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Winter Soldier: "This Isn't Just Some Isolated Incident"

If there's a common thread between Friday's panels and this morning's panels at the Winter Soldier hearings, it's the dreadful knowledge that, for all the stories told, there are many, many more.

"We're really packing ten panels into this," said one speaker named Jeff Key, an openly gay veteran from Alabama, at a session on gender and sexuality in the military. "... I wanna say something that makes a difference." But with only a few minutes to recount their experiences -- or those of other people -- there's only so much they can say. Bringing together stories of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault, the panelists take deep breaths and apologize for only sharing a fraction of what they know.

"I'm not going to talk about every degrading and humiliating incident," said a veteran named Patty McCann. In truth, "I could talk for hours about that stuff." For a shocking number of female -- and some male -- veterans, "that stuff" includes rape -- at the hands of military superiors, from U.S. recruiters in the States to commanding officers in Iraq.

The Winter Soldier hearings are bringing home these and other rarely told stories of the war. With some 200 veterans arriving at a small college campus miles from the Capitol, it is an overwhelming gathering of people with incredible tales to tell; survivors who bear the scars and drive home the human cost of the war.

Others have set the scene, so it is perhaps unnecessary to describe the intense security, the rules of conduct, the small group of flag-wielding protesters who stood at the entrance of the National Labor College yesterday to intimidate and jeer at those taking part in what is, in a very real sense, a truth commission.

But those who might have been intimidated before will no longer be silenced. "I kept silent a lot when I felt like I should have spoken," Key said. "If I had said what I had on my mind," said another veteran named Joe Wheeler, " I would have been court-martialled."

Yet story after grisly story -- of violence against innocent civilians, of the macabre celebrations that followed such violence; after hearing grown men weep over things they did, and veteran after veteran apologize to the Iraqi people for the atrocities committed against them, the injustice of such misplaced priorities is palpable.

There's a strong focus here on the dehumanizing effects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, on the soldiers and on those they point their weapons upon. "Every veteran knows that the first person to become dehumanized is the soldier himself," said one speaker. Too many stories -- of being ordered to shoot women, children, of shooting dogs out of boredom when there were no people to kill -- have driven home the point. Pictures too. A photograph of part of a dead Iraqi man's face peeled onto a soldier's Kevlar helmet comes to mind.

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