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A Soldier Speaks: Kelly Dougherty

The last in a series of profiles of Iraq combat veterans who have recently returned home.
 
 
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Editor's Note: As of August 23, 2005, 1872 American troops and between 22,500 and 100,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed in the war in Iraq. Domestically, the bill for the war has reached $204.6 billion.

This is the final in a four-part series profiling some of the tens of thousands of Iraq war veterans who have come home bearing the scars of battle -- emotional and physical wounds that may never heal.

Kelly Dougherty, 27, of Colorado Springs, Colorado, served with the National Guard in Kuwait in February 2003 and then served in Iraq from April 2003 to February 2004. She was stationed in southern Iraq, near the city of Nazaria.

Kelly joined the National Guard in 1996 as a medic when she was 17 to help pay for college. Now she is co-founder of a national coalition of American veterans who oppose the war, Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). She speaks out across the country with IVAW about her experiences as part of the military police in Iraq and why she opposes the war and what she calls "the occupation of Iraq." IVAW is also working with senators and members of the House to draft the "Bring Them Home Now" Resolution, which calls for the immediate withdrawal of occupying forces in Iraq.

She spoke to AlterNet about the war and her work with IVAW.

What experiences or perspective made you want to co-found Iraq Veterans Against the War?

I think it was because when I was in Iraq, I thought I needed to get more involved when I got home because you really recognize how something like this affects you when you're sent halfway across the world for a year. So when I got home, it was February of 2004, and I didn't get that involved until July -- when I went to a Veterans for Peace Conference and I met a group of other Iraq War veterans who had kind of been working on the idea. I thought it could be truly useful.

What kind of work does IVAW do?

We do a lot of public speaking about our experiences in the war and in the military and why we're opposed to the war. We have also collaborated with some senators and congresspeople to draft the "Bring Them Home Now" Resolution, and other work. In the political sphere, we're trying to get more politicians engaged in trying to do something to end the occupation. And not only that -- but to take care of the veterans that come home and try to make people realize that many people aren't being taken care of when they get home.

How are veterans not being taken care of?

There is a huge lack of funding for, first of all, the VA [Veterans Affairs] system. The VA, before the war in Iraq, was already having a hard time taking care of veterans of past wars and past military service. And now they're taking care of thousands of people from the Iraq war and Afghanistan. We don't have the resources to take care of them so we have people who have been waiting for a year or more to get their back-up claims for their physical injuries.

And the military itself really discourages people from seeking medical help. I know some people who got sent home because of injuries in Iraq -- physical injuries and mental trauma -- and were treated so poorly and intimidated and harassed by the military so much that now most of their problems are continually exacerbated.

What were your feelings about the reasons for going to war with Iraq? Did they change once you were there?

Before I even found out I was going to Iraq, I was completely against the idea of going to war with Iraq and I couldn't believe the reasons that were being given -- the weapons of mass destruction and the league of terrorists and all of that. When I first got to Iraq, one of the things that I was really struck by was the poverty there -- and how poor the population was and how little they had, and how much had been destroyed by this war and previous wars.

And when I left, things hadn't much changed for them -- things actually got worse. Lots of people still didn't have any water. ... We weren't helping them at all. And to add, the continual degradation of the area -- not only by the insurgents -- but you don't hear every day how the Iraqi people are suffering at the hands of the U.S. military, and how so many people are arrested or detained, shot and killed, or whatever -- that are completely innocent, or that are trying to go about their daily business. So I think all that really solidified my views that the war was wrong, and first-hand how violence just creates more violence. We're really not accomplishing anything positive there.

Did you speak out against the war while you were in Iraq?

Everyone in my unit, or who knew me well, knew that I opposed what we were doing there. But as far as expressing my views, I would mostly just speak with people who had the same view that I did. When you're already in a stressful situation, when you're literally in a war zone, you don't want to have to be at war with people who you're serving with too.

When did you enlist and why?

I joined [the National Guard] in 1996. I was 17 and a senior in high school. I was looking at my options for college and I really didn't know how I was going to pay for my education. My stepfather had a son who was in the National Guard and encouraged me to go and speak to the recruiter. I was pretty reluctant at first, but then I went and, I don't know, it seemed like a pretty good deal at the time.

The National Guard traditionally -- its role -- is supposed to be its motto, "Stay at home, serve your country." So, basically the National Guard is supposed to be used during a state of emergency like a blizzard or a flood or if we're getting invaded. I didn't think I was going to be sent to another country.

I joined as a medic. And I thought that would also be good for me -- to get good training and further my civilian career, and also pay for my education. There was a change in transit: I went to Iraq as a military police [officer] rather than a medic.

Why were you trained to be part of the military police?

The biggest thing they seem to need over there is military police -- people to patrol and secure assets or whatever. And so I was a medic. There were some other medics who were sent over with me to be military police. ... We had admin, cooks, mechanics -- people in all different support roles -- and they were all going out there with us.

Did you interact with any local Iraqis while you were there?

We saw every day, Iraqis every time we worked, because we escorted convoys, who were going off base to patrol. We had a pretty large control area. But our interaction was kind of bizarre because of course you can't interact with an Iraqi person as a U.S. military member in any kind of way you would interact with someone back home. Well, because first of all, you don't speak the same language. And we were there for ten months and for nine months we didn't have a translator.

Kelly Dougherty in Iraq
Kelly Dougherty, when she was stationed in southern Iraq.

Our job is to do policing among the Iraqis and to try to find out what the situation is, what these people are arguing about, or if they did something, and you can't even communicate with them. So that caused a lot of problems, a lot of misunderstandings, and I think a lot of things got out of control because we just didn't understand what was going on. We couldn't talk to anyone.

And secondly, of course we're occupying their country. You know you can't really talk to someone like an equal when you have been given all this power over people.

I also saw, a lot of times, abuses of power by people in the military -- using excessive, unwarranted force against the Iraqis because they could get away with it. One of the things we dealt with a lot in my unit was guarding broken-down vehicles. All these convoys would drive by every day, hundreds and hundreds of vehicles every day, and most of them were owned by [Kellogg] Brown and Root, which is a subsidiary of the Halliburton Corporation.

These fuel tankers would sometimes break down or they would get stuck in the mud and we would have to go and secure them so the Iraqis wouldn't loot them. ... One of the most frustrating things about our mission there was every day when we went out to guard these trucks, we'd have to call back to the base and request rapid route when someone recovered a vehicle because supposedly it's an asset -- because it's full of fuel and of course the money from the vehicle.

So, we'd wait there for two or three hours guarding this vehicle from hundreds of Iraqis, who wanted to get something, because they didn't have any jobs and they were still poor. It's hard to understand how a piece of scrap metal from a vehicle can be worth something. But for people who have nothing, it really was an asset to them. Inevitably, after waiting there for three hours, we'd get a call that we weren't going to get anyone out there so just leave it. We've been guarding it for three hours. Or we would get orders to destroy it and burn it. You know it's really hard when you're initially told that, 'Oh, you're going to be helping the Iraqi people,' but all that you're really doing is destroying something in front of them. That was really frustrating.

And after a while we got some riot control stuff, what's called "less than lethal" ammunition -- bean bag shots for guns, and rubber bullets and smoke grenades. Things like that to control the crowds. I saw a lot of abuse of those things, like indiscriminate firing with rubber bullets, because you know it's probably not going to kill someone. So, for some it was funny to do drive-by shootings with rubber bullets. And the things are no joke! It could kill someone, like a small child. ... Or if it hits you in the face. ... It's something you don't play with.

We were originally in an area of Iraq that was originally one of the safer areas and it had more support from the local people for the war. But to me, I was more apprehensive every day I went out because I knew every day we were making enemies from people who might have wanted to give us the benefit of the doubt, or who had hope in us originally. Now, they [don't].

When a mother's seven-year-old son comes home with a huge welt because he was shot by a rubber bullet, or someone threw rocks at him -- every day I could tell we were making more and more enemies. I definitely sensed a change from when we first got there -- when we would drive by, people would wave at us and smile at us. To when we left -- more and more people would just turn their backs or give us rude gestures. And of course you can't blame the Iraqi people.

At the same time, you can't totally blame the American soldiers. Because you're sent to Iraq without really knowing why you're there, your mission keeps changing, it seems like you're not accomplishing anything and you're kind of just protecting yourself.

Then you get into these confrontations with the Iraqi people and you start to take out all of your frustration and stress and project it onto them. And then it turns into hatred for them. ... I think you have to blame the whole thing, the whole occupation of Iraq. It's the bigger problem.

It's really hard too, when you're down low in the chain of military command. I was a Sergeant and that's a little higher up -- it's above the privates and the specialists -- but it's still low. Everyone on the unit level is pretty low so you don't really know what's going on. You hear a lot of rumors. And when we first got there, we thought we might be there for four months. And then we thought, 'Oh six months, the longest.' We didn't even have an exit strategy for our unit, so talking about an exit strategy for the whole military -- that's just something I couldn't conceive of.

What do you think about Secretary Rumsfeld's projection that we could be in Iraq for another 12 years?

So we already have 1,700 of our soldiers who have died and that's after two years. And so we're talking times the number we have now by six, if we're there for 12 years ... When we first went over there, we were told because of the danger of Iraq and terrorists. But then when we got over there, that was all completely false.

And then all of a sudden it was about them being a democracy -- but that's kind of a Catch-22 -- you can't have a free democratic society occupied and dictated by a foreign military. It just seems to contradict itself.

I think from the more people I'm talking to, I'm sensing a shift. The American people are getting fed up with the bloodshed and the loss of life and the destruction of property and people. There's not going to be support for the war -- let alone for 12 more years.

So are you completely done with the military?

Yes. I was honorably discharged last August, of 2004.

Is there anything you would like to add that you feel is not being covered by the media?

First of all, when I was in Iraq, the news they showed, which probably won't come too much as a surprise -- they show FOX news. That's all the coverage the military in Iraq gets.

We hear from the President and we hear from people in the military how we're going to stay the course and we're making headway, and this is so important, and we're there for all these great reasons. But then you don't hear mainstream voices from veterans who have been there, and seen what it's like, who have come back and are against it. ...

Some policy expert gets a lot more credit just because they're better educated. The mainstream media doesn't seem interested in covering a veteran's perspective or an Iraqi's perspective.

You never hear from an average Iraqi about how they feel about it, and I think that's terrible. They're the ones whose county is being invaded. They're the ones who are having the most casualties. Something like 100,000 Iraqis have died in the war, yet you never hear from them. Like they're not even worthy to being talked to at all!

People in Washington talk about people in the military as if all they live for is the military and this country. And we can't even talk about an exit strategy because it'll make the troops over there feel like we don't support them. ... They're normal people, just like anyone else. They have families. They're probably either going to college or have a career that they're working on. And they have just as many questions and doubts about what's going on in Iraq -- and especially if they're there, or their family members are there. They're just not over there to serve the interests of the U.S. They have a whole separate life besides the military.

They talk about us in abstract terms -- we're all these people who are serving our country. Most of the people who are over there, they're not thinking so much about, "Well, I have to stay here so the Iraqi people can have a democratic society." They're like, "I have to do my job so that I stay alive, and the people around me also stay alive, and then we can go back home to our families." That's why they're there -- to protect the real people they are close to.

Has IVAW faced any negative reactions or harassment?

Overwhelmingly, we've just gotten lots of support. We get hate emails to the office, but we get many, many more positive emails. Like people wanting to join. ... In March we went to Fayetteville, North Carolina -- home of Fort Bragg, the biggest army base in the nation. It's in the South and we got lots of support. So, you never know where you're going to get support, and it's often in more places than you think.

Celina R. De Leon is a social justice journalist based in Brooklyn, NY.