A Soldier Speaks

Soldiers of the 'War on Terror' Speak Out

If all of America were to hear these voices, the occupation of Iraq would already be over.
"We're not bad people; not monsters. We're normal people caught in a horrible situation."
-Statement from Clifton Hicks, a tank gunner with the Army's 1st Cavalry Regiment and testifier at "Winter Soldier, Iraq and Afghanistan"


Over four days, we witnessed thirty hours of vetted statements from seventy two veterans, active duty soldiers, experts, and Iraqis who had the great courage to go public with their first-hand experiences as part of "Winter Soldier, Iraq and Afghanistan: Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations." A common thread emerged of soldiers who struggled with a questionable mission as occupiers of a country in the midst of a civil war, and Iraqi families being torn apart and terrified, terrified by-not grateful for-the presence of American soldiers and private mercenaries. The soldiers and veterans transfixed us with their words and graphic images that exposed the dark underbelly of the Iraq Occupation that the mainstream media have chosen to ignore, just as they ignored these groundbreaking hearings.

The national veterans organization, Iraq Vets Against the War (IVAW), held these hearings near Washington D.C. from March 13 to 16. They patterned them after the 1971 Winter Soldier hearings held in Detroit by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, which are now thought to be one of the turning points of that conflict. The title for the hearings comes from Thomas Paine who wrote in 1776, "These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of [their] country; but he that stands [by] it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman." Unlike the "summer soldiers" who often deserted their duties in Paine's time, "winter soldiers" carry on courageously through the darkness.

We tried to comprehend the enormous scale of the so-called "collateral damage" in Iraq as speakers cited surveys that estimated about a million Iraqi civilians have died since the U.S. invasion, and that over four million Iraqis were forced from their homes. The speakers told of Iraqis, being without power and water, begging for food and fuel, and only wanting foreign troops and the 180,000 private contractors and mercenaries to leave so they can begin to rebuild their devastated country.

The presenters at Winter Soldier went deeper than telling stories that once again confirm what we all should know: war is hell. They addressed the anguished question that naturally arises: How do you explain actions that would be criminal even in a war zone?

The soldiers and veterans explained how trickle-down abuse starts at the top ranks of the military hierarchy with institutionalized racism, sexual harassment, and assault on the lower ranks. They talked about their complete lack of training in Iraqi culture and language and their conditioning before leaving U.S. soil to think of Iraqis as "less than," as "Hajis;" a term once reserved for pilgrims to Mecca, now turned inside out to demean and dehumanize. "Haji" has become to the Iraq occupation what "Gook" became to the Vietnam and Korean wars. When people are dehumanized, it becomes easier to kill them.

We could not listen to the four days of accounts and imagine our country invaded Iraq to export the American dream of freedom and democracy. Even the ultraconservative former Federal Reserve chairman, Alan Greenspan, declared that "the prime motive for the war in Iraq was oil." It didn't take long for the soldiers and vets who spoke to come to the same conclusion once they experienced the reality on the ground.

As in all wars, if you haven't experienced it, it's hard to grasp the white-hot frustration, anger, and vengeful wrath that results when our soldiers have no reliable way to discern friend from foe and are under extreme duress at virtually all times in a near-country-wide combat zone. As the disillusionment over the injustice and the impossibility of the mission grows, so does the abuse of civilians. When soldiers, deployed two, three, four, and even five times, experience more and more casualties in their units-people with whom they share a bond that can be even stronger than family-their rage understandably erupts and they need to blame someone for their grief. Similar circumstances produced similar results in the jungles of Vietnam.

Kristofer Goldsmith was a good soldier, graduating at the top of his basic training class and receiving a 94.6 percent average in his Warrior Leadership Course. But after four deployments in Iraq and almost shooting a six-year-old boy, he said he became a "broken soldier." He was due to get out of the service when he, like some 80,000 other soldiers, was "stop-lossed" and ordered to redeploy to Iraq for a fifth time. Plagued by mental anguish the day before he was to leave, he tried to kill himself with alcohol and prescription pills. Although finally released, his discharge papers state, "Misconduct: Serious Offense" because of his suicide attempt. He showed the audience a picture of himself in uniform as the proud soldier, then slammed it down on the table saying "This boy is dead."

So many soldiers and veterans spoke of their noble motives for joining the military-especially after 9/11-but then having to face the ignoble inhumanity of this occupation that so compromised their values. Then they returned to a country that anointed them as the heroes they so wished to be. Is it any wonder they are conflicted and disillusioned with the contradictions? Is it any wonder that government statistics report that one in three returning soldiers has mental problems and that CBS News recently described the suicide rate among today's soldiers and vets as "epidemic?" As we continue to see with Vietnam vets, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a normal human response to the inhumanity of war.

We listened to Jason Hurd, a medic with ten years of Army service including tours of duty in Iraq: "But as time went on and the absurdity of war set in, they started taking things too far. Individuals from my unit indiscriminately and unnecessarily opened fire on innocent civilians as they were driving down the road on their own streets." He asked us all to see the war through the eyes of an Iraqi and consider how we might respond if a foreign army invaded our communities and terrorized our families.

The soldiers and vets described the shear mechanics of killing so many people. In story after story, we heard how Rules of Engagement slowly eroded to the point where it was too often left up to these young, very frightened, soldiers to determine for themselves if they "felt" threatened. Jason Lemieux, who served almost five years with the Marines, including the invasion and three tours in Iraq, described the rules he received: "[M]y commander told me that our mission was-and I quote-'to kill those who need to be killed and save those who need to be saved.' And with those words, he pretty much set the tone for the deployment." Too often, the Rules were reduced to "Shoot anything that moves."

Two Marines talked about trashing the country during the invasion. One of them, Brian Casler, served three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. As part of the invasion force, he said he and others in their unit defecated and urinated into the containers of food and water they threw at the welcoming children they encountered. To relieve the boredom during his first deployment, they demolished Babylonian ruins and "drove over the rubble for fun." After describing how they ransacked a public building, he said, "We found out later that we had shredded all of the birth certificates for the City of Fallujah."

Several speakers talked about the disrespect of the Iraqi dead. Michael Leduc, for example, told us about "Rotten Randy" and "Tony the Torso," the nicknames his Marine unit gave to the corpses they used for rifle practice.

Soldiers and vets also explained the practice of "reconnaissance by fire," where they'd shoot first into a house or a neighborhood in order to draw return fire. Then, instead of moving on the source of the return fire and incurring more risk to the unit, they'd respond with overwhelming firepower that devastated the entire building or area. Hart Vigas, a mortarman who served with the Army's 82nd Airborne for the invasion of Iraq, painted a word picture of the indiscriminate, "ground-shaking" destruction from C-130 Specter gunships. The students have learned from their teachers. A forward observer and drill instructor with the Army's 101st Airborne Division, Jessie Hamilton stated that the Iraqi forces "showed little or no restraint" when they responded to the slightest attack with such indiscriminate firing that the U.S. troops gave nicknames to their methods: 'spray and pray' and 'death blossom.' "Once the shooting started," he said, "death would blossom all around."

Clifton Hicks described an operation that resulted in an official estimate of 700 to 800 enemy dead. "Judging from what I saw on the ground," he said, "I'm willing to swear under oath in all honesty that while many enemy combatants were in fact killed, the majority of those so-called KIAs were in fact civilians attempting to flee the battlefield.

The gripping presentation and images from Jon Michael Turner, who served in Iraq with the 8th Marines, were, like so many personal stories we've heard, still bleeding with its raw truthfulness. "A lot of the raids and patrols we did were at night around three in the morning . . . . And what we would do is just kick in the doors and terrorize the families." After he described segregating the women, the children, and the men, he said, "If the men of the household were giving us problems, we'd go ahead and take care of them anyway we felt necessary, whether it be choking them or slamming their head against the walls. . . . On my wrist, there's Arabic for 'F you.' I got that put on my wrist just two weeks before we went to Iraq, because that was my choking hand, and any time I felt the need to take out aggression, I would go ahead and use it."

He was one of the first to speak of these things but far from the last. Like so many other speakers, he said this kind of situation was the norm for him and for others, not the exception. With a forced smile that constrained his quivering lips, he closed with an apology to the Iraqi people: "I just want to say that I am sorry for the hate and destruction that I have inflicted on innocent people. . . . until people hear about what is going on with this war, it will continue to happen and people will continue to die. I am sorry for the things that I did. I am no longer the monster that I once was."

Describing the heartache that results from not being able to identify your enemy, Jason Washburn, a Marine who served four years and completed three tours of duty in Iraq, said this: "If the town or the city that we were approaching was a known threat, if the unit that went through the area before we did took a high number of casualties, we were basically allowed to shoot whatever we wanted. . . . I remember one woman was walking by, carrying a huge bag, and she looked like she was heading towards us. So we lit her up with the Mark 19, which is an automatic grenade launcher. And when the dust settled, we realized that the bag was only full of groceries. And, I mean, she had been trying to bring us food, and we blew her to pieces for it."

Soldiers and vets told how superior officers instructed them on the official ways to torment and beat detainees. Andrew Duffy, a medic who served on the trauma team at the Abu Ghraib military prison, put it this way, "You can't spell abuse without 'Abu.'" They were told to use the term "detainee" because, unlike "prisoner of war," there are no laws protecting detainees. While he rocked back and forth in his seat nervously, Mathew Childess, a Marine infantryman who served two tours in Iraq, referred to beating detainees and "breaking fingers." When a particular detainee begged for food and water, he took the man's hat, wiped himself with it, and stuffed it into the man's mouth.

Like Turner, numerous soldiers and veterans stared into the cameras that were recording the hearing for broadcast and pled for forgiveness from the Iraqi people now that they were distanced from the madness in Iraq in an apparent attempt to regain some of what had been lost. For many, their hands trembled as they talked and, along with us witnesses, were moved to tears. At other times, so many only revealed that thousand-yard stare we've seen too many times on the faces of Vietnam vets who carry the scars of that war.

We sat engulfed in the horror, sorrow, and grief of the soldiers' experiences and wondered how we could transform this to help our children and grandchildren reach an understanding so that they can make wise decisions when they have the opportunity to serve their community and country at the local homeless shelter, the voting booth, the peace march, or the armed forces.

Some vets like Jeff Lucey couldn't speak, so his parents spoke in his stead. His father said his grown Marine son came home so haunted by what he had done and witnessed that he drank heavily to anesthetize his pain-a coping strategy mentioned by many of the vets who spoke. His parents said Veterans Affairs (VA) told them they couldn't assess him for PTSD until he was alcohol free. Although he wouldn't talk about the trauma he experienced, Jeff would ask his father to hold him on his lap and rock him so he could feel safe. Jeff's father said the last time he was able to hold his son was when he cut his body down from the rafters at their home where Jeff had hung himself with a hose.

Those who sell the invasion and occupation as a "just war" will deny that these first-hand accounts are part of the whole truth or they will simply dismiss the speakers as liars and traitors, which is already happening. They will continue to entice new advocates and a never-ending stream of recruits, all made possible by a gutless Congress, a compliant media, an apathetic public, and a bottomless military budget, including $4 billion annually for recruiting.

Repeatedly, the speakers stated that they welcomed the opportunity to testify as to the accuracy of their statements in a legal proceeding. Luis Montalvan, a captain with 17 years of service in the Army, stated, "I would like nothing better than to testify under oath to Congress." He then quoted President Theodore Roosevelt: "To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public." __
Cynthia Orange is a free lance writer, a creative writing teacher, and book author. Michael Orange served with the 1st Marines in Vietnam (1969-70) and authored, Fire in the Hole: A Mortarman in Vietnam (Writers Club Press, 2001). They have been married since 1973 and live in St. Paul, Minnesota.