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ISR Issue 52, MayJune 2007
“You can’t win a crime, you can only stop it.”
Iraq veterans speak out
IN MARCH 2007, four members of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) spoke in Watertown, New York, home of one of the largest U.S. military bases, Fort Drum. Stationed there are 15,000 soldiers, many who have been deployed to Iraq and/or Afghanistan several times. IVAW members ADRIENNE KINNE, MATT HOWARD, DREW CAMERON, and MATT HRUTKAY spoke to audiences at Jefferson Community College in Watertown and the Different Drummer Café, a GI coffeehouse set up outside Fort Drum by Citizen Soldier’s Tod Ensign. The ISR’s Eric Ruder recorded their speeches, which appear here with their permission.
I WAS in the U.S. Army Reserves from 1994–2004. I actually served as an Arabic linguist in military intelligence stationed stateside. I could go into lots of details about how our administration manipulated intelligence to get people to support this war. At the very beginning, back in 2003, a lot of us were wondering why we were even going into Iraq.
Since leaving the military and now that I’ve finished my degree in psychology, I’ve been working in VA (Veterans Administration) hospitals. I’ve worked at VA hospitals in Georgia and Virginia and now in Vermont and I’ve seen so many different soldiers. For the first time our VA hospitals are seeing active-duty soldiers because our Department of Defense hospitals cannot keep up with demand. I’ve seen a lot of people come back from Iraq and Afghanistan with serious injuries and a lot of serious things going on with their health. And it really makes me mad—and I’m not here speaking as a VA employee, but I’m certainly allowed to speak about my experiences there. Not in any official capacity, but it makes me mad when I hear veteran after veteran telling me the difficulties they have getting their services. It makes me embarrassed to work for the VA and I don’t want to feel that way because I actually want to work in the VA to help our veterans. It’s just so frustrating.
There are so many things that are tied together. I saw one soldier who was stationed overseas and he was an MP and he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because he saw our government do things to people that no person should ever have to see our government do. He said that he couldn’t go into details because it’s all classified, but he still felt that he was bound to military doctrine where you can’t tell anything to anyone. But he has nightmares every night because he saw us torturing people. He was at one of our secret, non-existent prisons and he saw people tortured and he cannot cope with what he has seen.
The more I’ve thought about all these signing statements Bush has attached to these laws, basically our Constitution says we’re not going to torture people, the Geneva Convention says we’re not supposed to torture people, and yet we are still torturing people. So Congress passes a law saying we’re not going to torture people and then Bush passes a signing statement saying that if he feels it’s in the national interest to torture people, he’s going to do it. But he’s not the one torturing people, it’s not his hands that are being bloodied. It is our soldiers’ hands. It is the soldiers at Abu Ghraib who are torturing people.
That memo came out that Rumsfeld and Cheney were looking into using torture techniques as an interrogation tactic. But did they ever say, yes, we told those soldiers to do what they were doing? No, they turned their backs on them. And Bush can make it as legal as he wants for them to do it, but it’s not legal. Our president is not above the law. All those signing statements are one of the reasons why I believe our Congress is way behind in impeaching him. He is basically debasing our Constitution. So many people use the military oath against soldiers. They say that you swore an oath to obey the orders of your commander-in-chief and all the officers appointed over you. But the first line of that oath is that you will defend your Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and I just love saying that George Bush is the number one domestic enemy to our U.S. Constitution. I think it’s about time that the American public understands that.
All this in the press about Walter Reed now is great, I hope it stays there. I think we need to keep the pressure on. The VA is trying to do stuff. They have this new program, if you read it, it sounds great, it’s utter crap. They want to hire 100 special advocates, but we have 164 VA hospitals, 1,300 VA clinics, over 100,000 patients, 50,000 of whom are wounded. How are 100 special advocates supposed to get people through the red tape? The red tape is really a smokescreen, because behind the red tape there is next to nothing there. It’s just trying to shield people from seeing that the services are not there. We don’t have enough mental health providers to keep up with demand, people are being weight-listed left and right for all sorts of things they need now. If you don’t have something in your medical records saying that you have a problem, then the VA can basically write you off. It’s really so frustrating when people coming back from Iraq are basically given the opportunity to get a physical right then and there or that’s it. That’s not the way it’s supposed to work. I really hope that the pressure stays on the military hospitals and that we all work to make sure the pressure stays there.
These problems are not new. In 2003, at Fort Stewart they were putting wounded soldiers in barracks without bathrooms. When the news caught wind of it, then the attention just went away. Walter Reed was investigated in 2004, they made some personnel maneuvers and the attention went away. They actually brought back the guy who was in charge of Walter Reed in 2004 thinking somehow it was going to be a new story. I really am glad the media’s there. I’m glad that people are finally realizing we need to stand up and we need to make our voices heard. We need to remember our veterans, we need to support our troops. We need to support our troops by bringing them home and making sure they’re provided for. I really hope we make sure the media doesn’t forget that. They are supposed to help us be the watchdogs. People need to start making their voices heard.
I WANT to start off by reading a blog from a woman in Baghdad called Baghdad Burning. For me it really sums up what’s going on in Iraq and why we will never win in Iraq. She says,
Let me clear it up for any moron with lingering doubts. It’s worse, it’s over, you lost. You lost every single family whose home your soldiers violated. You lost every sane, red-blooded Iraqi when the Abu-Ghraib pictures came out and verified your atrocities behind prison walls, as well as the ones we see in our streets. You lost when you brought murderers, looters, gangsters, and militia heads to power and hailed them as Iraq’s first democratic government. You lost when a gruesome execution was dubbed your biggest accomplishment. You lost the respect and reputation you once had. You lost more than 3,000 troops. That is what you lost America. I hope at least the oil was worth it.
That for me says it all. I was deployed with a First Marine Division, First Tank Battalion, out of Twenty-Nine Palms, during the initial invasion. I never thought that I would be saying, I wonder if my experiences would be relevant here four years later. The war has evolved since then. I think my experiences are incredibly relevant because I think the way we conducted ourselves and conducted operations really set the tone for the next four years to come. The complete lack of respect for the Iraqis, the complete lack of respect for humanity and human life just solidified our policy in Iraq.
We would declare zones “weapons-free,” so for example in Nasiriyah where I was in a supply element for the tanks, the tanks would go through and secure a city, and shoot everything that moved. When we declare a zone weapons-free, that’s what it means. As all the veterans in this audience know, you operate by strict rules of engagement, you can only shoot somebody under certain conditions—if they’re carrying a weapon or wearing a uniform. But weapons-free means you can shoot anyone and that’s exactly what we did. As I sat on the outskirts of a city in my seven-ton truck, tanks went in and shot everything that moved: men, women, children, donkeys—it was a turkey shoot. I got to go through and see the aftermath. That was our strategy the whole way to Baghdad, we just leap-frogged all the way up.
I was given a whole pallet of humanitarian rations on my truck, so the first thing I started to do is hand them out to all the children I saw standing on the sides of the road in the south of Iraq. My first sergeant came up to me and said, what the hell do you think you’re doing? Those aren’t for the children. I got all the way to Baghdad and all the way back to Kuwait and was ordered to bury these things. Our commanding general said that we don’t want to give the Iraqis the wrong impression of why we are there.
So let’s cut through the bullshit, we were never there to help the people. Our first objective was to secure the oil fields in the south of Iraq. Now we hear that it’s for the hearts and minds? We’ve got to be honest. Coming out of the military I’m told that I’m really courageous for speaking out. No. I feel I have a moral responsibility to speak out. The shit I’ve seen you’re not going to see on the news or read it in the newspapers. We as veterans have a responsibility to tell the truth of what we’ve seen in Iraq and let it be known. Speak about the reality of actually what’s happening on the ground. The reality that we will never quell the insurgency, they are fighting a foreign military occupation. We are treating them like shit. We go and clear an area and they just go somewhere else and when we leave they come back, and this will go on and on until we finally admit that we’re not supposed to be there. We never should have been there in the first place. This war was based on lies. As I like to say, you can’t win a crime, you can only stop it.
I WANT to tell you a little bit about where I’m coming from. I enlisted in August of 2000, like most people, after I graduated from high school. I did four years active duty field artillery in Oklahoma, I did two years in the Vermont Army National Guard after that. I was in Iraq in 2003, April through December 2003.
The thing that is most important for us who have been there, for us who are affected by this, for us who know what’s going on—it’s just like Matt was saying—we’ve got to be honest, we’ve got to be truthful about what we did, what we’re doing, and how we’re being treated. Because in the end, if you think about it, they’re going to make all these plans and send all these deployments, but who are the ones paying the highest price? It’s the people of Iraq and it’s the veterans. It’s the people over there doing that mission. We’re the ones who are paying the highest price. Multiple tours, year after year: you go a year, you train, you go back again. Away from your families, away from your communities. For how long is this supposed to last? How strung out are we supposed to get before we throw up our arms and scream, no more? No more!
And then when we return, like when I did, I filled out a one-sheet questionnaire about my health. We started “re-socializing” when we were still in-theater. They’d ask, did you see anything that made you upset? Yes. Did you see any dead people? Yes. Are you pissed off right now? Yes. How helpful is that really supposed to be? And then we get back and we get a cold shoulder, thank you, and drive on. Shut up and move on. Thank you for your service, we’ll call you if we need you.
I’m out of the army now, I got out in 2006. Six years. I grew up in a military family. I grew up in a place that I believed in—not super-patriotic—but I listened to the army values. I embraced them, I became part of that community, that brotherhood, that’s important. I was privileged to get the responsibility of being a non-commissioned officer (NCO). The creed of my NCO, it says right there in the second stanza, “competence is my watchword.” My two basic responsibilities will always be upper-most in my mind: the accomplishment of my mission and the welfare of my soldiers. So what are we to do when we find out that the mission is bullshit? That we were lied to. That what we did over there, after we think about it, was not good, it’s not benefiting us, it’s not benefiting the American people, it’s not benefiting the Constitution, it’s not benefiting the people of Iraq at all.
So when we get back and we have problems and we need educational opportunities and we need health care, what happens? They are creating veterans every single day who are pissed off and think: I’m done with this. I’ve got the VA, I can rely on that a little bit, that’ll be alright. But instead, we get a cold shoulder. They say, we’ll see you in three months or six months. They are creating veterans every single day who come back from combat and there’s no support structure. There’s no reaching out. A lot of people have to wait until it gets really bad. When I got back from active duty I moved up to Vermont from Oklahoma and no one told me this is where the VA is, this is what you have to do, this is how you get your benefits, this is what you’re eligible for. Nobody told me any of that, I had to find out on my own. I had to go to the clinics and ask do I get this or that. Where’s the outreach and support? What happened to all the stuff we were promised? All the stuff that we deserve, where is it?
They don’t care. That’s the biggest realization that I’ve come to. They do not care. They. Do. Not. Care. They treat us like cannon fodder. They send us over there to fight and they expect us to win. And if we make it back, if we’re lucky enough, that’s all we get: thanks for your service. It’s a disgrace. I feel it’s shameful what they are doing. Shameful. Shameless. They expect us to continue to fight, can’t stop, won’t stop. You’ve got to accomplish your mission, like the creed says: mission first, mission first, you’ve got to accomplish your mission. What the hell is that mission? Are we going to kill every single insurgent? Every single person in Iraq, until they’re all dead? The whole theory of the war on terror is that we will kill, capture, or dissuade the number of people who are threatening the United States. Do you think that we’re doing that now? Basically what’s going on overseas, it’s the best recruiting tool the terrorists could ever ask for. Here’s this military, four years we’ve been over there. The president said, mission accomplished. I remember, I watched it on television when I was in the desert! He said, mission accomplished, time to come home. What about Tal Afar? What about Fallujah? What about Baghdad? It’s still going on. Mission accomplished? Time to come home?
We can’t win this. The people of Iraq want nothing more than their country. They want nothing more than their country back. And I think it’s what they deserve. We did our part, it’s time to come home. It’s time to end this. This whole thing about politics, Bush and the Democrats and Republicans. Whatever, you know? What’s facing all of us, the veterans coming back, this is enduring, this is life-long. This isn’t about the next four-year election cycle. It’s going to continue, it won’t stop.
We’ve got to demand our rights and what we deserve. We can’t stop because it’s all we’ve got. We’ve got to stick together. Iraq Veterans Against the War stands for taking care of veterans when they get home. We stand for immediate withdrawal, bring all the troops home, get them out of there. We also stand for paying reparations to the Iraqi people, we owe them big time. We owe them big time. We know that now, we’ve seen what we’ve done over there. We blew it back into the Middle Ages. That’s where I’m coming from. Thanks for coming.
I WAS based at Fort Drum from February 2004 through November 2006 and I served with “triple deuce,” as most people here know we’ve got a reputation. I deployed to Iraq in August 2005, spent a year there, came back this past July and got out in November. I want to speak about what I think is the most important health issue affecting veterans returning from Iraq and that is PTSD.
Here are my personal experiences with PTSD. I spent the entire deployment basically in a shell and thinking that I was indestructible because my Humvee was fairly well armored. We got hit twenty-one times, had a total of two casualties though, that’s pretty good odds. In May, a series of events led me to really realize for the first time in the ten months I’d been there that these people were really trying to kill me. You get in that armor and you get this mindset of it’s okay, I’m not going to die. Even when you see casualties, people with shrapnel wounds or concussions or whatever, you think, oh, I can recover from that, no big deal. But when you see four men get blown up from beneath a Humvee that completely explodes, that mindset shatters, it’s a completely different story.
I had a period of anxiety and went to my doctor who said it’s no big deal, just combat stress, gave me some Valium, gave me some anti-depressants for about three months and said, you’re good to go. I came back here and started what I thought would be a decent adjustment period, but I started to have some issues. I went to the mental health clinic at Fort Drum, which by the way is a pretty bad stigma. It’s hard to go to your chain of command and say, you know what, I think I’ve got some issues. So that, in and of itself, holds soldiers back from seeking the help they really need. I went there, had an intake exam, spoke to no medical provider whatsoever, scheduled appointment after appointment, which were cancelled, and found out when I left the army I’d been diagnosed without ever seeing a single medical provider. I was told I had “adjustment disorder.” As I started to navigate the VA system trying to get this taken care of, and went through my VA claim and claimed PTSD, the claim was denied, despite writing down at least ten stressful incidents that I can think of that would have contributed to my problems.
About a week and a half ago I was browsing through the VA Web site. They have a section in there devoted to PTSD. It has a guide for VA medical providers, doctors, psychologists, etc. that are dealing with people coming back from Iraq having these issues. And they have in there an encouragement to physicians to diagnose people with “adjustment disorder,” “anxiety disorder,” and “personality disorder.” The reason they’re doing that is so they can claim that there was a pre-existing condition before I joined the army and my issues have nothing to do with being blown up twenty-one times.
According to statistics, 18 percent of soldiers coming back from Iraq suffer some form, mild or severe, of PTSD. That’s 18 percent according to an army physician at the VA. Of those, add to that people like me who have multiple symptoms of this but still get diagnosed as it being “my own problem.” Add to that, people who are scared to go to mental health clinics because of their chain of command, because they’re scared they won’t get promoted. Because they’re scared their buddies will make fun of them. I think you can then see how much more prevalent that issue is and what the numbers are probably more likely to be. I’m not going to say what percentage really have PTSD coming back because it would be a guess. But I think it’s clear from my own experience that this issue is probably the most prevalent issue facing returning soldiers and it’s being completely and totally ignored.