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Troop Massacre in Baghdad Puts War Trauma Under the Spotlight

SAN FRANCISCO, May 11 (IPS) -- A U.S. soldier shot five of his colleagues dead at a base in Baghdad, Iraq Monday. The Pentagon says at least two other people were hurt in the shootings and the gunman is in custody.

Details are still coming in, but the incident reportedly happened at a stress clinic where troops get help for personal issues or combat trauma.

At an afternoon press conference, Secretary of Defence Robert Gates was tight-lipped about the details of the shooting, the first such spree by a U.S. soldier through six years of war in Iraq.

"We're still in the process of gathering information on exactly what happened," Gates said, "but if the preliminary reports are confirmed, such a tragic loss of life at the hands of our own forces is a cause for great and urgent concern."

A military statement said the shooting took place at around 2 p.m. local time in the mental health clinic at Camp Liberty, a sprawling base next to Baghdad International Airport. The Pentagon said the names of the dead soldiers were being withheld pending family notification. The name of the shooter was also not released.

Veterans' advocates say the details of the incident will be critical in assessing whether the killings could have been prevented.

"We need to know if this soldier was examined by a physician before or after deployment and if any mental health symptoms were observed," said Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense.

"We know from repeated Congressional investigations and hearings that the military has knowingly sent soldiers with physical and mental health diagnoses and severe symptoms back to the war zones. In some cases, the service members killed themselves or others," he said.

More than 230 active soldiers, airmen and marines committed suicide last year -- the highest military suicide statistic in nearly 30 years. In January, more U.S. soldiers killed themselves than died in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

In November 2006, a New York National Guardsman was arraigned in a military court on charges of murdering two officers in an explosion at one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces.

The series of incidents leaves some observers to recall the military's internal meltdown during the Vietnam War.

"In December of 1972, the Defense Department acknowleged that somewhere between 800 and 1,000 officers had actually been blown up by their subordinates," explained Vietnam war widow Penny Coleman, author of the book Flashback: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: Suicide and the Lessons of War.

Back then, the killings were called 'fragging' because fragmentation bombs were usually used.

"The fragmentation devices were the weapon of choice because they left no evidence. There were obviously no fingerprints," Coleman said. "There was no way of tracking it."

Iraq war veterans watched the news come in with a mixture of shock, outrage, and resignation.

Former U.S. Army Captain Luis Carlos Montalvan received two Purple Hearts for wounds sustained during his two tours in Iraq. He first saw the news in the waiting room in Manhattan's Veterans' Affairs hospital, where Montalvan and his fellow veterans had all been waiting for hours to see a doctor.

"We were just shaking our heads," he said.

Montalvan said many of his fellow veterans felt a mix of irony and horror that while they were waiting for hours to receive government health care stateside, their active duty counterparts were being killed by one of their own in a clinic in the war zone.

"It's horrifying," he added, "that there were men and women in a combat stress center at Camp Liberty who were going to seek help and now their relatives back home who thought that their loved ones were going to get treatment are dead. They went to get treatment and they're dead. Can you imagine the grief?"

At the Pentagon press conference this afternoon, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said the military's investigation will include an examination into the number of tours the suspect had served in Iraq and whether he had been deployed to the war zone despite an earlier mental health diagnosis.

Mullen said the shooting spree "does speak to me about the need for us to redouble our efforts in terms of dealing with the stress [of war], dealing with those kinds of things."

After eight years of war in Afghanistan and six years of war in Iraq, the Pentagon reports nearly 800,000 U.S. soldiers have served more than one tour in the war zone. According to the non-partisan Rand Corporation, approximately 300,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression, while another 320,000 have sustained a traumatic brain injury, physical brain damage often caused by roadside bombs and mortars.

"The first impulse is to be angry at a service member for taking lives, that's the first inclination," Montalvan added, "but then you can't help but ask: 'What caused this person to be this upset, this angry?' And the likely conclusion is that this person could not get help."

Letters from an Abu Ghraib Interrogator

Few people have thought as much about the morality of the U.S. occupation of Iraq than Joshua Casteel, a former U.S. Army interrogator who served at Abu Ghraib prison in the wake of the detainee abuse scandal there.

Once a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and raised in an evangelical Christian home, Casteel became a conscientious objector while he was stationed at the prison.

It wasn't the kind of abuse shown in the famous graphic images that made him feel morally compelled to leave the military -- Casteel says that kind of behavior had ceased by the time he showed up in June 2004 -- but the experience of gleaning information speaking to the detainees in their own language.

Those experiences, and the spiritual awakening Casteel experienced inside the walls of the prison, are contained in Letters from Abu Ghraib, a compendium of e-mail messages he sent home from the prison, which was published last month by Iowa's Essay Press.

The e-mails, compiled in a lean 118-page volume, are less concerned with the details of prison operations than their moral implications. By what right, the former interrogator asks, does one derive the authority to question prisoners as part of a military occupation?

It's an important question to ask and timely too given the steady growth in the number of Iraqi prisoners in U.S. custody over the course of its occupation of Iraq. Pentagon statistics show the U.S. military now holds over 24,000 "security detainees" in Iraq -- more than double the number incarcerated by Coalition at the time of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal four and a half years ago.

U.S. forces are holding nearly all of these persons indefinitely, without an arrest warrant, without charge, and with no right to any type of open legal proceedings. It's perhaps a mark of the failure of the United States' political and religious establishments that it falls to a U.S. Army Specialist like Joshua Casteel to wrestle with the moral difficulties of these massive imprisonments. Letters from Abu Ghraib shows how the ethical failures of their leaders affect soldiers on the ground.

When he first arrives at Abu Ghraib's interrogation center, Casteel tells his family he really loves his work. "I see my job much more as a Father Confessor than an interrogator," he writes, "As a Confessor you cannot coerce a person to reveal that which they wish to hide. A Confessor's aim is to help the one confessing to be sincere, to arrive at the kind of contrition that actually desires self-disclosure -- and to that end, empathy and understanding go a long way."

But Casteel, who prays daily and considers "keeping the liturgy with others and taking the Eucharist -- Communion" to be "the most important part of the week," begins to feel uncomfortable after just a few weeks on the ground.

"The weight of the job sometimes is more painfully present to me than at other times," he writes a month into the deployment. He is uncomfortable "exploiting" prisoners for their "intelligence" value rather then interacting with them as fully equal human beings.

Making matters worse is that many of the detainees he interrogated turned out to be completely innocent.

"I was constantly being asked, 'Why am I being held here? I want answers!'" Casteel told IPS. "But that was my job. We were supposed to be finding answers to our questions, but we kept being put into situations that were incredibly puzzling because talking to people was like trying to get blood from a turnip. They were the ones that had a greater justification for the need to have answers."

Faced with such a dilemma, Casteel turns to an army chaplain for help. "We talked, I vexed and I summoned whatever strength we could conclude upon to go back to my interrogation … He prayed me back into combat," Casteel writes. "I was no longer afraid to demand authority, to play upon certain weaknesses of my detainee, and to question in a most heated fashion -- because ultimately, I thought, it would lead me to a more accurate assessment of the veracity of his statements.”

"I transgressed no lines of 'proper conduct,' but I certainly, and without hesitation, used a man's anxieties, weaknesses and fears, and my particular place of power and dominance to assess him according to his word … And I even left with what I thought was a clearer picture of the man I was assessing -- perhaps to his benefit. So, why did I feel like a complete failure?"

The answer to his question comes in October 2004, five months into his tour at Abu Ghraib.

"I had an interrogation with a 22-year-old Saudi Arabian who was very straightforward that he had come to Iraq to conduct jihad," Casteel said. "We started having a conversation about religion and ethics and he told me that I was a very strange man who was a Christian but didn't follow the teachings of Jesus to love my enemy and pray for the persecuted … I told him that I thought he was right and that there was a massive contradiction involved with me doing my job and being a Christian."

"I wanted to have a conversation with him about ethics and the cycle of vengeance and how idiotic it was that his people said it was okay for him to come and kill me and my people told me it was okay to kill him," he said in an interview. "Why is it that we can't find a different path together?"

Since that type of conversation was not possible as a U.S. Army interrogator, Joshua Casteel filed an application for discharge as a conscientious objector. Much to his surprise, his command endorsed it, and offered to speed his transition out of the Army. He now hopes to serve as a bridge between conservative Christians and the antiwar left.

He hopes Letters from Abu Ghraib will "give conservative Christians an unfiltered picture of one Christian's wrestling with violence and also help the secular world get a backstage pass to the way a conservative Christian operates."

Since his discharge, Casteel converted to Catholicism, attracted by the Church's tradition of "social teaching," and has worked with other like-minded Catholics to push the Church play a more active role in bringing the war to an end.

He's excited his book has been assigned to students at a number of Catholic high schools in the Midwest and the former interrogator has been invited to speak at religious schools from New Jersey to Colorado.

"Catholics are 30 percent of the military. They're equally 30 percent of Congress," he said. "The Vatican had a strong rebuke of the Iraq war but the Iraq war could not have happened were it not for Catholics. Christ has turned up in the people of Iraqi bodies and it's Iraq that's getting crucified and it's largely Christian America that's allowed to be prosperous in the midst of it."

John McCain Adores the War and Ignores the Warriors

Everyone knows McCain is a former prisoner of war, but did you know he refuses to support a bipartisan effort to modernize the GI Bill and has voted against nearly every effort to increase funding for healthcare and disability benefits for wounded soldiers? Did you know that Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) gave him a D+ when they scored his voting record (whereas Obama got a B+ and Clinton an A-). Do you know that he voted with the interests of Disabled American Veterans (DAV) only 20 percent of the time?

Take a moment to look at his record:

In 2005 and 2006, McCain voted against expanding mental healthcare and readjustment counseling for service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, efforts to expand inpatient and outpatient treatment for injured veterans, and proposals to lower co-payments and enrollment fees veterans must pay to obtain prescription drugs.

"There was an effort to increase the budget for veterans' healthcare beyond what President [George W.] Bush had requested as part of his budget," DAV spokesperson Dave Autry explains. "The idea was to increase funding for veterans' healthcare by cutting back on tax breaks for the wealthy. The proposals were pushed by Democrats and opposed by Republicans in almost straight party-line votes."

In other words, John McCain's votes indicate he would rather give tax cuts to the rich than care for wounded veterans (Neither McCain's campaign office, nor his Senate press secretary responded to telephone and email inquiries for this story).

McCain's vote also helped defeat a proposal by Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow that would have made veterans' healthcare an entitlement program like social security, so that medical care would not become a political football to be argued over in Congress each budget cycle.

Up until recently, these votes hadn't haunted John McCain. Reporters habitually rehashed his story of heroism four decades ago without looking at his voting record in the present. But now that he's the presumptive Republican nominee for president, a coalition of veterans groups, liberal activists, and Democratic PACs have decided to target McCain over his failure to support S.22, a bipartisan effort to improve the GI Bill.

The bill, by Sens. Jim Webb, D-Va., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., would bring back WWII-era measures that provided vets with full college tuition along with room and board. Right now, those vets who try to use the GI Bill to attend school are eligible to receive only $1,100 a month for a maximum of three years. It is an amount that doesn't come close to covering the cost of a modern college education.

So far 57 senators have signed on as co-sponsors. But the bill remains three votes short of the supermajority necessary to kill a filibuster.

"It's time for Sen. McCain to stand up for veterans and be a leader," the chairman of VoteVets, Iraq war veteran Jon Soltz, said in a statement. "The success or failure of this bill largely rests on his shoulders. He is the de facto leader of the Republican Party. If he signs onto the bill, it will pass and become law. If he doesn't support it, he needs to explain why he doesn't."

Earlier this month, VoteVets launched an on-line video and petition drive targeting McCain. The four-minute video was produced by Brave New Films (which brought us Outfoxed and Iraq for Sale) with funds from retired Gen. Wesley Clark's WesPAC. It features four veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan testifying on the problems they've faced with the current G.I. Bill.

"When I enlisted, I was under the impression that my college would be paid for, that I would have everything taken care of," Iraq war veteran Joshua Drake says in the video.

"The current G.I. Bill is inadequate," the former Navy corpsman added. "It hasn't kept up with the cost of inflation or the cost of tuition or the cost of books ... If I could talk to John McCain, I would try to appeal to him as a fellow veteran."

On April 29, more than 100 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans held a press conference on Capitol Hill with the same message, in an effort to turn up the heat on McCain and other lawmakers.

McCain's response has been to propose his own, less expansive version of the GI Bill. Last week, he introduced a bill entitled the Enhancement of Recruitment, Retention, and Readjustment through Education Act, which is co-sponsored by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Richard Burr, R-N.C.

Their bill would modestly increase the amount of money available to veterans using the GI Bill from $1,100 to $1,500 a month (still less than the cost of tuition at many public universities and still for only three years). The bill would also close some bureaucratic loopholes that cause GI Bill benefits to count as income, which disqualifies many needy veterans from student loans.

In announcing his bill, McCain made no mention of the more ambitious effort being championed by Webb and Hagel or the increasing attacks leveled at him by partisan and veterans organizations.

"We have an obligation to provide unwavering support to our nation's veterans, and that is precisely what this legislation does," McCain said in a statement (he was out campaigning and did not attend the press conference announcing the bill). "Men and women who serve their country in uniform deserve the best education benefits we are able to give them."

Veterans groups were unimpressed.

"Sens. McCain, Graham and Burr are shortchanging our veterans and undermining America's heroes as they reach for the American dream," said VoteVets's Soltz. "Frankly, it hurts to have two veterans, like Sens. McCain and Graham treat us like this. We would expect that they would have more honor than that."

Vets Break Silence on Iraq War Crimes

U.S. veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are planning to descend on Washington from Mar. 13-16 to testify about war crimes they committed or personally witnessed in those countries.

"The war in Iraq is not covered to its potential because of how dangerous it is for reporters to cover it," said Liam Madden, a former Marine and member of the group Iraq Veterans Against the War. "That's left a lot of misconceptions in the minds of the American public about what the true nature of military occupation looks like."

Iraq Veterans Against the War argues that well-publicized incidents of U.S. brutality like the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the massacre of an entire family of Iraqis in the town of Haditha are not the isolated incidents perpetrated by "a few bad apples," as many politicians and military leaders have claimed. They are part of a pattern, the group says, of "an increasingly bloody occupation."

"The problem that we face in Iraq is that policymakers in leadership have set a precedent of lawlessness where we don't abide by the rule of law, we don't respect international treaties, so when that atmosphere exists it lends itself to criminal activity," argues former U.S. Army Sergeant Logan Laituri, who served a tour in Iraq from 2004 to 2005 before being discharged as a conscientious objector.

Laituri told IPS that precedent of lawlessness makes itself felt in the rules of engagement handed down by commanders to soldiers on the front lines. When he was stationed in Samarra, for example, he said one of his fellow soldiers shot an unarmed man while he walked down the street.

"The problem is that that soldier was not committing a crime as you might call it because the rules of engagement were very clear that no one was supposed to be walking down the street," he said. "But I have a problem with that. You can't tell a family to leave everything they know so you can bomb the shit out of their house or their city. So while he definitely has protection under the law, I don't think that legitimates that type of violence."

Iraq Veterans Against the War is calling the gathering "Winter Soldier," after a quote from the U.S. revolutionary Thomas Paine, who wrote in 1776: "These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman."

Organizers say video and photographic evidence will also be presented, and the testimony and panels will be broadcast live on Satellite TV and streaming video on ivaw.org.

Winter Soldier is modeled on a similar event held by Vietnam Veterans 37 years ago.

In 1971, over 100 members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War gathered in Detroit to share their stories with fellow citizens. Atrocities like the My Lai massacre had ignited popular opposition to the war, but political and military leaders insisted that such crimes were isolated exceptions.

"Initially even the My Lai massacre was denied," notes Gerald Nicosia, whose book "Home to War" provides the most exhaustive history of the Vietnam veterans' movement.

"The U.S. military has traditionally denied these accusations based on the fact that 'this is a crazy soldier' or 'this is a malcontent' -- that you can't trust this person. And that is the reason that Vietnam Veterans Against the War did this unified presentation in Detroit in 1971."

"They brought together their bona fides and wore their medals and showed it was more than one or two or three malcontents. It was medal-winning, honored soldiers -- veterans in a group verifying what each other said to try to convince people that these charges cannot be denied. That people are doing these things as a matter of policy."

Nicosia says the 1971 Winter Soldier was roundly ignored by the mainstream media, but that it made an indelible imprint on those who were there.

Among those in attendance was 27-year-old Navy Lieutenant John Kerry, who had served on a Swift Boat in Vietnam. Three months after the hearings, Nicosia notes, Kerry took his case to Congress and spoke before a jammed Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Television cameras lined the walls, and veterans packed the seats.

"Many very highly decorated veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia," Kerry told the committee, describing the events of the Winter Soldier gathering.

"It is impossible to describe to you exactly what did happen in Detroit -- the emotions in the room, and the feelings of the men who were reliving their experiences in Vietnam. They relived the absolute horror of what this country, in a sense, made them do."

In one of the most famous antiwar speeches of the era, Kerry concluded: "Someone has to die so that President Nixon won't be -- and these are his words -- 'the first president to lose a war.' We are asking Americans to think about that, because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

Nicosia says U.S. citizens and veterans find themselves in a similar situation today.

"The majority of the American people are very dissatisfied with the Iraq war now and would be happy to get out of it. But Americans are bred deep into their psyches to think of America as a good country and, I think, much harder than just the hurdle of getting troops out of Iraq is to get Americans to realize the terrible things we do in the name of the United States."

Wounded Vets Trade One Hell for Another

Last year, the United States woke up to the reality of hundreds of thousands of soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and began to grapple with what to do about it.

On Feb. 18, 2007, a headline titled "Soldiers Face Neglect, Frustration at Army's Top Medical Facility" splashed across the front page of one of the nation's premier newspapers, the Washington Post. The article, which described unsafe conditions and substandard care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, began with the story of Army Specialist Jeremy Duncan, who was airlifted out of Iraq in February 2006 with a broken neck and a shredded left ear, "nearly dead from blood loss."

"Behind the door of Army Spec. Jeremy Duncan's room, part of the wall is torn and hangs in the air, weighted down with black mold," the article read. "When the wounded combat engineer stands in his shower and looks up, he can see the bathtub on the floor above through a rotted hole. The entire building, constructed between the world wars, often smells like greasy carry-out. Signs of neglect are everywhere: mouse droppings, belly-up cockroaches, stained carpets, cheap mattresses."

The Post reported that patients inside Walter Reed, which lies just five miles from the White House, found it difficult to receive the care they were promised and felt they deserved.

When the story broke, politicians from both parties expressed outrage and promised solutions. Walter Reed's commander, Major General George Weightman, was fired almost immediately. Following him out the door was the Secretary of the Army, Frances Harvey.

On Mar. 6, President George W. Bush announced the formation of a bipartisan independent commission lead by former Republican Senator Bob Dole and Donna Shalala, the secretary of Health and Human Services under the Bill Clinton administration.

"It's unacceptable to me, it's unacceptable to you, it's unacceptable to our country, and it's not going to continue," Bush told the American Legion in a speech announcing the commission's formation. "My decisions have put our kids in harm's way. And I'm concerned about the fact that when they come back they don't get the full treatment they deserve."

Three weeks later, Bush paid a visit to Walter Reed, and apologized again: "I was disturbed by their accounts of what went wrong," Bush told Walter Reed's staff after a tour of the facility. "It is not right to have someone volunteer to wear our uniform and not get the best possible care. I apologize for what they went through, and we're going to fix the problem."

But the allegations raised in the Washington Post were not actually new. In February 2005, the exact same conditions had been raised in a damning series in the on-line magazine Salon. Wounded soldiers at Walter Reed, reporter Mark Benjamin wrote, are "overmedicated, forced to talk about their mothers instead of Iraq, and have to fight for disability pay. Traumatized combat vets say the Army is failing them, and after a year following more than a dozen soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital, I believe them."

Top Bush administration officials knew about Walter Reed's problems, but they had other priorities. Indeed, before the Washington Post put the facility's substandard conditions on its front page, President Bush's appointees at the Pentagon had strenuously lobbied Congress against funding military pensions, health insurance and benefits for widows of retirees. Their argument: that money spent caring for wounded soldiers and their families could be better spent on state-of-the-art military hardware or enticing new recruits to join the force.

In January 2005, Bush's Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness David Chu, the official in charge of such things, went so far as to tell the Wall Street Journal veterans' medical care and disability benefits "are hurtful" and "are taking away from the nation's ability to defend itself."

Before the scandal at Walter Reed broke in the Washington Post, the Bush administration ran programs for injured soldiers in much the same way it did the rest of the war -- primarily for the benefit of an elite group of private contractors.

In 2005, with tens of thousands of casualties already reported, a Pentagon commission recommended closing Walter Reed by 2011. When the commission report became public, the Bush administration moved to privatize the facility for as long as it would remain open, turning management of the hospital over to IAP World Services, a politically well-connected firm with almost no experience in military medicine.

In January 2006, the military awarded a five-year 120-million-dollar contract to Florida-based IAP, which had already faced scrutiny from Congress for unseemly profiteering after Hurricane Katrina. After the levees broke, FEMA ordered the company to deliver 211 million pounds of ice intended to cool food, medicine and sweltering victims of the storm. Instead, IAP had the ice trucked around the country in circles at taxpayers' expense, with much of it ending up in storage 2,500 kilometers away in Maine.

The company's leadership had an even more extensive record of corruption. Before going to work at IAP, company CEO Al Neffgen was a top executive at Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root, where he was responsible for "all work performed by KBR for the U.S. government." That included being hauled before Congressional committees to testify about why the company (which had earlier been run by Vice President Dick Cheney) had overcharged U.S. taxpayers by hundreds of millions of dollars while providing support for U.S. troops in Iraq.

Neffgren wasn't the only well-connected person at IAP. The company's president, the aptly named David Swindle, is also a former executive at Halliburton. One of its directors is Dan Quayle, Bush senior's vice president from 1989-1993.

Employees started to leave Walter Reed before the deal was even finalised, figuring they would lose their jobs anyway. When news of the contract first surfaced in 2005, 300 federal employees provided facilities management services at Walter Reed. That figure had dropped to fewer than 60 by Feb. 3, 2007, the day before IAP took over facilities management. When IAP did take over, the company replaced the remaining 60 employees with 50 private workers.

Inside Walter Reed, alarm bells were sounding. On Sep. 21, 2006, Garrison Commander Peter Garibaldi wrote a letter to the base's commanding general saying privatization had put "patient care services at risk of mission failure."

"We face the critical issues of retaining skilled personnel for the hospital and diverse professionals for the Garrison, while confronted with increased difficulty in hiring," he wrote.

No one took notice then, and little has been done since to improve care or lessen bureaucracy at Walter Reed or at the Pentagon and the VA's network of hospitals and clinics nationwide. Military hospitals are still short-staffed. Injured soldiers are still left alone for hours, or even days.

In September 2007, a Congressionally mandated report by the non-partisan Government Accountability Office found the Pentagon and VA care for service members suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury was "inadequate" with "significant shortfalls" of doctors, nurses and other caregivers necessary to treat wounded soldiers.

According to the GAO, "46 percent of the Army's returning service members who were eligible to be assigned to a (medical) unit had not been assigned due in part to staffing shortages." Over half of the military's special "Wounded Warrior Transition Units" had staffing shortfalls of more than 50 percent.

Key bases like Fort Lewis in Washington and Fort Carson in Colorado were short massive amounts of doctors, nurses, and squad leaders. In short, the Bush administration was simply not hiring enough doctors and nurses to care for what had become a tidal wave of injured soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In December, Congress put its solution forward -- folding a Wounded Warrior Bill designed to help disabled veterans into a massive 700-billion-dollar defense bill. But on Dec. 28, President Bush surprised many observers by vetoing the measure. Bush objected to a provision that would allow victims of Saddam Hussein's regime to seek compensation in court.

Congressional Democrats are now checking to see if they have the votes to override Bush's veto. If they don't, they may send the bill back to President Bush with the offending sections removed.

Either way, Veterans for Common Sense's Paul Sullivan says veterans are not likely to see major progress until 2009.

"Some of the problems may be solved in the next year if Congress fights hard but I do believe that the anti-veteran Bush administration does indeed need to go away so that real reform can be brought to the Department of Veterans' Affairs," Sullivan told IPS.

Another Senseless Murder in Iraq

IPS contributor Alaa Hassan was killed on his way to work last week. He was 35 years old. He is survived by his mother, four brothers, five sisters and his wife, who is pregnant with their first child.

Alaa was not killed for being a reporter. Indeed, he had only just begun helping IPS gather news. When fighters ambushed him and machine-gunned his car, it was simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time -- one of so many people killed seemingly for no reason in Iraq each day.

The same day Alaa was killed, Reuters reports 11 other violent incidents in Iraq -- including the car bombings of day laborers in Baquba, 50 km northeast of Baghdad, and of shoppers in the Shia Qadamiya district of Baghdad.

At least four Iraqi policemen and a U.S. soldier died in separate attacks across the country. In Baquba, the U.S. military admitted to killing a "noncombatant" during a raid on a civilian home.

Most of the people killed Jun. 28 will remain only numbers. Because we knew Alaa so well, we can tell his story.

Alaa lived in al-Tajiyyat neighborhood in northeast Baghdad. He managed the inventory of a stationery store in Baghdad's famed book market on Mutanabe Street. He lived near the Tigris river in housing that had been reserved for employees of the ministry of industry when Saddam Hussein was president. He lived next door to what was once an electronics factory and across the street from the former building of the Institute of Arab National Oil Studies. Both were looted after the U.S. invasion. After that, the U.S. government turned them into military bases. So Alaa's neighbourhood was regularly attacked by insurgents.

The only way from his neighbourhood to central Baghdad was to cross the al-Muthana bridge over the Tigris river, a regular spot for insurgent attacks. Because of an Iraqi police checkpoint and a bend, every car passing over the bridge has to slow down. Killings occur here many times a week.

When Alaa crossed the bridge Jun. 28, gunmen sprayed his car with machine-gun fire, killing him with six bullets. A second passenger was seriously injured.

The day he died, Alaa had worried aloud about crossing the bridge. A good friend, Abu Laith, had just been killed there. "He was just coming home from work and randomly someone showed up and shot and killed him," Alaa had said.

"I know it's dangerous to leave the house," he told his brother Salam over the phone. "But what can I do? I have to go on living."

Alaa was always in a difficult situation. "The Americans built a base that's in front of my house that used to be a government institute, and another one across the street," he told his brother.

"Now when we go out the Americans are right there at our front door. The wall for the American base is exactly in front of the house. Now it's not safe to go from the house to the main road just a half a kilometer away."

Alaa Hassan was born near ancient Babylon, one of ten children. His father was a courthouse clerk and his mother a housewife. As a young man, he moved to an area just outside Baghdad and worked as a computer programmer in the ministry of industry. In 2000, he met a young woman, and they married.

Under Saddam's reign, one could not get married (or open a shop or business, for that matter) without security clearance. But Alaa apparently married without following proper procedures. He and his wife ran into difficulties with the marriage; eventually someone reported his illegal marriage to the government. Alaa was held in a torture center for nine months in 2000.

"The family had to pay a bribe to find him," his brother Salam recalls. "He was held in a warehouse near the law college. They beat his hands and his body. He had bruises everywhere."

Salam recalls visiting Alaa where he was detained. "It was a big warehouse with a lot of rooms on the top floor. They would do the torture in an open area so all the other prisoners could see. Eventually, they decided to put him on trial. They sentenced him to 25 years in jail, but we paid a bribe so it was reduced to three years."

Alaa served his sentence at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison, among hardened criminals and political prisoners. He was incarcerated there until just before the U.S. invasion in 2003, when Saddam Hussein announced a general amnesty for all prisoners.

Alaa emerged from prison traumatized. He divorced his wife and moved back to Babylon.

He continued living with his family there for three months after the fall of Saddam, but eventually he decided to look for a job again. When a cousin found him a job in a stationery shop on Mutinabe street, he moved back to Baghdad.

He remarried three months before he was killed. He had just learned his wife was pregnant.

As with many Iraqi casualties, it has been difficult for Alaa's family to grieve his death. When one of his brothers called the Baghdad morgue about retrieving his body, an employee advised them not to come because he said the area around the morgue is controlled by insurgents.

So his extended family and friends gathered together -- all armed -- and walked to the morgue together through firing to retrieve the body. When they arrived, they had to pick their way through corpses to find Alaa.

Alaa was buried in the holy city of Najaf last Thursday. It was a difficult trip for the family because the roads are unsafe. The family obtained guards from the Mehdi Army of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who escorted the family on the highway to Najaf and provided security for the funeral.

Alaa's family will be observing the traditional 40 days mourning at their home in Babylon. His whole family is now moving out of Baghdad.

All rights reserved, IPS -- Inter Press Service (2006).

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