The new Winter Soldiers

Published : Sep 10, 2004 00:00 IST

A U.S. soldier keeps vigil in Najaf on August 13. A study in a medical journal showed that 17 per cent of U.S. soldiers who served in Iraq suffered from severe emotional problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression or generalised anxiety. - AKRAM SALEH /REUTERS

A U.S. soldier keeps vigil in Najaf on August 13. A study in a medical journal showed that 17 per cent of U.S. soldiers who served in Iraq suffered from severe emotional problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression or generalised anxiety. - AKRAM SALEH /REUTERS

Cases of severe depression and suicide among soldiers returning from Iraq point to a new crisis in the U.S. Army and creates a general resentment against sacrificing American lives in an unnecessary war.

ON June 22, a 23-year-old named Jeffrey Lucey went into the basement of his parent's home in Belchertown, Massachusetts, and hung himself with a garden hose. In 1999, Lucey had joined the Marine Reserves where he trained as a clerical specialist. Four years later, the United States Army sent him into Iraq as a driver of a "special forces capable" Marine Expeditionary Unit. Lucey's unit entered Iraq in the early drive to Baghdad in March 2003, and met heavy resistance in Nasiriyah. The U.S. reaction to the resistance distressed Lucey. At least a thousand Iraqis died in the barrage let loose by the superior U.S. firepower. A month later, Lucey, who had seen action in the city, confessed in a letter to his fiance Julianne Proulx that he had done "immoral things".

When Lucey returned home after this tour of duty, his reserve distressed his family. Gradually he talked about what he had seen and done, including the routine killing of children and the elderly. One incident particularly disturbed him: he told his family that he had been ordered to shoot two unarmed Iraqi men, about his age. "He looked in their eyes," said his father Kevin, "and wondered if they had families. They were just terrified." At point-blank range, Jeffrey told his father, he pulled the trigger. When Lucey died, he had the identification ("dog") tags of the two Iraqis around his neck.

Lucey's case is not unusual. By July 2004, 24 U.S. soldiers had committed suicide in Iraq itself, while an unusual number did so on their return to the U.S. (the Army will not release the latter figure). A study by six medical professionals in New England Journal of Medicine (July 2004) found that 17 per cent of the soldiers who served in Iraq suffered from severe emotional problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression or generalised anxiety. The study does not offer any analysis of why the troops suffer depression or commit suicide.

As Lucey took his life, his hometown welcomed another veteran Marine recently returned from Iraq. Staff Sergeant Jimmy Massey from Waynesville, North Carolina, had been a "gung-ho" marine, who had voted for George W. Bush in 2000 and, for 12 years, had fought in all of America's wars. Massey spoke in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts to rooms filled with veterans and their families, activists and activist veterans. Massey, who was part of the first wave into Iraq, told the audience that he and his fellow soldiers killed civilians, mainly because they had been informed that any Iraqi might be an insurgent.

When the U.S. Army took Baghdad, Massey's unit had been ordered to shoot at a demonstration against the U.S. occupation. When Paul Rockwell of War Times asked Massey who had given the order to shoot at the protest, he said: "Higher command. We were told to be on the lookout for civilians because a lot of fidayeen and the Republican Guards had tossed away uniforms and put on civilian clothes and were mounting terrorist attacks on American soldiers. The intelligence reports that were given to us were basically known by every member of the chain of command. The order to shoot the demonstrators, I believe, came from senior government officials including intelligence communities within the military and the U.S. government."

Massey is not a pacifist, because he believes that the job of a military person is to kill, but he now questions why he had been sent to kill Iraqis. "I killed innocent people for our government," he says. "Where is the good coming out of it? I feel like I've had a hand in some sort of evil lie at the hands of our government. I just feel embarrassed, ashamed about it." Massey says that the bitterness of murder has now entered the American soul, and that America's Army is made functional solely by patriotic lies and by pain medication.

From the Pioneer Valley, Massey travelled to Boston, Massachusetts, to talk at the Boston Social Forum organised by progressive groups to coincide with the Democratic National Convention. At an anti-war rally in Boston, a group of Iraq war veterans took to the stage and announced the formation of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). Kelly Dougherty, a sergeant in a Military Police unit that had served in Iraq, berated "the conditions the [Iraqi] people are living under, conditions that don't seem to be changing, no jobs, no electricity, no clean water. These are basic human needs. So how can the Iraqi people discuss elections, a Constitution? This is a war for empire." The IVAW's main platform is to withdraw unilaterally U.S. forces from Iraq. "You want to support the troops," she said, "Demand that they be brought home from Afghanistan and Iraq, that they get the benefits they are entitled to."

Among these outraged veterans, the example of Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia is often invoked. Mejia returned from his tour of duty in Iraq, but refused to return when the Pentagon decided to recycle quickly troops to combat. With the Army stretched, the U.S. military planners have resorted to a series of underhand means to extend the tours of their forces (what they call "stop loss").

Democratic presidential candidate and Vietnam veteran John Kerry said of this policy: "The Bush administration has effectively used a stop-loss policy as a backdoor draft." There has been no military draft (or compulsory military service) since 1973, and with the current deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere around the planet, the U.S. military is overwhelmed. Former U.S. Army Secretary Thomas White told The Nation, "We are in serious danger of breaking the human-capital equation of the Army. Once you break it, it takes a long time to put it back together." To fill the ranks, the Army has taken the extraordinary step of calling up retired personnel. U.S. Representative Rick Larsen noted, "If there was any doubt that this administration was conducting a pseudo-draft, this call-up should dispel that doubt."

Compulsory military service is unlikely. In the 1960s and 1970s, the anger against the Vietnam War came from all sections of society, but crucially from veterans who felt betrayed by the government, and by young men who did not want to serve because of the draft. Protests against the draft began in 1964, and men began to enter prison for their refusal to serve or else they fled to Canada and elsewhere. At the 1970 college graduation at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (in the Pioneer Valley where Lucey lived), the students conducted a mass protest against the war and the draft. "The roll of the funeral drum set the beat for 2,600 young men and women marching `in fear, in despair and in frustration'," wrote a local paper. "Red fists of protest, white peace symbols, and blue doves were stencilled on black academic gowns, and nearly every senior wore an armband representing a plea for peace." Struck by the low rates of recruitment in the late 1960s, an Army officer commented, "I just hope we don't get into another war, because if we do, I doubt we could fight it." The draft did not serve the military's needs, and it only inflamed the population against the war. Rather than move to a draft in 2004, the military seems more eager to recruit amongst the poor and to punish any conscientious objector.

When Mejia returned from Iraq, he told his friends and family that he had been shocked by the routine atrocities. "I am saying no to war," he said as a military court deliberated on his refusal to return to war. "I have chosen peace. I went to Iraq and was an instrument of violence and now I have decided to become an instrument of peace." The court sentenced him to a year in prison, the same sentence given to one of the men who had confessed to torture at Abu Ghraib. If the Army let Mejia go without exemplary punishment, it might have given hope to the thousands of other men and women in the U.S. Army who want to get out of their military fatigues.

Angry at the administration for its callous war, almost 2,000 families of people like Mejia formed an organisation against the war called Military Families Speak Out (MFSO). Men and women from around the country who have family in the service and who disagree with the tenor of permanent war have used MFSO as a platform for their frustrations. While the corporate media tries to feed the public with the view that one should be proud of the troops and their families, one woman whose husband is in Iraq wrote the following, "Do not say that you are proud of me because my husband has gone to war in Iraq. It is proper to be proud of my accomplishments, but when my husband goes to war it is not an accomplishment - it is a tragedy. We do not express pride to people attempting to survive a tragedy; we express sorrow. We do not express pride to people caught up in an unavoidable situation; we express empathy." MFSO calls for unilateral withdrawal, not just of U.S. troops but of all troops. "We do have a responsibility to the people of Iraq," they say, "to help clean-up and re-build their country, but it is not a military responsibility and it cannot be carried out under U.S. military command."

A prominent member of MFSO is Fernando Suarez del Solar of Escondido, California. Fernando's son Jesus died in the early days of the invasion, most probably by "friendly fire". A powerful speaker, Fernando has travelled the country in opposition to the war, but also to the way the military preys on the children of the working class. "My heart goes out to the soldiers," he said, "many of whom come from poor communities and joined the military as a way to get an education. Then they find themselves sent to a faraway land where they are exposed to death every day, with their families suffering back home - all for the whims and lies of President Bush. I support the troops, but I don't support the commander-in-chief who sent them into this unnecessary war."

Fernando formed an organisation, Guerrero Azteca (Aztec Warrior), to fight against the recruitment of working-class youth by the military's "poverty draft". Desperate to overcome the barrage of criticism for the war from veterans and others, the government has resorted to several underhand tactics to induct more youth into the war effort. Before 9/11, George Bush signed a bill intended to expand the educational choices of young people. Tucked into the so-called No Child Left Behind Act is a clause that forces school administrations to turn in the names and addresses of students to military recruiters. The Pentagon's need for soldiers overrides all the values of civilisation - the state now promises to fund higher education if you gamble your life on its battlefields. For the military recruiters, war does not begin on the battlefield. As Marine Corps Master Sergeant John Bailey told the U.S. Congress, "Our war starts at the school."

For Fernando Suarez del Solar, "military recruiters don't lie, but they don't tell the whole truth either. The recruiter who talked to my son told him that within a year, if he was qualified, he could get into Special Forces and receive $25,000 to $30,000 a year for his education, and he would begin at a salary of $1,000 a month." When he finished his training, Jesus called the recruiter and asked him why he was only making $675 a month. The recruiter coldly told him that the military had to deduct his "benefits," such as uniforms, soap, toothbrush and toothpaste.

IN early 1971, a group of Vietnam Veterans Against the War formed the Winter Soldier Investigation. They held protests around the country, and elbowed their way into the U.S. Senate's Committee on Foreign Relations on April 22, 1971. The spokesperson for the Winter Soldier Investigation was a young veteran, John Kerry, who told the Senators that his group's name came from Thomas Paine's 1776 term Sunshine Patriots, which referred to soldiers who deserted George Washington's army at Valley Forge (in Pennsylvania) during the days of the American Revolution. In Vietnam, Kerry and his comrades confessed that they "had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country."

Little that Kerry described is different from what the current Winter Soldiers report from Iraq. It is fortuitous that the presidential candidate in the election this year had once been on the same side as people like Massey, Lucey, Dougherty and Solar. Because of the imagined compulsions of the election, Kerry runs as far away from these new veterans as possible. Although, at his address to the Democratic National Convention, Kerry told the crowd, "I will be a commander-in-chief who will never mislead us into war. Before you go to battle, you have to be able to look a parent in the eye and truthfully say, `I tried everything possible to avoid sending your son or daughter into harm's way. But we had no choice'." This was as close to an anti-war statement one could get in this climate from the Democratic Party, and from its nominee who was once less careful with his words.

In 1971, before the Senate, Kerry had a more powerful statement to make, "We wish that a merciful God could wipe away our own memories of that service as easily as this administration has wiped their memories of us. But all that they have done and all that they can do by this denial is to make more clear than ever our own determination to undertake one last mission, to search out and destroy the last vestige of this barbaric war, to pacify our own hearts to conquer hate and the fear that have driven this country these last ten years and more, and so when, in 30 years from now, our brothers go down the street without a leg, without an arm, or a face, and small boys ask why, we will be able to say `Vietnam' and not mean a desert, not a filthy obscene memory but means instead the place where America finally turned and where soldiers like us helped it in the turning."

Thirty years later, on September 9, 2003, a small girl sat before Congress to ask that her father come home from Iraq. Aged 13, Robin Ponton wanted her father who had served in the U.S. Army reserves for 22 years to return to her, and not "lose his life for a lie". "Many other children like myself, across our great nation, want their parents and family members home. When our forefathers developed this nation," she told a panel of elected officials called to hear from MFSO, "they stated that all people had a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I feel that my right to pursue happiness has been taken away from me because having my dad in my life and with me brings me happiness. Please send our troops home to their families so they can be happy."

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