By Sarah Lazare, Courage to Resist Project Coordinator, for ZNet. October 3, 2008
Sixty veterans stood in formation, backs straight, feet slightly apart, hands held tensely to their brows in salute. In the gray Minneapolis morning, the sea of faces looked shockingly young, some firm and expressionless, others blotched and wet with tears. Those on the outside wore military uniforms, those in the middle wore black shirts that read "Iraq Veterans Against the War."
Kris Goldsmith, 23 year-old former combat soldier in the U.S. army, made his way to the front to address the motionless crowd. "My method of attempted suicide was with a liter of vodka and a dozen pills of Percoset," Kris barked out in a dry, military voice. "What my unit punished me for was not putting a gun in my mouth and making my mother bury me in a closed casket."
As cameras rolled, Kris went on to tell of his deployment in Iraq, how the carnage and suffering he witnessed not only turned him against the war, but also to attempted suicide. He explained how, years later, he still suffers from nightmares and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the military denies a connection between his deployment and his psychological condition. "This is not acceptable," he yelled, his gaze steadily forward.
Kris’s speech addressed the McCain camp sitting safely out of earshot in the Xcel Energy Center on the first day of the Republican National Convention (McCain’s staff declined to actually meet with the veterans, refusing to even accept a briefing on veterans’ issues that they attempted to deliver). But in that moment, his words seemed directed far past the fray of electoral politics, beyond the reach of flashing cameras, towards an inward place of deep pain and irrevocable history, a place he shared with the sixty young veterans standing behind him.
Since its inception in 2004, members of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) have worked feverishly to bring their narratives into the public limelight. From political conventions to anti-war rallies to the winter soldier hearings, U.S. veterans who have served since September 11, 2001 have related tales of the horror they have witnessed and the suffering they have endured to bring the reality of war home. The organization has grown to include over 1,200 members, spanning 48 states and numerous international bases, and with four active duty chapters, IVAW has taken a position of open support for G.I. resisters.
Kris, like many Iraq Veterans, did not become a political activist overnight. He spent his childhood growing up in a working-class suburb in Long Island dreaming of one day becoming a soldier. After the events of September 11th, 2001, he was consumed with anger. He remembers declaring that he "wanted to kill everyone in the Middle East, that the Middle East should be turned into a glass plate by nuclear weapons." When he graduated from high school in 2003, Kris decided to enlist as a combat soldier. His purpose was simple, "to kill people."
Once in the military, Kris was made front-line witness to the horrors of the war he had so eagerly embraced. Deployed to Sadr City in 2005, he was ordered to document everything his platoon did. This included photographing countless mutilated Iraqi bodies, found in homes, streets, and shallow graves. Over his 12-month deployment, Kris gathered intelligence for the army, wading through piles of the dead, lifting up their faces to capture them on camera, arriving at scenes of violence to document the carnage. "The single ugliest act of violence" Kris witnessed was a car bomb that exploded between a hospital and an Iraqi police station in Baghdad, where Kris was stationed. "Bodies, appendages, blood, and cars were skewed for hundreds of feet around a 15 foot crater," he wrote in his IVAW profile.
The numerous photographs he took were never used for intelligence, but served another purpose: as trophies, sometimes referred to as war porn, for soldiers in his unit, "to send home to their friends and family to brag," Kris testified at Winter Soldier. "The images are burned into my head forever," he says. "The very pictures on the digital camera, are what haunt me to this day."
Kris was not just a passive observer of violence. He tells of abusing and terrorizing Iraqis, imprisoning people in their homes by making the streets unsafe for them and waking families in the middle of the night to raid their houses at gunpoint. Even the dead bodies of Iraqis were used as the butts of jokes told by soldiers. At one point, when Kris came across a six year-old Iraqi boy in an alley, it took all of the self-control he had remaining not to shoot the kid dead in the street to satisfy his anger.
Kris’ low morale and depression appears to be shared by many other U.S. soldiers fighting the global war on terror overseas. A 2006 Zogby poll, the most recent poll of its kind, found that 72% of all U.S. troops serving in Iraq wanted the U.S. to exit within the next year. While there have been no polls since then, evidence suggests that such sentiments continue. Resistance within the ranks appears to be growing. Army soldiers are refusing to serve at the highest rate since 1980, with an 80% increase in desertions, defined as absence for more than 30 days, since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, according to the AP Press. Over 150 G.I.s have publicly refused service, facing the threat of Court Martial, severe prison terms, and dishonorable discharge rather than fight in Iraq or Afghanistan. And an estimated 200 Iraq war resisters are residing in Canada, one of whom was deported and court martialed last month.
Mathis Chiroux is one such resister, an army journalist who was discharged after five years of service, only to be recalled to active duty earlier this year. Mathis is publicly refusing to deploy to Iraq, and is busy visiting with members of congress and speaking with the media to maximize the political impact of his decision. He describes his refusal to serve as a process, with each successive act of resistance allowing him to take the next leap, from discussing his misgivings about the war with his friends to standing up to his superiors to openly refusing to deploy. "It took small steps," he said. "I sort of re-found myself as a human being in the process."
Mathis emphasizes that the G.I. movement against war is a spectrum, encompassing active duty troops who engage in small acts of disobedience, service people who openly refuse to fight, and veterans like Kris Goldsmith who, once released from service, devote their time to organizing for peace.
After months, and then years, of up-close exposure to violence, Kris’s long-held faith in the war began to falter. "There was no clear point when I decided I was against the war. It was a gradual process," he said in an interview. The mythical link between Saddam and Al Qaeda was exposed. Bush admitted, in January 2005, that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, just a week before Kris was set to deploy to look for those very weapons. Soldiers were being cycled through multiple and lengthy deployments, and morale was sagging. "It seemed that every day, every week, there was a new reason to be against the war," he said.
Meanwhile, the war was taking a profound psychological toll on Kris. He began acting strangely, feeling constantly on edge, having panic attacks in response to the slightest bumps and bangs, and blunting his anxieties with heavy drinking. After finding out, just four months before he was set to leave the army and head off to college, that he had been stop-lossed, Kris broke down. On Memorial Day of 2007, he scrawled "Stop loss killed me. End stop loss now" on his arm with a sharpie and swallowed a liter of vodka and a dozen pills of Percoset, intending to end his life.
After surviving his suicide attempt, Kris was accused by the military of faking his mental breakdown to get out of deployment. He was given a general, rather than honorable, discharge, and as a result was stripped of the educational benefits he had eagerly looked forward to.
Since being released from service, Kris has been diagnosed by a psychiatrist as having PTSD. He suffers from nightmares, panic attacks, and flashbacks, and he struggles with alcoholism. He gets meager assistance from the military to combat these problems. Kris received little information from the army about how to enroll in the VA system and has had to work largely on his own to get the healthcare he needs.
What is shocking about Kris’s narrative is not just the litany of horrors he was forced to endure, but also the fact that his tale is not at all unusual among young veterans returning from war. Hundreds of veterans have testified at the IVAW Winter Soldier Hearings, which were kicked off in March of this year and have since been held around the country. At these events, based on the 1971 Winter Soldier hearings on war crimes in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans tell of the war crimes they have committed, the violence they have witnessed, and the psychological wounds they have endured.
Amongst this company, Kris’s story becomes another note in the crescendo of voices speaking out about the atrocities of war:
Eyes downcast, Hart Viges, former army mortar man and 2004 war resister, tells of shooting mortars into a small town in Iraq filled with civilians. "I never really saw the effects of my mortar rounds in the town," he says. "I don’t know how many civilians, innocents, I’ve killed.
Former U.S. Marine Corps machine gunner John Michel Turner told of being congratulated for his first kill: an innocent man murdered in front of his friend and father. He also told of shooting mortars at a mosque because he was angry after one of his comrades was killed, and of getting the words "Fuck you" tattooed in Arabic on his wrist, because that was his choking hand. "I am sorry for the hate and destruction I have inflicted on innocent people," he said to the silent audience, his voice shaking. "I am no longer the monster I once was."
Tanya Austin, US army veteran, told the story of a female coastguard who was raped in the military and then discharged and punished for reporting the incident. "Every active duty member sitting in this audience knows someone who has been assaulted or raped or harassed," Tanya said, staring deadpan at the audience. "That has got to change."
Kevin and Joyce Lucey told of the suicide of their 23 year-old son, Jeffrey Michael Lucey, who had served five months as a marine convoy driver in Iraq. Jeffrey returned with deep psychological wounds, telling his girlfriend "I’ve seen and done enough horrible things to last a lifetime." After unsuccessfully petitioning the VA for adequate mental healthcare for their son, Jeffrey’s parents watched his mental condition deteriorate. His father recalls that Jeffrey asked to be rocked in his father’s lap, and his father complied. However, Jeffrey was unable to find peace and subsequently committed suicide.
These stories document how acts of brutality harm the inflictor as well as the victim. In a war replete with atrocities, from the Abu Ghraib scandals to the Haditha massacres to the recent U.S. airstrike that killed over 90 Afghani civilians, rates of suicide and mental illness among veterans are skyrocketing. Marine suicides doubled between 2006 and 2007, and army suicides are at the highest rate since records were kept in 1980. Suicide attempts among veterans have jumped 500% since 2002, according to Department of Defense records. Rates of PTSD and traumatic brain injury among troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have been disproportionately high, with a third of returning troops reporting a mental condition of some kind and 18.5% of all returning service members meeting the criteria for either PTSD or depression, according to a study by the Rand Corporation.
Yet, the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) fails to give these returning troops the care they need. The Bush Administration has systematically voted against meaningful improvements to veterans’ benefits, and returning veterans are forced to deal with an over-taxed medical system. Hundreds of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have filed a class action lawsuit against the U.S. government charging them with medical neglect of returning veterans, pointing out that on average, 18 war veterans kill themselves each day – five of them while under the care of the VA. Meanwhile, the military has been punishing people like Kris for "malingering" at increasing rates and discouraging service members from receiving the help they need: over 21 Iraq soldiers have been punitively discharged since 2003 after being convicted of faking illness.
Today, instead of holding an M-4 carbine firearm, Kris holds a marker that he uses to draw out the plans for the next day’s march on large, white sheets of paper. He says that it was only when he became involved in IVAW that he started to recover. "When I finally linked up with 200 other vets at winter soldier and shared my story for the first time, that’s when the real therapy started," he said. "Knowing that I wasn’t alone in the way that I felt and the things that I dealt with, that made all the difference."
However, Kris’s transition into being a political organizer was not seamless. He emerged from the military steeped in deep prejudice toward the Iraqi people, largely blaming them for what he had been through. It was only after he was "separated from military service and stopped being surrounded by people who hated Iraqis," that Kris was able to reverse these patterns of thinking. He began doing his own research into the true causes of the war and found himself immersed in a new community of veterans struggling to undo the damage the military had done themselves and to Iraqis as well. "I began to realize that the Iraqi people are also victims of this war," he says.
Veteran organizers like Kris are taking the political world by storm. Just before the RNC, IVAW led a 10,000 person strong march to the DNC to deliver a list of demands to Obama (after a tense stand off with police, Obama finally sent a liaison to accept the written demands). IVAW chapters all over the country have been organizing regional winter soldier hearings, street performances, writing and art projects, and support groups to help each other heal. Veterans, war resisters, and civilian allies have been helping support the troops that refuse to fight, and many veterans are busy organizing in the ranks of the military, fanning those small fires of resistance. Painful narratives become powerful political tools, as veterans use their stories to bring to light the day-to-day horrors of war.
"The actions of these young veterans show that anyone can change," says Jeff Paterson, Gulf War resister and Project Director of Courage to Resist, an organization that support troops who refuse to fight. "People who were trained killers literally transform themselves into peace activists. And these individual transformations, repeated over and over, can shake the very foundations holding up war and occupation."
"We are standing here today to demand a change," said Kris in addressing the gathering. He then joined the formation of veterans standing behind him, and the group began marching to city hall to join with another anti-war demonstration. They stepped in rhythm, shouting anti-war cadences: "We are veterans, anti-war veterans" and "They’re our brothers, they’re our sisters, we support war resisters." Their voices rang out loudly as they passed police and onlookers, their army camos and large flags constituting a jarring presence in the streets of Minneapolis. As the march neared its destination, two young veterans in uniform could be seen breaking away from the crowd, one collapsed and sobbing in the other’s arms.