War on Iraq

Battlefield Iraq

Combat veterans Sean Huze, Paul Rieckhoff and Jimmy Massey discuss the truth -- and the lies -- about the war in Iraq.
Park City, Utah, is a long way from Baghdad. The four Iraq war veterans attending the Sundance Film Festival, which starts this weekend, are probably more comfortable in combat boots than Ugg boots, but they hope their presence will help promote "The Ground Truth," a documentary directed by Patricia Foulkrod in which they appear. Two of those vets, Paul Rieckhoff and Sean Huze, recently joined a third, Jimmy Massey, to talk with interviewer Terrence McNally about their experiences in Iraq.

As a corporal in the Marines, Sean Huze participated in the March 2003 invasion of Iraq with the 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion. Huze was awarded a Certificate of Commendation citing his "courage and self-sacrifice throughout sustained combat operations" while in Iraq. After returning to the United States, he starred in his debut as a playwright, "The Sand Storm: Stories from the Front." His third play, "The Dragon Slayer," which focuses on PTSD, will premiere in Los Angeles in March.

Paul Rieckhoff enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserves on Sept. 15, 1998. In early 2003, he was assigned as platoon leader for the 3rd Platoon, B Company, 3/124th INF (Air Assault) FLNG, and spent approximately 10 months in Iraq. Third Platoon conducted over 1,000 combat patrols; all 38 men in Rieckhoff's platoon returned home alive. In June 2004, Rieckhoff founded Operation Truth -- now called Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) -- along with a couple of other veterans, some volunteers and massive credit-card debt.

Jimmy Massey, a co-founder of Iraq Veterans Against the War, is a former staff sergeant in the United States Marine Corps. He was a boot camp instructor at Parris Island, S.C., and a Marine recruiter before fighting in the Iraq war and was honorably discharged in December 2003 after 12 years of service. His autobiography, "Kill, Kill, Kill," was recently published in France. Ron Harris, a reporter for the St. Louis Dispatch, once embedded with the Marines in Iraq, claims Massey has lied or exaggerated his accounts of atrocities in Iraq. The controversy was recently a cover story in Marine Corps Times.

TERRENCE MCNALLY: Sean Huze, when and why did you enlist?

SEAN HUZE: I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in response to the September 11th attacks in 2001. The following day I went to the Marine Corps recruiting office at Sunset and La Brea, and told them I wanted to be in the infantry. I deployed with Second Light Armor Reconnaissance Battalion for Kuwait in February of 2003, and we were part of the initial invasion in March.

TERRENCE MCNALLY: When you went to Iraq, did you believe that the invasion was part of the response to September 11th?

SEAN HUZE: I don't know that I actually believed that it was a response to September 11th. I did believe that Iraq was a credible threat. Polls at the time show that about 90 percent of Americans believed that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, believed that Iraq posed a threat not only to its neighbors but possibly to us. I was part of that 90 percent. I like to say I was part of the 10 percent of that 90 percent who'll admit it now.

It all comes down to weapons of mass destruction, for me. And they weren't there. Dick Cheney's going around accusing all of us of being revisionist now. But if you're trying to say that the war in Iraq was about anything other than WMD, that's revisionism. I don't care how many times Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, whoever, says that this war was about anything other than WMD, or that we were given a justification or rationale other than WMD.

I've got a long memory, and it was only a couple of years ago. I know why I was sent to Iraq; I know why I went to war. And when that proved to be false, I think that's when we lost our credibility and our world standing. And ultimately we're in a quagmire right now.

TERRENCE MCNALLY: Your play, "Sand Storm," how did that happen?

SEAN HUZE: "Sand Storm" was born out of a lot of personal pain. From talking to other veterans. Everything that makes you a functional and healthy individual amongst society are all detriments in a combat zone, and it takes a while to decompress from that. You kind of go numb.

It's not like two armies went out there on a battlefield. This war was fought in an urban environment amongst the civilian population, and ultimately it is that civilian population that has paid the heaviest toll. It's difficult as a husband and as a father to reconcile who I was over there with some of the things that I saw. I mean, a dead child on the side of the road in Nasiriyah, about the same age as my son right now. And how unfeeling I was at the time about it, with who I am now, how I feel about it now.

Writing a play and putting these feelings on to characters was a safe way for me to start the road home. It's been well-received, and I'm really grateful for that.

TERRENCE MCNALLY: Paul Rieckhoff, why did you enlist?

PAUL RIECKHOFF: I enlisted in 1998 because I wanted to serve. My father had been drafted during Vietnam, and my grandfather spent a few years in the South Pacific during World War II. They weren't exactly thrilled about their experiences, but they definitely grew as people and instilled in me a sense of honor and a need to serve my country. When I graduated from college it was definitely an unusual path to choose. This was before 9/11. I felt that just because I didn't have to serve didn't mean that I shouldn't serve.

TERRENCE MCNALLY: You graduated from a fairly elite college, yes?

PAUL RIECKHOFF: Yes, I went to Amherst.

TERRENCE MCNALLY: So it wasn't like the guy next to you was following you down to the recruitment center.

PAUL RIECKHOFF: No, I remember having a conversation with the president of the college, and he couldn't comprehend why I would ever consider joining the military. All my colleagues and friends were going to Wall Street or law school or into consulting. But it was something I really wanted to do. I didn't feel that I could attain the same skills and leadership abilities anywhere else. That really fueled my passion to join the military. There was also a sense of adventure. I think ultimately it came down to either joining the Peace Corps or joining the military. And to be honest with you, in the military you get to ride around in tanks and blow stuff up, and jump out of buildings and out of helicopters, and it excited me, so I was in.

TERRENCE MCNALLY: You went over when?

PAUL RIECKHOFF: I went over with the initial invasion at pretty much the same time Sean did. He came up with the Marines and I came in with the Third Infantry Division. We ended up finally settling in central Baghdad at the end of April and were there till spring of the following year, almost a year in total. We were there for the invasion, and then the initial looting, the disbanding of the Iraqi military and the chaos that followed. We were there also for the birth and emergence of the insurgency. It pretty much came to a crescendo as we were leaving in the spring of 2004.

TERRENCE MCNALLY: Yours was the first reserve unit awarded the combat infantry badge since the Korean War …

PAUL RIECKHOFF: Right, there's a pretty unprecedented level of involvement for the National Guard and Reserve. During the initial invasion, among the first couple of hundred thousand that went across the border, Reserve and Guard made up a pretty small percentage of the overall force structure, something like ten or fifteen percent. Now, close to 50 percent of our overall force structure are National Guard and Reserve.

When I came home after the first year of the war, most of my friends and colleagues in the National Guard didn't think they were going to go. We never thought that a few years later over 80 percent of the National Guard and Reserve would be deployed throughout the theater of Iraq. At that point, our guard unit hadn't been actively in combat since Korea, neither had any other unit in the National Guard, so it was really something new.

TERRENCE MCNALLY: You're one of the founders of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America [formerly Operation Truth]. How did that happen?

PAUL RIECKHOFF: Well I think, like Sean and Jimmy, when I came home I was pissed off and dissatisfied with the dialogue. In the spring of 2004, John Kerry and George Bush were throwing the Iraq war back and forth like a political football. And to be honest with you, nobody really knew what the heck they were talking about. The news media was dominated by Martha Stewart and what color pajamas Michael Jackson was wearing, and the country didn't really seem connected with the war.

We felt it was about time to inject people who'd been on the ground into the discussion. We formed IAVA last summer, and have been focused primarily on trying to connect people with the war, giving them a way to get involved. Our website has been a real hub for veterans to connect and also for people to find out more about what's happening in the veterans movement, as well as on the ground in Iraq.

I don't care what George Bush tells you, our military's been run into the ground. More than half of our folks are there for a second time, the divorce rates have doubled, we're now moving combat units out of Korea and out of training units in the United States to perform combat missions in Iraq, recruiting numbers are in the toilet, and retention numbers will soon fall. At the end of the day, he's really destroyed our military, and that will have long-term effects for our national security for decades.

TERRENCE MCNALLY: Jimmy Massey, why did you enlist?

JIMMY MASSEY: I enlisted in 1992. I grew up working class, sometimes poor, and I went to college for a year after I graduated from high school. I ran out of money, and I took a job working in the wool fields in New Orleans. And that fell short, so I found myself basically homeless living on the streets of New Orleans. And I was on my way to a job interview when I passed by a Marine recruiter who was pumping gas in his car. And he motioned me over, and I went and talked to him and he bought me lunch, and by the end of the day I was nodding north and south and ready to join the Marines.

But the reason I joined -- this was shortly after the first Gulf War, and I felt that at that point we had kind of cured or healed the ghosts of Vietnam, and I was going in for primarily tangible benefits. And so I went in and I spent several years, and I enjoyed my time and career that I was in. The Marines taught me very valuable lessons, intangible traits and that sort of thing.

But I basically became indifferent to the military or the Marine Corps while I was on recruiting duty. I started to realize what I was doing was in fact economic conscripting young men and women into the military. And I realized that I myself was an economic conscript. And I began to realize that as far as us being a first-world economic power, we fell short as far as having a free health care system for Americans and free education system, since I've traveled abroad.

So I went into Iraq with already indifferent feelings toward the military. But I did feel that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. I went into the Marine Corps during a time and period when the Cold War had just ended, and we were searching for a new enemy.

TERRENCE MCNALLY: Let me ask you about your actions since you returned. You saw combat -- from what I've read you were horrified by what you experienced?

JIMMY MASSEY: Yes, primarily the killing of innocent civilians. That's where I really began to question our overall motives. My questions to my command became, how do you tell a 25-year-old Iraqi male who just witnessed his brother being killed at a checkpoint, how do you tell this young man not to become an insurgent? So I was very critical of our mission and what we were performing and the lack of humanitarian support to the Iraqi people.

TERRENCE MCNALLY: If you could say one thing to the American people, what would you say?

SEAN HUZE: Accountability and responsibility. I bring up these two words because the American public are largely responsible for where we are right now, therefore they are accountable for our nation's failure in Iraq and diminishing status abroad. We sat idly by and accepted the Supreme Court's anointment of George Bush. We allowed ourselves to be manipulated following 9/11 and adopted the "any Muslim will do" attitude that afforded the administration the opportunity to use 9/11 to justify Iraq, a nation that had nothing to do with the attacks.

We then watched as Karl Rove twisted and turned an election away from the issues (out of necessity, since his candidate had failed on virtually every one of them) and let it become a smear campaign. Whether you voted for Bush or not, we collectively failed by extending his reign. If you voted for Kerry, like I did, then you have to ask if you did enough to spread that message of hope for our country. Again, based on the results, you have to accept the bitter fact that the answer is no, we did not.

TERRENCE MCNALLY: If you could say one thing to U.S. leaders, Bush administration, what would you say?

SEAN HUZE: Again, accountability and responsibility. While the American public is to blame for allowing itself to be manipulated, this administration is to blame for the manipulation. The war in Iraq has been a total failure and an abuse of power. Whether it's the world's second-largest oil reserve, a strategic location for a U.S. presence to intimidate that region of the world or a personal vendetta against Saddam Hussein, none of these justify the loss of life and the billions of dollars that the U.S. taxpayer is paying. Bush and the rest of this administration must be held accountable for their colossal failures following 9/11, chiefly focusing on Iraq while Osama bin Laden is still at large, and for manipulating intelligence, lying to the U.N., and for the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis and U.S. service members.

TERRENCE MCNALLY: What do other service personnel or vets have to say?

SEAN HUZE: While the military ranks tend to be more conservative than the nation as a whole, more and more veterans of this war are becoming disillusioned. For many of us it all goes back to WMD, the president's primary -- or sole -- justification for the invasion. When they weren't found -- hard to find something that is nonexistent -- the ever-morphing rationale for the war is disheartening for those fighting it. With an ever increasing number of KIA and WIA, along with the heavy toll on the Iraqi civilian population, more and more vets are asking, "Is our sacrifice worth it?"

PAUL RIECKHOFF: Recently, I got an email from a very close buddy serving as an officer in Ramadi. He speaks with a candor and level of frustration that you won't hear from the generals. Check this out:
Paul,
I wish I had the time or energy or memory capacity to describe to you how wrong this whole thing has gone. It's just as you described it a couple years ago. We can make a difference here, and I believe in the mission as it looks on paper. But your president and his brain-dead colleagues aren't even trying to give us what we need to do it. The add-on armor HMMWVs are a joke. The terrorists target them b/c they know they offer no protection. The M1114s have good armor, but every time we lose one (I had one blown up Monday, driver had his femoral artery cut -- will recover fully -- b/c there apparently is no armor or very weak armor under the pedals) it's impossible to replace them. So now I have to send yet another add-on armored vehicle outside the wire daily.
The M1114s also have certain mechanical defects, known to the manufacturer, for which there is apparently no known fix. For example, on some of them (like mine) if it stalls or you turn it off, you cannot restart it if the engine is hot. We have to dump 3 liters of cold water on a solenoid in order to start it again. Not that much fun when your vehicle won't start in Indian country. I wonder if DoD is getting a refund for the contract. Speaking of contracts, KBR is a joke. I can't even enumerate the problems with their service, but I guarantee they do not receive less money based on how many of the showers don't work, or how many of us won't eat in the chow hall often because we get sick every time we do.
There is so much. I could go on forever. The worst thing, which we have discussed, is that they are playing these bullshit numbers games to fool America about troop strength. If they stopped paying KBR employees $100,000 to do the job of a $28,000 soldier, maybe they'd have enough money to send us enough soldiers to do the job. As it stands we have no offensive capability in the most dangerous city on earth. General Shinseki should write an Op/Ed that basically says, "I told you so." Idiots.
Where are the AC-130s? The Apaches? They have them in far less active AOs (areas of operations). All we ever get is a single Huey and Cobra team, both of which are older than I am. It's such a joke. They're not even trying. At all. They have Apaches in Tikrit but Hueys in Ramadi.
I wish every American could see this for him/herself. Registering your frustration at the ballot box isn't nearly enough. There should be jail terms for this.
TERRENCE MCNALLY: This has been very brief considering the wealth of experience that the three of you bring. Thank you for putting your lives on the line in Iraq and thank you for putting your consciences on the line since your return.
Interviewer Terrence McNally hosts Free Forum on KPFK 90.7FM, Los Angeles (streaming at kpfk.org). To find out when "The Ground Truth" screens, visit the Sundance Film Festival website.
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