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Wednesday, July 5, 2006 08:48 am

Listen to me!

Veterans talk about Iraq - and why we should leave

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ILLUSTRATION BY AARON HUGHES
Historians Against the War has just published a 24-page pamphlet titled “Join Us? Testimonies of Iraq War Veterans and Their Families,” edited by Carl Mirra, of the State University of New York College at Old Westbury.
The complete pamphlet, a project of HAW’s Oral History Working Group, includes testimony from veterans of the Iraq war, from the mother of a National Guard soldier who died in Iraq, and from Army veteran Ann Wright, who resigned from the State Department to protest the Iraq invasion. Below are excerpts of testimony of five vets; a sixth, artist Aaron Hughes, a 24-year-old student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, served three tours of duty in Iraq with the 1244th Transportation Company. Hughes recently had a solo art show at the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and will be showing work at Chicago’s National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum in the spring of 2007. His work illustrates these pages, including the cover of Illinois Times.
Michael Harmon served as a combat medic in the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division and was deployed to Iraq in April 2003. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and is a college student, studying respiratory therapy. I was born and raised in Brooklyn. I was not sure what I was going to do after high school, and I took a year off. I met with an Army recruiter, who only told me the great things about the military, and I joined. As a New Yorker, I was also affected by 9/11 and felt that joining the Army made sense. I was shipped to Fort Benning, Ga., in May 2002 for basic training, then to Texas for medical training. On Martin Luther King Day in 2003, we were told that we were going to war against Iraq. I did not see any tie between Iraq and 9/11, but I was a fresh, young, inexperienced soldier, and I did what I was told. I remember my first taste of combat. I was driving in a Humvee, smoking a cigarette, and all of a sudden I heard machine-gun fire, small-arms fire and RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] exploding around us. We returned fire. Another day we were doing vehicle checks, and my sergeant and I were enjoying an MRE [meal ready to eat]. The scout Humvee was fired on, and it had a Javelin [portable anti-tank weapon] inside, so it exploded. I remember one guy who was literally split open. It was crazy. It was surreal. After such scenes, I would smoke five cigarettes in a row. It felt like I was watching a movie; it was pretty scary and sick. I saw shot children and dead children, as well as dead soldiers. While I was there stuck doing this, I thought I might as well try to help whoever I [could]. I offered medical services to my fellow soldiers, and they appreciated it. This kept me going. My first sergeant was really scared; he wouldn’t leave the base. He used the generator for himself, while the soldiers had no lights. My captain, however, was decent and treated us fairly. I talked with the Iraqi people. The people really didn’t want us there. They were glad Saddam was gone, but they didn’t want us there. Poverty in Iraq was unbelievable. I don’t trust my government anymore. The whole war was a lie — based on the false WMD claim. [And] soldiers who return from war are starting to question it. It takes a while to process what happened. When soldiers first return, they are very angry. People should notice this and ask, “Why are these people coming back messed up?” Why support something that is destroying soldiers and families in Iraq? I ask people directly: “How would you feel if your child was just blown up?” You can say “support the troops” all you want and put yellow ribbons on your gas-guzzling SUV to feel better about yourself. I say let’s wake up. The Bush regime is wrong. People have accused me of being a traitor for saying these things. I am not a traitor. I was a soldier who served in Iraq, and I say immediate withdrawal is the way to support the troops. When I returned home, I did not know what was wrong with me. Your body is so pumped up after being on high alert for so long; you no longer know how to relax. I didn’t shower or shave. I was diagnosed with PTSD [post-traumatic-stress disorder] and took pills, which did not help. There was talk of redeployment after I [had] just returned. I had about a year and a half left on my contract, and it was made clear to me that I was going to get stop-loss [service extended beyond discharge date]. I told the military to let me out. There was a fight; they gave me a field-grade Article 15 [nonjudicial punishment] and stripped my rank. I told them I [would] not do it anymore. They let me go. I guess they didn’t want a problem soldier infecting the ranks.
Herold Noel was in Expeditionary Unit 37, based in Hinesville, Ga., and served in the Iraq war. His assignment was to deliver tank fuel, one of the more dangerous tasks. When he returned home from the war, Noel was homeless. He is now attending school and lives in the Bronx, N.Y. I was living in Brooklyn, and I joined the service mainly to support my children. I served as a “fueler” in Iraq for almost eight months. I used to be very mad after I returned home. I kept asking myself, “What the hell did I fight for?” I was on the street now. I was mad at everybody, but I learned to tell myself that this is how America is. I just gave my life for something, and nobody showed any respect. They try to make you blend in like you weren’t doing anything, like you weren’t just over there killing people for the last six months. When you come home, America throws you out like a piece of trash. You train a soldier to fight for your country. They feel so proud at what they did; they felt that their life is worth something. When they [return], they feel like it wasn’t worth anything. Not every returning soldier is as stable as I was. The soldier is angry, and I am not calling the returning soldier crazy — people called me crazy when I returned. But some of them are angry and might end up blowing some shit up or snapping. I was just looking for respect or some honor. I was first angry at everybody, but I understand now and am not angry at them anymore. The government is blindfolding them. I know that people are mad at the president, but I am not mad at him; that’s just the kind of soldier that I am. People are mad because the question on why we went to war in the first place was not answered. We got three or four different answers, and I lost track of the reasons why we went to war. Wouldn’t you feel angry if you went to war and did what I did and you were sleeping in a car? I was homeless. You would feel like your government is killing you. I felt like my whole government turned its back on me. It was very difficult. There are actually soldiers who took their lives, and they call us crazy. But I call America crazy. What happened in Iraq may have been a mistake, but the president started something, and he’s going to have to clean it up. We can’t just back out. We went over there and made another country three times as bad than before we arrived. I saw nice schools and other things — we destroyed all that. We destroyed their way of living. We made it three times worse. I saw what we did to the people. We need to fix it before we move out. I am not against the war, and I am not for the war. The government should have fixed the mistakes before they happened. If people came into my neighborhood with tanks, what would I do? Would I sit back and watch it happen, or would I take out my AK and shoot? I would do the same thing if people attacked my neighborhood.
Tina Garnanez is a Navajo woman who was raised on a Navajo reservation in northwestern New Mexico. She is the daughter of a single mother and joined the U.S. Army right out of high school for college money. She served for five years, although she only signed up for four. She was not told about the Army’s policy of involuntary extensions known as stop-loss. Gamanez served with the 557th Medical Company in Tikrit from July to December 2004. One day in Iraq I was delivering supplies and was nearly killed by a roadside bomb that exploded in front of my vehicle. I was so upset and angry. I was not angry at the Iraqi people but angry that I was there. I asked myself, “What am I here for?” I decided that I was finished. I was not going to fight for anyone’s oil agenda. A lot of soldiers would ask the sergeants, “What are we doing in Iraq?” Eventually, when no one higher ranking than they were was around, a few of them would say that it is for oil — I guess to make seven rich men richer. But no one in the Army can say things like that publicly for fear of punishment. The things I saw as a medic were terrible — God-awful things that I can’t get out of my head. To be so young, sent to war and to return home expecting to be the same is near impossible. War changes you, and there is not a day that goes by that my life is not affected by it. I sit and talk with fellow Iraq veterans, and the stories we share are heartbreaking, tragic, and are still happening every day in Iraq. It saddens me to know that we have our whole lives left to live with all this guilt, pain, anger, and confusion. On the third anniversary of the Iraq War, I participated in the Veterans Gulf March, “Walking to New Orleans.” We marched from Mobile, Ala., to New Orleans, and it was unbelievable. There is trash, debris, rubble everywhere. They fixed New Orleans’s tourist areas, but St. Bernard Parish and the Ninth Ward are still completely destroyed. I noticed poor whites and minorities were so glad to see us and supported us, but rich white folks flipped us off and screamed, “Go Bush!” as we walked. Some called us Iraq veterans traitors. It was unreal; I thought there was no one more patriotic than a soldier. As a Native American, it made me think of our communities that have also been neglected on the reservation just as Iraqi communities are being neglected. The U.S. government wrote our laws and made treaties with us that were broken time and time again. Now the U.S. wrote the Iraqis’ new Constitution, which does not seem at all to be in their best interest. I will take the spirit from this experience back to my people. The reservations are like the Gulf Coast: devastated. I want to ask young Native Americans, “If the government truly cared about you, they would fix the reservations. Roads are falling apart, houses are falling apart. Why would you want to fight for them when they don’t care about you?”

Kevin M. Benderman served in the 4th Infantry, 1-10 Cavalry, and was deployed to Iraq from March to September 2003. In December 2004, he applied for conscientious-objector status, which was denied. He refused to redeploy in January 2005 and was charged with intentionally missing movement. Kevin was sentenced to 15 months in prison. He wrote the following statement during his incarceration at the regional correctional facility at Fort Lewis, Wash. Amnesty International has declared Kevin a prisoner of conscience. I was in the U.S. Army for nearly 10 years. I served a term from January 1987 to March 1991 and another term from June 2000 to July 2005. I had a strong sense of patriotism, and I still believe in being a responsible citizen, but I have learned that war is not the only way to serve one’s country. My family has a service background, which has been traced back to the American Revolution. My first duty station was Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Fort Leavenworth is an officer-training post where the Command and General Staff College is located. I was stationed there from 1987 to 1991 until I got out of the Army after the first Persian Gulf War. The strangest thing I saw at Fort Leavenworth were Iraqi Army officers being trained at the war college that was there in 1988. The Army was training them because Iraq was a U.S. ally against Iran from 1980 to 1988. I was surprised when we went to war against them not quite two years later. My second duty station was Fort Hood, Texas, and I was in the 4th Infantry Division. This is the unit that I went to Iraq with in 2003, as it was a heavy armored division. “Heavy armored” means that you have tanks and other tracked combat vehicles. I was assigned to the C Troop, 1st Squadron, 10th Cavalry Regiment. I was deployed to Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom from March 2003 to August 2003, and it was the most unusual experience I have ever had. It is difficult to express how it really was. You feel fear, but not overwhelming fear, because if you did, you could not function properly. You feel fear for the people that you are there with, because you know that some of them will not return home alive. War is mankind at its collective, absolute worst, but it also can be an individual at his or her best. It can sometimes make a very indecisive person find strength that they did not know they possessed. At its worst, you are there to kill other human beings who have done nothing to you personally, and you see how it affects some people. When you stand at the edge of a mass gravesite and see the rotting bodies of women, children, and old men, you think to yourself, “Why the hell are we still participating in war in this day and age?” I remember wild dogs at this mass grave digging into them and eating the remains. When you see a young girl standing along the road and she needs immediate medical attention for severe burns and you have to just drive away because you are at war, it leaves you feeling extremely angry at the stupidity of war. When you see the men that you serve with start behaving in ways that they do not normally do because they are trying to cope with the insanity of war themselves, you realize that there is nothing glorious about war. Two of our mortar platoon soldiers were injured by shrapnel because of an order from our first sergeant. I remember the executive officer getting killed because of a computer malfunction on two of the fighting vehicles. Another incident that I remember is our squadron CSM [command sergeant major] shooting wild dogs with a 9mm pistol from his Humvee in our area of operations. He was bragging as if he had done something great. I met many different types of Iraqi people: vendors, construction workers, schoolteachers, electricians, plumbers, educated, uneducated, administrators, and so on. A Mr. Sadullah was an elementary-school teacher, and he was a very friendly and generous man. He provided a living for himself, his brother and sister, and her children on a $40-a-month salary. Mr. Sadullah always wanted to invite many of us to his home for dinner, which amazed me because I felt that I should be doing something for him instead. He was showering us with hospitality on a very meager budget. We met a man named Mahmoud, who was a heavy-equipment operator. We got him to do some cleaning up of the compound that we set up for our vehicle maintenance. One day Mahmoud’s boss came by, and we all ate lunch together. We learned that his boss was a very good dominoes player, and he also performed some very good card tricks. There was another young man named Asouah, who started a vending service at our compound. He would go to the market area of Khanaquin and bring back sodas, candy, and ice cream. He eventually made enough profit from us to afford a secondhand truck. There are some fanatics, just as there are fanatics in any place. I would say that the people of Iraq want the same thing that the American people want: to earn a living, to provide for a family, and to be able to live in their country, free from war. I believe that they want to determine how they are going to live without interference from the outside. Our military presence is now fueling the problems we see in Iraq. The U.S. should withdraw its forces gradually over a six-month period while negotiating with other Arab nations to provide assistance to Iraq.
  Patrick Resta was an Army medic with the 30th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry. He served in Iraq from March to November 2004 in the Diyala Province, roughly 100 miles northeast of Baghdad.
I joined the military after high school in 1996. My main motivation was money for college and to get some training in the medical field. My parents had made it clear that they were not in a position to assist me with college tuition. I think that many people that join the military do it for the educational benefits. My aunt and uncle worked in the World Trade Center and were killed on 9/11. My National Guard unit was called up a few weeks after the 9/11 tragedy. I was sent to Fort Jackson, S.C. When we arrived, they brought us off the buses and into a movie theater. They showed us a slide show of the World Trade Center attacks. They made comments throughout the slide show about getting revenge, etc. The whole idea of attacking nations and the Middle East in retaliation did not make sense to me. It is one thing to go after the people behind the attacks, but to go after the whole Middle East is pretty ridiculous. In October or November of 2001, I started to hear rumors at Fort Jackson that we were going to invade Iraq no matter what. I dismissed it at first, but the talk became more and more intense as time went on. My unit eventually deployed to Iraq about a year after the war started, so it was clear to us that there were no weapons of mass destruction. When I was over there, Stars and Stripes was running letters to the editor from soldiers who served in Iraq and nearby that were very critical of the war. So, in my own experience and in these letters, there are certainly soldiers who are against the war. Daily life as a soldier varies greatly by where you are in Iraq. Soldiers at the bigger camps have better amenities than I ever did, such as movie theaters, swimming pools, and fast-food restaurants. I myself lived in a trailer with three other medics. If you can picture one of the metal shipping containers at a port, you have a good idea of the size. It was slightly smaller. It had fluorescent lights, air conditioning, and several power outlets. I rarely, if ever, had a day off for the entire time that I was over there. My days consisted of working in our clinic, going on patrols or missions, or going on convoys to other camps. When I was in Iraq, I did not want somebody simply sending me stale brownies. I wanted them to demand answers and hold the leadership of this nation accountable. Why was a 28-year-old kid in my unit killed because the only protection he had on his Humvee was plywood? Why did I have to buy my own body armor? We were attacked for the first time soon after arriving in our camp on the first night. About four or five insurgents were in the field in front of our camp, firing rockets and AK-47s at us. While this attack was going, on a car was flying down the road toward our camp. The road dead-ended into our camp, and the local nationals knew this and rarely, if ever, were seen on the road. It was pitch-black outside, and this car [had] pieces of scrap metal tied to the roof so long that they [were] running over the hood and trunk and dragging on the ground, creating showers of sparks that [looked] similar to the rockets being fired very close by. A lieutenant ordered a machine-gunner to fire a few rounds in front of the car as a warning shot to get them to stop. Most of the guys out there had been told for months that warning shots were not allowed. When the machine gunner started firing, so did many other people. The car stopped after it was hit about 20 times. A team of soldiers was then sent out to get the occupants of the vehicle — innocent civilians. The victims were brought into our treatment facility, and we quickly began rendering care. It was a father in his forties, his son who was about 12 and the father’s brother. The 12-year-old boy was OK because his father jumped on top of him when the shooting started. His father had been shot six times. None of these wounds [was] life-threatening, but [they] would require extensive surgery. His brother had also been hit twice in the chest — also not life-threatening. After [we had stabilized] these two men, they were quickly flown by helicopter from our camp to a field hospital outside Baghdad. I have plenty of other stories of Iraqis getting caught in the crossfire. Anyway, I was told I was going there to help the Iraqi people. Once I arrived in Iraq, I discovered that I could not treat them unless they were about to die and the injury had been caused either directly or indirectly by U.S. forces. I do not believe that this is conducive to getting people on your side. One evening a local Iraqi arrived at the gate of our camp. He had been beaten up and pistol-whipped, and the people in town told him that if he came back to town, they would kill him. He came up to our gate begging for help. I went out to dress his wounds and take care of him. He was begging me to save his life, and he was basically turned away and told, “Go to the Iraqi police, and they will help you.”
It was after nightfall, and the police were not functioning. It was that kind of callous disregard that really set in what is really going on over there for me. The U.S. occupation does not have the support of the overwhelming majority of Iraqis. If it was wrong of us to go into Iraq, it is wrong of us to stay.  

The complete version of “Join Us? Testimonies of Iraq War Veterans and Their Families” is available at www.historiansagainstwar.org/resources. Printed pamphlets may be ordered from HAW at Box 442154, Somerville, MA 02144. The cost, including postage, is $1 each for one to four copies, 80 cents each for five to 24 copies, and 60 cents each for 25 or more copies. Checks should be made out to Historians Against the War.
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