Three Vermont veterans share their (anti) war stories
As the carnage continues in Iraq, more and more Americans are turning against the war. Among the conflict's most vocal and knowledgeable critics are some of the veterans who have served in it.
The Philadelphia-based organization Iraq Veterans Against the War counts more than 400 Iraq War vets as members, with five to 10 new recruits joining each week, according to Drew Cameron of Burlington, the group's New England regional coordinator.
IVAW calls for immediate withdrawal from Iraq, full benefits and adequate health care for returning servicemen and women, and reparations to Iraqi civilians for the destruction caused by U.S. troops.
In addition to Cameron, Matt Howard and Adrienne Kinne are among the Vermont members of IVAW. In March, they joined antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan on a bus tour around the state to support the Town Meeting Day Bush-Cheney impeachment resolutions. They gathered at the Seven Days office on a recent Sunday morning to talk about why they're speaking out against the war.
The three of them seem awfully young. Cameron, 24, leans back in his chair, baseball cap pulled over his eyes, his fists stuffed into the pockets of his Adidas warm-up jacket. Kinne, 30, wears an IVAW pin on her perky Care Bears T-shirt. Howard's curly blond hair is still damp from his morning shower. In his sandals, jeans and worn polo shirt, the 25-year-old looks more like a scruffy ski bum than a soldier.
At least until he starts talking.
SEVEN DAYS: Matt and Drew, what were your assignments in Iraq? Did you have any day-to-day dealings with Iraqis?
MATT HOWARD: I drove a supply truck for a tank company in Iraq. It was interesting - we didn't have a lot of interactions with Iraqis. To me, that was one of the first telltale signs that something was amiss with the war. We went over there, and we're sitting in Kuwait, and I said, "OK, where are our translators?" And our whole battalion didn't have any translators. Instantly I was like, OK, when we get out to interact, we're told that Marines - there's no better friend, no worse enemy. We prefer to be their friends, but how's that interaction going to take place? We're not being taught any bit of Iraqi culture.
DREW CAMERON: I was in the field artillery unit. We were attached with 4th Infantry Division. We pushed north in large trucks, ammunition trucks - HEMTTs [Heavy Expanded Mobile Tactical Truck, pronounced Hemmitt] - and spent our time going to different places where there were stockpiled weapons and picking those up.
A lot of the interactions were very cultural. I have this picture of my friend, and he's showing this guy how to do the Tupac West Side sign.
A lot of the time, because we were rolling around in trucks, we would see a lot of Iraqis. Mostly you'd just be driving through an area. We were hanging out of our trucks with our weapons. You know, like, "Don't mess with us" kind of thing.
SD: What kind of training did you get in the culture? How much did you know about Iraq before you went there?
DC: I didn't have any training. My platoon sergeant was a veteran of the first Desert Storm war, so he kind of took the lead in some of the tactics. But no literature or classes. Or training on cultural norms - what is culturally acceptable, what is not . . . It was kind of hit-or-miss, play it by ear.
I remember an occasion at a traffic-control point. A truck was trying to come through because the woman was pregnant, she was giving birth. And our policy was to make everyone get out of the vehicles, inspect their vehicles and send them through. So the men were sitting in front, there were five women in the back, this woman was obviously in a great deal of pain, they're trying to get to the local clinic or doctor, and we pulled her out of the vehicle . . .
A lot of the training we got before we left was, like, how to accost someone. How to put them in submission position, sitting on the ground on your knees, legs crossed, so it's hard to get up. Where to place their hands. How to bind them. How to detain someone, essentially.
MH: I was embarrassed about my level of prior knowledge about Iraq. I went in thinking, Oh, this is some third-world country. Well, OK, yes, Saddam was an evil dictator, but yet, Iraq had the highest level of higher education in the Middle East. Iraq had some of the best hospitals in the Middle East. This was a full, functioning society when we came. And when we got there, I saw that. It wasn't the image of this starving land, this third-world nation that we were told needs our help.
SD: Adrienne, you were serving stateside. How did you support Operation Iraqi Freedom?
ADRIENNE KINNE: I was an Arabic linguist with military intelligence. Right after 9/11, I was activated with three other people in my unit. We were mobilized at Fort Bragg and attached to an MI [Military Intelligence] Unit in the South. We were intercepting faxes and communications from places like the Iraqi National Congress.
We started up at the end of 2001. As we started bombing Baghdad and Iraq, I was basically listening to the people we were bombing . . . [to] conversations, when they were calling their family members, to try to reassure them that they're OK, and they're safe. Or they're not OK, or they're not safe.
Their voices are kind of stuck in my head sometimes. And sometimes I start to wonder how many of them are dead.
They sounded just like us. I mean, their voices, when they would call their family members up at whatever hour in the middle of the night - because that was the one time they had a chance to make a phone call - they were so quiet. They didn't want to wake up their family member too much, so they would be all quiet, and nice and sweet. And meanwhile, we were just bombing the shit out of their city and their country.
When I hear [Matt and Drew] talk about how they didn't have any language training, or any cultural training, and they were going into Iraq with basically no knowledge of the situation there . . . I mean, I've done so many classes about Iraq, and written reports about Iraq and the culture and everything.
There's no part of me that really wanted to be [in Iraq] then, but I feel like, if I had been, then I could have done something that was actually meaningful. But instead I was stuck in some building with no windows listening to people as we bombed them. And not being able to do anything about it.
SD: When did each of you decide that you opposed the Iraq war?
DC: It was a long process. You know, it's tough to let go of that whole "mission first" mindset. It definitely was for me.
I remember someone asked me when I got home, "Do you think we should leave Iraq?" And I said, "No, we owe it to the people." And it took me a long time to figure out what all the implications of us being there really meant. It wasn't for the people.
When I got out of active duty, it was almost two years to the day when I went to a protest and met an Iraq veteran against the war. He was part of the organization and he told me about it, and I joined.
MH: For me, it was pretty instantaneous, when we got to Kuwait and we started this mass buildup of equipment and weaponry. I just kind of one day stood back and said, Wait a minute, what if another country did this to the United States? I'm about to invade somebody else's homeland. And the second I tried to put myself in our "enemy"'s shoes, that's when it really hit me, that this can't be right.
But since getting out, while I had this sentiment, I felt very powerless. For a whole year I didn't speak out. I just really tried to bury my head in the sand, and said, Well, it's futile. Can I really effect change? And that's when I met the organization and saw that there were like-minded individuals and other people who shared my sentiment.
AK: I'd already been in the army for eight and a half years. After 9/11 happened, I was not too thrilled with us invading Afghanistan. And I never thought we should be in Iraq.
But I had a job to do. Really, I thought that if we were there doing whatever our job was in support of it, then maybe we could help our military know where the good guys were versus the bad guys, and send out reports to get them information about what was going on on the ground in Iraq. But the more I find out now, the more I realize that I don't think that ever really happened.
So I never was in favor of the war in Iraq, and my unit kind of knew that. My officer in charge basically tried to either get me demoted or reprimand me the whole time we were activated, because he said I questioned things, that I didn't care about our unit or our mission, or supporting our troops.
When I got out, I talked to family and friends, but I was in the South, and it's very conservative. I got to Vermont in January. I still didn't really know how or what to do in order to make my voice heard. I'd done some stuff with MoveOn, and I managed to find out that there were buses going down from Vermont to D.C., for the march in January. So I just got on one.
I kind of walked straight to the veterans' area, and that's where I met Matt and Drew. I've said this a billion times, but it will never hurt to say it once more, how happy I am and how fortunate I feel to have met them, and to have gotten involved with IVAW.
SD: I was reading your IVAW member profiles online. I wanted to ask you, Matt, about something in yours. You say your "worst fears" about the military were confirmed in Iraq, and you "got to see firsthand what boys can do when they finally get a green light to play with their toys." What do you mean by that?
MH: Well, unfortunately, as Dick Cheney has said himself, the goal of the United States military is to fight and win war. We're not a humanitarian organization. We're not a peace corps. We're the Marine Corps. We're trained to kill people. We're trained on these extremely powerful weapons systems.
And this tank battalion I was in, some of these guys have been training their whole 12-year, 15-year Marine Corps career on these tanks, and, goddammit, they just had this mindset that they were going to use them. And so it turned into a bloodbath. Because they just . . . (pause) I mean, people just wanted to shoot stuff. That's really what it comes down to. And it was so disgusting to see the aftermath of that as I drove through each town on the way up to Baghdad.
You know, at one point, I saw a bus that had just been blown up. And the story was that we [U.S. soldiers] were letting in traffic. We were going north on the highway, but we were letting southbound traffic through. Well, they let this bus in; they were waving a white flag. And at one point, somebody jumped out with an AK-47 and started firing, so they had to take out the whole bus.
Well, you know, the next day, I talked to a guy on that tank crew, and he's like, "No, actually, they just wanted to shoot it."
SD: This weekend, the media is reporting news on a 2005 incident in Haditha, Iraq, in which U.S. Marines killed 24 civilians. The Washington Post obtained a Marine general's internal report, charging that Marine commanders "fostered a climate that devalued the life of innocent Iraqis to the point that U.S. soldiers considered their deaths insignificant." Does this statement ring true for you?
DC: The way we traveled in our truck convoys, through populated areas and civilian traffic, we had Humvees in the front and large trucks in the middle. And how we went through was to be as aggressive as possible, to drive people off the road. Take the Humvee, hit a car or a cart, floor the gas and push it out of the way, so we can get through.
You do what you have to do, because as soon as you stop, it was perceived that you immediately became a target and you were vulnerable. It was pretty crazy to think, you know, if you stop, you're going to get shot at. So what are you going to do?
One particular time, the truck blasted into the back of this vehicle, and we left them on the side of the road. They were obviously injured and needed medical care. When we got to our spot, we were inspecting the HEMTT and everyone was, like, joking about how awesome it was. "Look, they got fucking crushed, and nothing happened to this truck, ha ha ha. They won't get in our way again," kind of thing.
It was just OK. It was that posturing, it was acceptable. And everyone was called a haji. Hajis. Haji this, haji that. Just homogenizing everyone into this group.
It was definitely instilled, and we fed off each other, to protect ourselves.
MH: An American life is always worth more than an Iraqi life. Right now, if you're in a convoy in Iraq, you do not stop that convoy. If a little kid runs in front of your truck, you are under orders to run him over instead of stopping your convoy. This is the policy that's set in how to deal with people in Iraq.
I had this Marine friend who had set up a checkpoint. Car loaded with six people, family going on a picnic. It didn't stop immediately at the checkpoint. It was kind of coming to a rolling stop. And rules of engagement state, in a situation like that, you are required to fire on that vehicle. And they did. And they killed everyone in that car. And they proceeded to search the car, and just found basically a picnic basket. No weapons.
And, yes, absolutely tragic, and his officer comes by and [my friend] is like, "You know, sir, we just killed a whole family of Iraqis for nothing." And all he said was, "If these hajis could just learn how to drive, this shit wouldn't happen."
SD: How have other soldiers or civilians responded to your speaking out against the war?
DC: Most of the soldiers I come across who have gotten out all agree and know where we're coming from and appreciate it. In fact, I've gotten phone calls from people I've served with thanking me for speaking out.
And you'll meet people on occasion, military people, veterans of this current war, who are still very much in support of it, and want to see it through. I feel that they're a very small minority. And unfortunately [they] really come hard-charging with personal attacks, denigrating our service, or saying they're more hard-core, and we don't understand this because they saw this, that and the other. "You've gotta let us finish it, just give us more time, we'll kick their ass, we're not losing, we're winning." That kind of stuff.
But my reception has been really encouraging from other veterans, and from non-military citizens.
MH: Whenever I get discouraged, I always go back to thinking, for every one of us who's speaking out, there's, like, 100 veterans who haven't found their voice yet. That keeps me going.
AK: I've lost touch with so many people I served with. I don't really have a concept of how they feel about things. But by and large the people that I have spoken to very much agree with what we're doing.
I wore my IVAW shirt over to upstate New York when I was visiting family - this is maybe like three or four weeks ago. It's very conservative where my family lives. I was really nervous about wearing stuff that was against the war, but it was just so amazing to me how many conversations that just wearing a T-shirt generated. And how many of them were so positive.
DC: We went to Fort Drum, an active duty military post. I had a conversation with a cook, a staff sergeant. He had been in only three years and some change. He wasn't part of IVAW or anything, but what he said is that he keeps up with what we do, because he agrees with a lot of it.
He'd already done a tour in Afghanistan, had already done a tour in Iraq, and was getting ready to go back in a couple of months. I think he was seven months back, and he was going to go over there for another year-long tour - well, now, 15-month tour.
I remember he had a tattoo of his baby's feet on his arm, because he didn't get to see his child born; he was overseas. He's been away from his wife longer than he's been with her for the amount of time that they've been married.
And he said, basically, he felt like they were being treated like robots. That was the exact word he used - robots. So I think there are a lot of people in the military who hope what we're doing and fighting for and struggling for is successful.
SD: As more and more vets come home, we're learning that many of them are having trouble readjusting to life in the States - it's estimated that between 18 and 30 percent of Iraq war vets are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, for example. How has it been for you, coming home? Are you getting the support you need from the government and the military?
DC: How it's been for me is what I call emotional numbness. Because I came back intact physically, I thought, I'm OK, I should be fine from here.
I think I have really started to come to grips with a lot of stuff and get better. And move on. Especially meeting with people like Matt and Adrienne makes me feel a lot better. And being able to speak openly.
Support from the military? Non-existent. Support from the VA here in the Burlington area, yes. Specifically, with a weekly appointment just to talk with somebody.
MH: I've been diagnosed with PTSD. I've shied away from treatment recently, just for my own personal reasons, wondering if it is effective. But I know there are services in Vermont available to me. And the people I've seen have been really of high caliber, I think.
AK: Department of Defense hospitals are so overwhelmed. I work for the Veteran's Administration now, and this is the first time in the VA history that they're seeing active-duty soldiers, because DoD hospitals can't keep up with demand.
When I was working at the VA in Richmond, Virginia, I was doing psychological evaluations of vets returning from Iraq and elsewhere, many of them who are on the polytrauma unit because they've been injured severely in IED blasts or car accidents. And people coming through the poly- trauma unit on active duty, they were given priority, but at the same time, we were wait-listing dozens and dozens and dozens and dozens of other people who had just come back from Iraq and Afghanistan for therapy, or for just an assessment.
At the VA now, I'm in contact with VAs all over the country. And the overwhelming thing that I'm getting from people working at other VAs is that they are just so understaffed. We need to hire more people to take care of our veterans. From 2004 to 2006, the number of veterans seeking services in clinics rose from 125,000 to 228,000. This was in the USA Today article this weekend. And meanwhile, the VA staff has increased by less than 10 percent.
Those numbers just don't add up. And, at the same time, we don't have enough services to provide veterans with what they need, this administration is cutting VA funding.
SD: IVAW is using writing and art to help veterans cope with their experiences. Has this been helpful for you?
MH: It's easy to tell war stories, but it's a lot harder to go a step beyond that and say what you were actually feeling at the time, not just what you saw and what took place. And something like that, a writing workshop, really creates a safe space, where we had guys share stuff that in any other setting they just wouldn't feel comfortable sharing. Right now, that place doesn't exist in society.
Again, that's where this disconnect comes in, where people don't want to talk about the war. I mean, even as we've reached this wonderful point now where the majority of Americans are against the war, it's still not on the forefront of everyone's waking thoughts. It's still, Anna Nicole takes precedence over 150 people died in Iraq. You know, for us veterans, that's all we think about. You can't get this war off of your mind. You walk around, and see people just going on with their daily lives, and there's this huge level of inner frustration with that, how nobody gets it. Don't we realize there's a war going on?
AK: That was my first experience with the writers' workshop yesterday. It was really difficult for me, basically because my brother is being activated in the reserves this summer, and he's going over to Iraq. Just hearing all the stories from people who have been there, and thinking about the fact that he hasn't been yet, I wonder what his experience will be like. If he'll come back at all, or if he does, what part of him will be dead or changed?
I really hope that we're able to do something to change things. And I hope that people who are against this war and want our soldiers home will realize that if they would only start making demands, or start making their presence more forcefully felt by our government, then maybe we wouldn't have to keep sending people over there.
Drew Cameron, Matt Howard and Adrienne Kinne spoke to Seven Days for over an hour and a half. Because of space constraints, we were not able to include all of their remarks in the newspaper. Here are four additional audio clips from the interview.
»Matt Howard describes what he saw on the road to Baghdad (audio clip, 3:56).
»Drew Cameron explains the dangers of traveling in truck convoys through Kuwait and Iraq. (audio clip, 2:02)
»Adrienne Kinne talks about the challenges facing vets who return home and seek help from the VA. (audio clip, 3:41)
Impeachment demonstrators protested President Bush and his policies in downtown Burlington last Saturday afternoon, but a quieter and more moving act of resistance took place that night in an alley outside the Green Door Studio in the city's South End, when veterans of the Iraq war gathered to read their poetry and prose.
Philadelphia-based Iraq Veterans Against the War sponsored the reading; Green Door Studio member Drew Cameron is IVAW's New England regional coordinator. Cameron is one of the vet artists whose work appears in "Re-making Sense," an exhibit of photos, paintings and installations from IVAW members, on display at the Green Door through April.
Eight IVAW members traveled from as far as Illinois and Missouri for the event, and for an afternoon writing workshop that preceded it. IVAW encourages its members to write about their service to help them deal with their experiences. Their words bring the war home in a way that the news never will.
The young men clad in T-shirts and desert fatigues laughed and joked with each other before facing the crowd of 50. But when they read, they spoke of death, dismemberment, anxiety and sleepless nights, of being haunted by guilt.
Artist Aaron Hughes, a lanky 25-year-old from Chicago, read a piece he'd written that morning, in response to a writing exercise. The prompt was a poem written by a Vietnam vet, who used the words, "I am who survived, forgive me." [video clip by Vermont filmmaker Deb Ellis]
Hughes began his response with the same words, repeated several times, until he was shouting them. And then he diverged. "I am who survived, hate me," he yelled. "I am who survived, fucking hate me, kill me."
Hughes paced back and forth on the makeshift stage.
"I am who helped dirt and dust and death," he shouted. "I am who drove through dirt and dust and flesh and guts. I am who? Kill me!"
Cloy Roberts of Missouri was more low-key. The young Marine vet wore a T-shirt that read, "Make Hip-Hop Not War." He read a piece about a photo of himself and five buddies, posing in Fallujah. One of them is now dead, another wounded, the others crippled by their service. [video clip by Deb Ellis]
"Am I still alive?" he asked. "I might be physically breathing, but I'm dying inside. So there aren't any Marines in that picture. And without them, it's just a picture of a shattered city and a devastated country."
Burlington resident Charlie McClintock attended the reading; he served in Vietnam from 1970-1971. He said he was glad to see the younger vets speaking out. "Tell your story," he said after the reading. "If you can share it and find out you're on common ground with other people, you can begin the process of reconciliation." C.R.
Warrior Writers, a book of writings by IVAW members, is available at the Green Door Studio, 5 Howard St., Burlington. IVAW art show, Green Door, through April. Info, 316-1124, or contact http://www.greendoorstudio.net or http://www.ivaw.org.
Excerpts from Warrior Writers:
from "War makes monsters of us all"
By Mark "Gordie" Lachance
I served in Iraq in 2004-2005. In that year, I watched my own platoon change before my eyes. After each firefight and improvised explosive device, my men and I became angrier with Iraqis in our sector.
It is hard to accomplish your mission when the enemy's key weapon is an IED. While on my forward operating base, I often heard IEDs go off in the distance. After a few months you could determine the size and number of rounds used and whether the IED had been laid on the surface, buried or borne by a vehicle. This was only by the sound.
No matter who you were or what your mission was, you feared the IED. My sergeant said it best: "It's like playing the lottery. You play long enough, you will win." The insurgency in Iraq knows that it cannot beat us toe to toe. Time and again, U.S. forces have beaten the insurgents down that way. So they have devised their tactics around us.
This is why they use IEDs. They dishearten the servicemen and women who are hit by them. Any vehicle that is hit by one is instantly engulfed with smoke, dirt and frag. The intense noise and the shockewave itself disorient even the most war-hardened veterans.
I remember a stretch of road called Scunion highway, named after my forward operating base. This road was a hotbed for IEDs. My platoon was constantly clearing it of insurgent activity and roadside bombs. After a time my gunner reported that he always saw two younger boys in the area whenever we were on patrol. They stared at us as we drove past without showing any particular interest. I told my gunner not to worry about them -- they were kids and there was nothing to fear from them.
One day a roadside bomb hit a unit on that route. The unit followed orders and questioned everybody in the immediate area. The two young boys were questioned, and the interrogators noticed that they were trying to hide something.
The sergeant in command searched the two boys and found a notebook filled with information on all the U.S. convoys that had traveled the highway in the past month. They had recorded the time of day, number of trucks, whether they were gun trucks or logistical trucks. They even had identifying features for each convoy. As it turned out, the two boys were selling the information to men from Baghdad for food for their families...
Mark "Gordie" Lachance served in Iraq from 2004-2005 with the 2nd battalion 63 Armored Regiment, 1st Infantry Division. He joined IVAW in 2006. He currently lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
From "Dear Linz,"
By Demond Mullins
Today we marched to Fisher's Memorial Service. The formation was our first in a month. It felt a little weird. 1st Sergeant called my company to attention and it was as if the earth froze. The stillness hung, "right face. Forward march."
And so we went... As we marched I watched the back of Sgt. Meyers' heels. I watched his boots splashing through mud; kicking mud up on the back of his trousers; smashing small rocks further into the Earth. I watched his boots make impressions in the Earth, dry and wet, he left footprints... We all did. As we traveled we sometimes mixed dry soil with mud or left mud prints in dry soil... And I thought to myself, "my boots are doing the same thing." I am leaving impressions in the Earth with every step I take. The Earth, something much older and greater than me, is moved, is changed is affected by every step I take.
I meditated within myself as we marched on to the rhythm of 1st Sgt.'s commands and the thumping of our own boots. "Maritime march. Company halt. Left face. At ease..." And we stood waiting to file into seats for the service. As we stood at our seats and the service began, soldiers spoke, music played, but Fisher's kevlar helmet placed on top of his rifle, standing straight up, stood immovable. As though it did not acknowledge what we were saying.
I stood remembering Fish making fun of me and making football plays. He was the best quarterback in the battalion. I recall the last touchdown pass he threw me. It was like I didn't even catch the ball, it just fell into my hands... And I started singing, "Let's get it on," Marvin Gaye and dancing. Fish laughed and mimicked me.
I stood there at attention; Fisher's memorial went on... And I wondered what impressions Fish left in the Earth; what rocks did he smash; what mud did he splash; how had he changed the Earth. I realized that this is all we have when we are gone; our footprints, our impression on the Earth, our impression on people. Fish was a great person; his impressions will be remembered by both people and the Earth...
The 1st Sgt. did roll call for fourth squad to end the service: "SFC Mckeown." "Here Top." "Sgt. Sparrow." "Here Top!" "Spc. Scognomillo." "Here Top." "Spc. Fisher... Spc. Fisher... Spc. Fisher..." Up until now I had stood proud, at attention, chin up, chest out, but Fish did not answer after 1st Sgt. called him three times, and then three shots rang out. I forgot the order I was given to remain proud and I cried more than I ever cried in my adult life...
Demond Mullins joined the National Guard in January 2001 as an Armor Crewman. He served in Operation Iraqi Freedom with the 101st Cavalry Unit. He was in Iraq from October 2004-September 2005. This letter was written in December of 2005 in Baghdad, Iraq. He joined IVAW in February of 2006 and currently lives in New York City.
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