Paul Rieckhoff

The House Passage of the GI Bill Is a Critical First Victory

On Thursday, May 15, the House of Representatives made history. By an overwhelming margin, lawmakers passed the a landmark new GI Bill which will make college affordable to the more than 1.6 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

As President Roosevelt said when he signed the original GI Bill for veterans of World War II,

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The Passage of the GI Bill is a Critical First Victory

On Thursday, May 15, the House of Representatives made history. By an overwhelming margin, lawmakers passed the a landmark new GI Bill which will make college affordable to the more than 1.6 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

As President Roosevelt said when he signed the original GI Bill for veterans of World War II,

Keep reading... Show less

What Mission Have We Accomplished?

What is our mission in Iraq?

It's a question that Congressman John Murtha asked, and a question troops have been asking for quite a while. We all deserve an answer from President Bush.

Is the mission to be victorious?

"Victory" is not a mission, it is an end state.

Defeating the insurgents?

There is no finite number of insurgents to kill, so that is a mission with an unattainable goal.

Is it "fighting terrorism?"

Terrorism is not an enemy, it's a tactic.

Establishing a democratic Iraq?

When can we declare Iraq democratic? After one election? Five? Ten? The creation of a democracy is not a militarily achievable mission. Nation building can only be successful when diplomatic, economic and political components are combined with the military to create a multi-pronged strategy.

Almost everyone in the country supports the troops, from their fight to get adequate body armor to their right to have health care after they return home. Congressman Murtha has been second to none in these fights. His deep understanding of and respect for the troops led him to challenge the President and his cronies who say we need to "complete" our mission.

If the military mission of the war was to remove Saddam Hussein from power, then Murtha is right, the mission has been accomplished. If that was not it, the President owes the world a well-articulated strategy with reachable goals defined by metrics.

For example, a proper mission would be to militarily train 500,000 Iraqis so they can secure their own country. If military leaders say that will take two years, it would be entirely proper to set a timeline of two years. The White House implies that spelling out such a plan would constitute defeatism and provide aid to the enemy.

I fail to see how that is so. If anything, it lays out what victory looks like, and how we get there. The only aid and comfort it gives is to the Iraqi citizens who, polling shows, desperately want to run their own state of affairs without American involvement.

More than likely, the Administration's protests of any change of course represent what those on Wall Street call "falling in love with a bad stock." Inexperienced investors do it all the time. They find a stock they believe in and make a big bet on it (invading Iraq will be quick and easy).

But then the stock begins to go down, and expectations (troops will be showered with flower petals) aren't met (troops are showered with bullets instead). A good investor quickly admits he was wrong, adjusts his strategy and redeploys his assets. The bad investor sticks with the bad choice. He is so in love with the stock he refuses to admit his mistake and convinces himself that the stock will go back up. In the end, he just loses more money when a change in strategy would have been better for his overall financial security.

There are no good choices for the President to make, only a few that are less bad. It is past time that he opens his eyes, does a cost-benefit analysis and rethinks his "stay the course strategy" -- which is already, as General Anthony Zinni warned more than a year ago, "leading us over Niagara Falls."

The President must redeploy his investment in a stock that has the potential to salvage his portfolio -- a well-defined change of course in Iraq that salvages the most that he can. If he cannot do that, or refuses to do that, then Congressman Murtha is right; Bush must stop wasting the lives of our troops.

It would be far better to leave Iraq, and allow chaos to ensue, than to ask our servicemembers to make the ultimate sacrifice for an unrealistic mission with no real goals and no real end.

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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