Speaking the Ground Truth

At any given hour, on any given day over the last five months, the American people could turn on the radio or television, or surf the web, and find an abundance of Pentagon officials, policy wonks and retired generals analyzing the war in Iraq.

While the American people can benefit from these pundits, it is a disservice to our democracy to conduct such discussions without the most critical perspective – that of those who have served on the front lines. Our troops have first-hand experience and can offer effective solutions to the military’s current dilemmas. Yet, there is a tremendous gap in the current debate when the perspective of the men and women who served on the ground is absent. We must narrow that gap. How? By giving a voice back to the troops.

I got home from Iraq five months ago after serving with the Army for nearly a year as an infantry platoon leader. My men and I have barely begun to work through the multitude of issues that have emerged after being at war. Things don’t simply end when you put your uniform away. Readjustment for veterans is a complicated process that is never seamless, but there is one element of my integration that I never could have anticipated – frustration with the way Iraq looks from over here. Absent of the troops’ voices, Americans are basing their opinion of the war, and issues facing our troops on reporting and dialogue that more resembles “the telephone game” than an authoritative account of what is happening there. Only the men and women on the front lines can give you the real deal.

There are two major reasons that this voice has not been heard during the current war. First, there are fewer new veterans who can be involved in the dialogue, and second, those who can often fear retribution for doing so.

In World War II, Korea and Vietnam, the military was largely made up of draftees who completed their tours, left the military behind and returned to civilian life. This allowed them to serve a uniquely informed role in the public discourse concerning the ongoing war. Back in their home towns, they talked with people in the workplace, in bars and at the dinner table. Soldiers returning from the first war of the television era, Vietnam, even took to the airwaves.

Today, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are being fought by a very different all-volunteer force, which makes up a smaller percentage of the overall population than in any major combat conflict. Also contributing to the lack of dialogue is the fact that most Iraq veterans are not really “done” with their service. With the military severely overextended, our troops are being recycled through the combat zones and subjected to multiple combat tours. They aren’t talking to you on the street, because most of them are either overseas, or preparing to deploy. This creates a situation that leaves the general public’s access to unfiltered stories from Iraq veterans limited.

Many return and are still bound to the military, either serving in the National Guard or Reserves, or as a member of the nebulous Individual Ready Reserves (IRR). Most have no idea what their legal rights are with regard to talking about their experiences and offering analysis. This is especially true for reservist and national guardsmen, who make up roughly 40% of our forces in Iraq and have never in our nation’s history been used so extensively.

Troops do indeed have a right to speak out – if not an obligation. However, few are aware that while serving in the military they can attend rallies, support candidates, and talk publicly about their experiences and those of their families, as long as they are not in uniform or using their military titles. Even fewer are aware that there are currently five members of Congress who now serve in the National Guard or Reserves, who freely and regularly offer public opinions – including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). A senator’s legal rights are no different from those of a 19-year old private first class.

The war in Iraq is the most critical issue in the November election. If returning veterans are silent, we risk allowing candidates from both parties to escape their responsibility to address the problems that plague our military. Why haven’t candidates, or the media for that matter, addressed the tens of thousands of veterans coming home with serious psychological problems? Where are the front page headlines on proposed budget cuts to the Department of Veterans Affairs? Who is shining a light on the drastic need to institutionalize family support systems and increase pay for those called to war? Why have we heard so little about the possible effects of Larium, the anti-malaria medication widely administered to troops serving in the Middle East? What are the effects of the Pentagon’s “stop-loss” policy, which locks in troops who have completed their contractual obligation? Most importantly, what is the exit strategy for war in Iraq?

Our first commander in chief, George Washington said, “When we assumed the soldier, we did not lay aside the citizen.” Many years, and many wars later, those are still words for us to live by. Good soldiers know when to speak and when not to. For those of us who can, this is the time.

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