Iraq war veterans speak at UT panel

by Susan Van Haitsma,
also posted at the makingpeace blog

On the eve of Veterans Day, four veterans of the Iraq war spoke on a panel at the University of Texas to offer a reality check to the jingoism surrounding most November 11th commemorations. Organized by the student group, CAMEO (Campus Antiwar Movement to End Occupations), the event was designed to echo the Winter Soldier model where veterans of the wars/occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan speak from their own experience about what is happening there. In the months since the first Winter Soldier hearings were held by Iraq Veterans Against the War near Washington DC in March (patterned after the historic hearings by Vietnam Veterans Against the War in 1971), IVAW members have been speaking on regional and local panels across the country, giving Americans more opportunities to hear directly from veterans in their communities.

Are Americans listening? That is the question. The virtual media blackout in the main stream press has been at least partially offset by good reporting among independent and international media, and IVAW itself has accomplished its own publicity through effective web outreach and creative nonviolent direct action. Thanks to student groups like CAMEO and other community sponsorship, veterans’ stories are being aired, and the mainstream can’t claim ignorance. Truth has a way of finding the light of day.

blog post photo

The first of the four panelists to speak on Monday night was Hart Viges, one of my colleagues in the group, Nonmilitary Options for Youth. Hart has taken a strong interest in reaching out to young people who are in the position he was in when he felt the best thing he could do for his country was to take up arms on its behalf. Now, on his army shirt, he wears the Nonmilitary Options logo: a gun with its barrel twisted in a knot. “I’d rather talk to a high school kid than a politician any day,” he says, “because that politician isn’t going to join the military.”

Hart enlisted on Sept. 12, 2001 out of a deep sense of patriotic duty. He trained with the tough Army Airborne, hoping to jump into Iraq the hard way. Instead, he rolled into Iraq on the ground, conducting house raids and setting mortars for “soft targets.” He discovered that the mythical battleground was actually someone’s community. After one tour, Hart came to grips with his beliefs about war, crystallized by his experience of it, and he applied for a discharge as a conscientious objector. He was one of the lucky ones whose claim was approved, and he received an honorable discharge. Since then, Hart has been devoting much time to IVAW, Nonmilitary Options for Youth and the GI Rights Hotline as a telephone counselor. He has spoken widely in the US and abroad and was one of the veterans who testified at the Winter Soldier hearings in March. He also participates in a veterans therapy group at the VA, has taken some college courses and works full-time.

When he talks to high school students about his experience in Iraq, Hart encourages them to see not only the “ground zero effects” of war but also the larger picture, the system that perpetuates war. He talks about the tax dollars that fund it and the mindset that rationalizes it. Students listen because he has been there. “I know that my real tax dollars turn into real bullets that kill real people,” he says. “What I saw over there was a gross misdirection of resources and power.” When he shows students the pie chart showing the billions of federal tax dollars funneled into military spending – money that could easily pay all the college expenses of every college-aged person in the US – he asks them, “What would you rather have – two wars or a completely educated society?”

In some respects, Hart is continuing the mission he began when the Sept. 11th hijackingss spurred his instinct to protect his community with his life. Now, the community he wants to protect extends beyond the borders of one country and encompasses future generations. Instead of using a gun, he’s using his gifts.

blog post photo

Second panelist, Bryan Hannah has been stationed at Ft. Hood, TX and is in the discharge process after applying as a conscientious objector. He spoke primarily about the role of private contractors in the “war on terror,” and the exasperation he feels about the lack of accountability in so many aspects of the war, from the Bush Administration on down. He didn’t describe his own experiences in Iraq, but an excerpt from a blog he writes gives a clue to some of his feelings during a recent training exercise at Ft. Hood:

“I remember the first time I waited in line for my M-16 in basic. I was like a little kid at Christmas time. Now, as I stand here to the side, as everyone draws their weapons for the field, I feel like I’m not here. Seeing people fight to gain position in a line to get their weapons sooner than the next guy, I listen in from my own little world, hearing the mutters of anxious, motivated privates in chorus with the broken vets, loathing the cold black maiden that has broken families and destroyed lives. The ball and chain wrapped around their souls and anchored into a mired existence. Due to my Conscientious Objector packet, I don’t have to carry a weapon and it almost feels like I successfully kicked a habit, or that I might actually separate from the Army one day and begin to heal.”

Bryan also has written for the IVAW publication, “SIT-REP.” In their Memorial Day ’08 issue, he authored an article about soldiers who die of injuries sustained in Iraq whose deaths are not counted in official tallies. He asked, “What about the other casualties of war? The amputees, paraplegics, quadriplegics, people with brain damage and hearing loss, personalities that are permanently changed for the worse, marriages ruined (divorces among officers have risen 300% and enlisted people have a 200% higher divorce rate than before 2003), and children who are messed up by separation from their parents. Is this war worth it? Is any possible success worth the cost?”

Bryan closed his remarks on the panel by saying, “We have to remember that apathy is the dying side of freedom.” That’s a quote for the ages.

blog post photo

Mike Nordstrom, a US Marine, opened his portion of the panel discussion by informing his audience, “Today is the Marine Corps’ birthday: November 10, 1775.” Mike spoke about the difficulties that arise when one of “the few, the proud” is injured and faces the stigma associated with seeking treatment. Mike sustained physical and psychological injuries during his two tours in Iraq but was hesitant to check into the VA because he didn’t want to “take away resources” from vets with injuries that seemed worse than his. He also said that he felt embarrassed using the VA. It took pressure from his family and friends to finally get him in the door. Once there, he dealt with lots of paperwork and long waiting periods for appointments. Now, he meets regularly with a group of other vets at the VA and openly discusses the PTSD that he said is considered a “weakness issue” in the Marines.

blog post photo

Final panelist, Ronn Cantu, discussed in some detail the job he held during his last tour in Iraq as part of a human intelligence team. He feels he can finally speak openly about what he did in Iraq because he has just been discharged this month from the US Army. Ronn described the process he and others in his intelligence unit were ordered to use to “make a citizen into a detainee.” The process involved capitalizing on Iraqi grudges and loyalties and their desperate need for employment and cash. He spoke about the “dual sourced” intelligence they were supposed to gather to incriminate Iraqi men of military age (documenting two information sources for every suspect). “What makes an Iraqi want to turn in another Iraqi? Money and a lot of lying,” he said. Orders would come down to “speed things up,” meaning that higher-ups wanted more detainees, so they “cast the net” wider. He said that the more they had to speed it up, the less often they found the right people. So that numbers could increase, men of military age were rounded up and detained without cause. Ronn also said that he saw evidence of detained men having been beaten, but when he asked about it, he was told that if he didn’t witness the beating, there was nothing he could do about it.

Ronn had already served an enlistment in the army when he was inspired to re-enlist after hearing Colin Powell’s presentation to the UN arguing for an invasion of Iraq. “I bought it, hook, line and sinker,” he said. But, “after the life I took in my first deployment and the deceit in my second, I was done. I wouldn’t be a part of that anymore. I decided human beings weren’t made to treat each other like that.” Ronn did some writing from Iraq, began to speak out more publicly and filed a claim as a conscientious objector, but the military decided to use an administrative discharge. Ronn is relieved to be out, and plans to re-start his college career this spring. “As a 30 year-old, I don’t know how it will be going to school with 19 year-olds,” he says, but he is anxious to get to it. While he’s gathering intelligence in a new way, his classmates will have a lot to learn from him, too.

photos by Susan Van Haitsma