experiences, but of the sexual harassment and attacks that she underwent in Iraq by her fellow soldiers.

Sara shared with the audience how male sergeants in Iraq joke and make bets about “who can make that (female) private his private.” Women soldiers are assigned to barracks where their supervisors can have easy access to them. “One time,” continued Suzanne's mother, “when my daughter asked her new squad leader where she should report, the sergeant replied 'in my bed naked.'” When Suzanne complained the sergeant was transferred, but she was labeled and ostracized as a traitor.

One of the most disturbing things happening in Iraq is known as command rape; it happens when low ranking soldiers are forced to engage in sexual relationships with their leaders in order to gain protection and survive in the combat environment. “Once her NCO returned from leave,” continued Sara about her daughter's ordeal in Iraq, “Suzanne refused to continue the relationship,” a decision that only exacerbated the harassment.

When Suzanne reported the incidents upon her unit's return to the U.S., she was once again treated as a traitor and later forced to wave her eighteen months of stabilization time in the States to prematurely redeploy to Iraq, along with some of the perpetrators of her assault.

Under such circumstances, Suzanne refused to return to Iraq and instead took refuge in her mother's house, where months later she was detained by the local police, locked in a county jail, and then transferred to the Fort Lewis, Washington, army base, where she awaits the military's decision on whether she will be criminally charged.

A history of military sexual assault

The following day, Ann Wright once again moderated a group of women, this time at a press conference in support of Suzanne's resistance, but also to condemn sexual assault in the armed forces. The retired colonel said, “We're here to talk about a very, very serious issue that the U.S. military faces; that is sexual assault on military members, women and men both. And what we feel is a failure, of military leadership, to take care of its own people.”

Veterans For Peace vice-president, Sharon Kufeldt, spoke about her experience in the U.S. Air Force in 1969, where she felt proud to be one of the first females in uniform trained in computers and where she loved her work. “What I was not expecting,” she said, “was the misogyny…the curfew when the men I served with were free. When I questioned this practice I was told that it was for our own protection.” Protection, it turned out, from their fellow airmen. Airwomen were also told that there were places and times that were restricted to them within the base. Sharon then described a sexual assault by her boss. “It happened on the beach, on base, when I was out walking, past sunset. 'Shouldn't have been there' was what I was told, and to shut up.” According to Sharon, incidents of rape and assault, by conservative estimates, are two to three times higher in the military than in the civilian population. “It's time to speak out and clean up this mess,” she continued. “Few people actually realize how systematic it is, how systemic it is. It happens to both men and women. It's not about sex-we all know that-it's about power.”

From 1977 to 1981, Ellen Barfield served as a heavy equipment mechanic in the U.S. Army, a job traditionally considered for men only. One of Ellen's roommates in the service was so traumatized by having been raped that she never talked about it, even to other female soldiers. “It is atrocious what the military allows to happen to its female soldiers, who it claims to want,” said the veteran, “who it claims to value the service of. How dare they allow the stuff to continue?” she asked. “And even encourage it, I must say they encourage it. It is absolutely a result of the training; it is absolutely a result of the dehumanization.”

April Fitzsimmons, who served as a U.S. Air Force analyst from 1985 through 1989 and is herself a survivor of military sexual assault, said that approximately 45 percent of women in the armed forces reported having been sexually assaulted, while 79 percent reported having been sexually harassed, and at least 14 percent reported having been gang-raped by members of their own units. “This is not acceptable,” April argued, “so I am encouraging the citizens today to do whatever you can, what you haven't done yet, what you know is right to do, and scary, and it may ostracize you from your friends, it may ostracize you from the people you love. But what is the cost of not speaking up and speaking louder today?” she asked.

Kelly Dougherty is the new chair of the GI group Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). Backed by a group of about fifty IVAW members, Dougherty pointed out that although military sexual assault is nothing new in the military, the increased violence and dehumanization of the war in Iraq is exacerbating the problem, a problem that “the military doesn't want to expose.” Kelly's experience was strikingly similar to that of Sharon Kufeldt's: both women served in a time of war. “Like Suzanne Swift,” explained the former sergeant about her time in Iraq, “I was in a military police company. Women in our unit were told throughout the deployment we couldn't go running alone; we couldn't go to the showers alone; we couldn't go out after dark alone, because we faced such a threat from the male soldiers we were serving with. And this is unacceptable.” Dougherty stated that when soldiers speak out about sexual assault, their leadership makes them feel like the assault was their fault, failing to explore the causes of the behavior.

“Suzanne deserves an honorable discharge, full medical care, and all women deserve the ability to serve in the military in safe conditions,” continued the Iraq veteran. “I think we, as women, need to stand together. And we, as women and men, veterans, people in the military, need to stand together and support each other. An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us.”

Suzanne Swift's mother, Sara, also told the audience theirs was a familiar story.

Since my daughter was arrested we have heard from hundreds of military, both vets and active, all with the same story, “this happened to me, and nobody helped. It was swept under the carpet and my attackers went free.” Women like Jessica in South Korea, and Luanda in Afghanistan, who are suffering right this minute. Right now soldiers who are serving in the military are being raped and no one is helping them get the care they need. My last e-mail from Luanda was that she attempted suicide. This attempt finally got some attention and her command started to help her.

What happened to my daughter not only is not right, it is an epidemic, and although the Pentagon has created twenty-two commissions and task forces around military sexual assault and trauma, the predators are still roaming free, while our young soldiers are at risk, not only from combat they face, but from their superiors. We have to demand an end to military sexual violence.

The press conference ended with a demand of the military to immediately give Suzanne an honorable discharge and proper medical care, or else demonstrations and marches to the gates of Fort Lewis will take place every day until the demands are met. Colonel Wright also announced that a group of people will be going to Washington, D.C., in the first days of September for Camp Democracy, and that if Suzanne has not been released by then, every single day there will be rallies in front of the Pentagon, White House, and Congress.

We call upon all women in the military if this has happened to you, please, notify us, notify us through Veterans For Peace or through Iraq Veterans Against the War or any of the other organizations that are represented here. We will be working on your behalf, we will go directly to your chain of command and we will demand immediate response to get you out of the dangerous and harmful environment that you're in. We will be relentless on this. The military has to be held accountable and accountability starts now.

Resistance to war

Outside of the university's student union building, where all of the workshops took place, delegates to the convention could visit Arlington Northwest, a display of more than 2,500 crosses and tombstones, which commemorates the lives of people from both the U.S. and Iraq who have died in the war. The memorial served as the backdrop of two press conferences that centered on military resistance to the Iraq War.

During the first of these, Cindy Sheehan escalated her support for military resistance to the Iraq War by announcing that she will open her just-purchased property in Crawford, Texas, to be a sanctuary for soldiers who disagree with the war: “I want soldiers who don't agree with this war to know they have options and they can come to Camp Casey and we will have people from the GI Rights hotline there to tell them their options. We will have a legal defense fund and hire lawyers to help them…[who] will not only say don't go to this war, but we will take care of you and your families if you don't want to go to this war.”

Sheehan cited the Geneva Conventions, the Nuremberg Principles, and the U.S. Constitution as grounds for the illegality of the Iraq War. Later she said, “We also know that it is a soldier's duty to disobey an unlawful order; it's in the Uniform Code of Military Justice. And this war in Iraq is unlawful.”

Standing in support of Sheehan were military resisters from Vietnam through the Iraq wars, including Randy Rowland, who was featured in Sir! No Sir! [], a documentary about the GI movement against the war in Vietnam. Rowland was first convicted for resisting the Vietnam War, and later for mutiny, after singing “We Shall Overcome” while in the stockade. He served a total of a year and a half in prison. Rowland explained:

What I want to say is that GI resistance is on the rise again and that when people ask how can you stop those who will stop at nothing, I think Bertolt Brecht answered it most properly when he said that as long as they need soldiers, as long as they need drivers for tanks, as long as they need the guys that are gonna pull the triggers, then ultimately we'll stop this war because those are the people who will do it.

The second press conference took place on the same grounds as Sheehan's. U.S. Army Sergeant Ricky Clousing announced that, after being absent from his unit for over a year, he would turn himself in to authorities at Fort Lewis, Washington. He said the following about his six-month war tour:

In Iraq I operated as an interrogator and was attached to tactical infantry units during daily patrol operations. As an interrogator I spoke to Iraqis each day. This gave me an idea of what local civilians thought of coalition forces. Throughout my training very appropriate guidelines for the treatment of prisoners were set. However, I witnessed our baseless incarceration of civilians. I saw civilians physically harassed. I saw an innocent Iraqi killed before me by U.S. troops. I saw the abuse of power that goes without accountability.

Having been exposed to the brutalities of war made the twenty-four-year-old sergeant doubt and question his beliefs. “Upon my return to the United States I started to ask my unit the same questions I had been asking myself. Wearing the uniform demands subordination to your superiors and the orders passed down. But what if orders given violate morality, ethics, and even legality?” he asked. After much questioning, Ricky felt haunted by his conscience, realizing that his association with the military was in contradiction with his personal, moral, and spiritual beliefs.

I stand here before you today about to surrender myself, which was always my intention. I do not know what to expect, or the course of my future. We Americans have found ourselves in a pivotal era where we have traded humanity for patriotism; where we have traded our civil liberties for a sense of security. I stand here before you sharing the same idea as Henry David Thoreau: “as a Soldier, as an American, and as a Human Being, we mustn't lend ourselves to that same evil which we condemn.”

Ricky's mother, Sharon Pankalla spoke briefly in support of her son's actions and expressed being proud of him. When asked by a member of the press if she was prepared for the possibility of her son's incarceration, she replied: “Every night, he will be able to go to bed, and every morning, he will be able to look in the mirror.” Nearly a hundred people attended Ricky's press conference, including about fifty members of Iraq Veterans Against the War, who spoke in his support and stood behind him the entire time. Among them was Kelly Dougherty, who read a statement by another member of her organization, Mark Wilkerson who, like Clousing, has resisted orders to return to Iraq, and who plans to turn himself in to his unit after being absent from it for over a year.

During the convention's closing night Army Lieutenant Ehren Watada, the first U.S. commissioned officer to publicly disobey orders to fight in the Iraq War, gave a very inspiring speech, in which he thanked everyone before highlighting the importance of the veterans' movement to stop the war. “No one knows the devastation and suffering of war more than veterans-which is why we should be the first to prevent it.”

In what is now a familiar pattern at the convention, almost sixty members of Iraq Veterans Against the War stood in solidarity with the lieutenant as he continued to firmly deliver his remarks. “Today, I speak with you about a radical idea,” he went on. “It is one born from the very concept of the American soldier-or service member. It became instrumental in ending the Vietnam War, but it has been long since forgotten. The idea is this: that to stop an illegal and unjust war, the soldiers can choose to stop fighting it.”

Throughout his speech, the lieutenant recognized both the ideological and financial difficulties military personnel may face when resisting war. “The American soldier must rise above the socialization that tells them authority should always be obeyed without question…. Awareness of the history of atrocities and destruction committed in the name of America-either through direct military intervention or by proxy war-is crucial. They must realize that that this is a war not out of self-defense but by choice, for profit and imperialistic domination.”

Referring to the support war resisters should receive from other people, he said: “They must know it, and you must show it to them. Convince them that no matter how long they sit in prison, no matter how long this country takes to right itself, their families will have a roof over their heads, food in their stomachs, opportunities, and education. This is a daunting task. It requires the sacrifice of all of us.”

In a direct blow to the U.S. government and military leadership, Ehren also held the American public responsible for atrocities committed in their name and with their money.

Widespread torture and inhumane treatment of detainees is a war crime. A war of aggression born through an unofficial policy of prevention is a crime against the peace. An occupation violating the very essence of international humanitarian law and sovereignty is a crime against humanity. These crimes are funded by our tax dollars. Should citizens choose to remain silent through self-imposed ignorance or choice, it makes them as culpable as the soldiers in these crimes.

He concluded his address with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “One who breaks an unjust law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.”

Until next year

The convention ended on August 13 with a trip to the Peace Arch Park, in the neutral territory between the United States and Canada. The solidarity picnic brought together American war resisters from both sides of the fence and from different wars. Kyle Snyder, a U.S. war resister living in Canada, expressed feeling betrayed by his government at the time of his six-month service in Iraq, where he says he fought normal Iraqis defending their homes. “And then I hear them called terrorists in my home country; it's absolutely ridiculous,” he expressed. “Nobody can tell me that this war is not for profit or it's not for oil. I walked along pipelines that traveled all along the Euphrates. I just felt betrayed by the government that promised me a better life.”

Recent Pentagon reports place the number of deserting U.S. troops from all branches at 40,000, since the year 2000. According to the War Resisters Support Campaign, more than 200 of those U.S. military personnel are living in Canada, but only twenty-five have sought refugee status. Kyle Snyder is one of the few who has gone public.

“We had to leave our families and everything behind on a chance that Canada might let us live as normal human beings again,” said Snyder to a crowd of more than 300 supporters. “I think it is very symbolic that I can't cross the border. I fought for six months. I didn't like what I saw. I made a conscious decision not to go back. I should be respected for that. I just want to go to college, to have my life back.”

The solidarity picnic put an end to a weekend of resistance at the twenty-first VFP Convention. Afterward, delegates went back to Seattle before going back to their respective homes and families. But the atrocities against women in the military, resistance to the Iraq War, and the many other causes and strategies discussed during the convention, did not go away on August 13. For people like Suzanne Swift, along with all the survivors of military sexual assault; for people like Ricky Clousing and Ehren Watada; for those in jail for refusing illegal orders; for their families; for those who left their family and country; for all those still in the trenches fighting injustice-abroad and within our own society; for them the struggle has not ended. Hopefully it hasn't for any of us who were there. Next year's VFP convention will take place in Saint Louis, Missouri.

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