A Soldier Speaks: Robert Sarra

Editor's Note: This is the fourth in a series of profiles of 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 unless the nation pays them the attention and care that they deserve. We at AlterNet believe that in an election defined by a deep and bitter partisan divide, it is the one issue that can and must bring us all together as Americans.

When Rob Sarra headed out to Iraq in January, 2003 as an infantry sergeant, he had no illusions about the darker side of combat. But the 31-year old was eager to do his duty to his country and to the United States Marine Corps.

But one incident would change almost everything this soldier believed in for the most of his life. It was the day he opened fire on an unarmed Iraqi woman. When he saw the white flag in hands of a dead woman that he'd mistaken for a suicide bomber, Rob began to question the war, and his role as one of its foot soldiers. And though he remained devoted to the Marine Corps, he never felt quite the same again about his presence in Iraq.

Rob returned home in June, 2003, and quit the military soon after. Still suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, his entry into civilian life was marked by alcoholism and later therapy. Rob finally made peace with his war experience by taking on the mantle of an anti-war activist – an unlikely vocation for someone who – as he told the students in Texas – had always seen protesters as hippies who had "no right to protest and just hated the military." He is now the co-founder of Iraq Veterans Against the War, the only anti-war organization comprised entirely of soldiers who served in Iraq.

Rob spoke to AlterNet about his road from soldier to activist from his apartment in Chicago.

Is there one memory from the war that still stays with you?

Yeah, there are a bunch, actually. The day we were getting ready to cross the border, I'll never forget that. My whole battalion was gathered around our commander. We were out in the middle of the Kuwaiti desert. I remember looking around at the faces of all the guys, and all of sudden, we all knew: this was it. This was the real deal. Our battalion chaplain was anointing everyone with oil. It was a very emotional time.

The next one is moving up towards Baghdad, going through the city of Al Nassiriyah. That was really our first taste of warfare. Seeing the dead Iraqis and destroyed vehicles … Getting shot at for the first time. I look back on it and wonder if I was really there. It's just a very surreal thing.

The incident with the woman still stays with me – though I try to keep it at the back of my mind.

I was sitting on top of an armored vehicle about 200 yards away. A woman starts walking out of this town towards a second armored vehicle with a bunch of Marines on it. They were waving their arms and telling her to stop, but she kept moving towards them. She was dressed in all-black, completely covered, wearing a burqa. And she had a bag under one arm.

My thought process at the time was that either she was going to walk up to this vehicle and explode – and kill a bunch of Marines. Or I can take shot at her and stop it from happening. We'd had reports of suicide bombers in the area. So I raised my rifle and fired two shots. As the second shot went off, the Marines in the other vehicle opened up on her, with everything from M-16s to 40 millimeter grenades.

But as she hit the ground, she pulled a white flag out her bag.

At that point, I was just devastated. I threw my weapon down on the deck of the vehicle and started crying. I just couldn't understand why she hadn't stopped or why it had happened.

That just stayed with me. I think it changed the course of the war for me.

When you look back, how has this war changed you?

I think it's opened my eyes. I think it really reinforced my feelings on what these guys [soldiers] sacrifice, and what they are sacrificing now. And what an honorable job it is.

It opened my eyes to political things. It got me looking into myself and looking at the world and the decisions that our politicians make as pretty serious things. I wasn't a very political person before this.

So now I'm part of Iraq Veterans Against the War – something that two years ago I never thought I would be doing. I'm speaking out against the war, and speaking very publicly. I'm going to schools and colleges. I'm also speaking out at protests. So it's just been a very big change for me.

What I've been doing, though, is to stay non-partisan. I've been doing that because people have got to remember that this isn't something political. There are both Democrats and Republicans with kids over there fighting. If you say, "If you're Republican, you're for the war. And if you're Democrat, you're against the war," it just doesn't make sense.

For the guys over there, politics isn't a factor to them. It's about fighting for that guy next to you and getting home in one piece and getting back to your family.

What are your hopes and fears now that you look at the future?

I hope that this war is going to end sometime soon. That we can bring all these guys home and Iraq will be stable. That we didn't just go in there and stir up a huge hornet's nest.

My biggest fear is that our country is going to go on doing these pre-emptive strikes against others – places like Iran and North Korea. That we're going to jump into another war without finishing this one.

I'm also afraid of a military strike back here in the United States. I really don't think we're safer because we invaded Iraq.

Personally, I'm just hoping to be able to make a difference. I think already have – a little bit. I've opened people's eyes to what warfare is all about.

If you had five minutes with the president – whomever it may be on Nov. 3, George Bush or John Kerry – what would you say to him?

I would ask him what his plan is to get us out of Iraq. What the next step is. And I would like to drive home to whomever is elected that the next time we go to war, it should be for a very good reason. It should be as a last resort because there's been a lot of suffering on both sides. Many, many, many young men and women are going to be coming home that have experienced the worst in life.

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