Hundreds of thousands of American soldiers have returned home with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. What happens to people in the military and how can veterans participate in the anti-war movement? Kate Flanagan’s experiences during the Uprise tour provides valuable insight into these questions.
By Kate Flanagan
I spent October traveling the rustbelt — from DC to Chicago — with a caravan of activists, musicians, and veterans. We were in a different city almost every day. The veterans shared their personal stories, and we activists gave workshops on counter-military recruitment and the corporate connections in Iraq. In the evenings we screened films like “Sir, No Sir” and hosted shows featuring political hip-hop, punk, and folk artists.
Four veterans with Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) came on the tour and local IVAW members spoke at several events. IVAW is a rapidly growing group that is open to anyone who has served in the military since 9-11. Of the four that came on tour with us two — Nick and Mike — had been in Afghanistan and the other two — Steve, and Toby — had been in Iraq. These guys are part of the anti-authoritarian wing of the IVAW. While many in the group are focusing their energy on lobbying, these vets are reaching out to youth to tell them not to join the military, and to support soldiers who want to resist the war. The vets got an old school bus donated; it’s painted red, white, and blue with “Iraq Veterans Against the War” on the sides.
Let me tell you, these guys turn heads. When they talk people listen. You can tell they aren’t trained speakers. Often one will pause and stare off, lose his train of thought, or avoid talking about the war but it’s more powerful than any spin because you can see him reliving a story he can’t tell. Their stories make the war more real than anything else can.
“We thought we were going there to help people and save people’s lives,” Mike says. “We thought that was what the army was about. We thought that was what this country is about.” Mike’s got long brown hair and soft blue eyes. He wears a bandanna around his head and the crew’s unofficial uniform: a black t-shirt and ripped jeans. He is from New Orleans and was trapped in the city during hurricane Katrina. Back then he still had faith in the government and expected help to come, but of course it didn’t. He harbors a slow, sad, anger. Ask him to sum his feelings in one word: betrayed.
All of these vets joined the army with the best of intentions but in war they saw that the government’s priority was controlling resources and funneling cash to corrupt leaders and military contractors. Mike served on a base in Qatar during the war in Afghanistan. He knew the war was wrong when he saw that his base was sending millions of dollars of new equipment to Iraq, thirteen months before the Iraq war started, while supplies were badly needed in Afghanistan.
At every stop, someone would ask about rebuilding. Steve and Toby would always say that they didn’t see any rebuilding in Iraq. “I drove through the streets of Baghdad for twelve months and it just got worse over there.” Toby said. Toby has a fair freckled face and a strawberry-blond mohawk. When it’s cold out — and it was often freezing — he dresses like an old fashioned spy in a fedora and trench coat. Toby is the ninth of eleven kids in his family. He’s quiet and thoughtful — much of what he doesn’t say he pours into poetry.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, instead of putting money toward rebuilding, the military would give cash payments to warlords or tribal leaders, officially for ‘rebuilding.’ The spending wasn’t regulated and it was clear that the money wasn’t being spent on new schools and roads. “That money was going to buy bullets that were coming back at us,” said Mike.
In Iraq, Steve says, while soldiers were risking their lives on missions for a $22,000 salary, Halliburton employees stayed safely on the base, earning over $130,000 supervising four or five Iraqis who got $1.50 an hour.
“One time I asked why the Iraqis were getting paid so little, and they told me it was because they didn’t want to flood the Iraqi economy with money,” said Steve. Steve noted that he and many other solders didn’t have time to think about the political implications of everything they were seeing. But since he’s been home, he’s been developing a solid anti-capitalist critique. Steve looks like a fox and has all the energy of one. He’s bold and raw and a comedic genius. He’s the smallest and the angriest of the four. He’s also got the most conspicuous case of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He’s jumpy and known to wander off, sometimes in the middle of a conversation.
While everyone else speaks, Nick sits in the front with a video camera. He’s a big teddy bear, with curly brown hair. He’s reserved and relatively organized. He’s also the driver of the bus and the holder of the money. He seems older than the rest of them, but he isn’t really – none of them are older than 25. Maybe it’s because he’s been doing this longer. He’s been in IVAW since it started in Summer 2004.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
All the vets told about coming back home from the war and being unable to function. They complained that the government didn’t give them support to deal with the fact that they had almost died — that they had seen their buddies die or had killed or tortured people themselves. They got through the war thinking that if they could just get home, everything would be right again. But at home they couldn’t find comfort in the things they once liked or the people they still loved. They shut themselves off from family and friends.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder — PTSD — is a psychological response to life-threatening events. People can get PTSD from one experience — seeing someone die, or being in a serious car crash — so you can imagine how being in combat and in life threatening situations every day for a year or more can cause serious damage to a person’s mental stability. According to Wikipedia “People who suffer from PTSD often relive the experience through nightmares and intrusive memories. They have difficulty sleeping, and may feel detached or estranged from others, from their own experiences, and from the world around them. These symptoms can be severe enough and last long enough to significantly impair the person’s daily life.”
It’s estimated that a third of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from PTSD. But all of the war veterans I’ve met have had it to some degree and are dealing with the fact that their experiences will haunt them for the rest of their lives. A mother of a soldier came to an event and asked the vets, “how can we help you, emotionally?” She wanted to know how to reach her son who had returned from Iraq distant and depressed. “You can’t get him back,” Steve told her. “How do you tell your mother that your best friend died and his blood splattered on your face, or that you had to kill children? You can’t.”
When soldiers get off the plane to come home, they are asked a set of questions, one of which is ‘Do you need mental help?’ If they say “yes” they could be kept on the base for another 6 months and not permitted to see their family, which is all they want at that point. Once back home, it takes three months for soldiers to get an appointment through the Veterans Administration with someone who can diagnose them with PTSD. When soldiers try to get help for PTSD, the officials at the VA play on the hyper masculinity that soldiers learn in the army to talk them out of seeking help. “They make you feel like if you can’t take it, you shouldn’t ever have joined the army,” said Mike.
Soldiers officially receive free medical care for two years after they are discharged, but the VA uses all sorts of tricks to get out of providing for veterans. The VA’s policy on PTSD is that they are not responsible for informing veterans of their right to file a claim, and if they don’t know about PTSD, it does not extend their time frame to file a claim. “Most of the people in my platoon don’t even know what PTSD is — and how could they? The VA doesn’t even tell them,” Steve said.
Property Of The State
“You were just following orders, just doing what you were told, but it still keeps you up at night,” said Toby. Toby tells the story of when his best friend was killed in an ambush and died in Iraq. “One week later, I was approached by a staff sergeant who gave me a box of 240 machine gun rounds that my friend had on him when he died. They were caked in his blood. The sergeant told me to go kill some Iraqis. And I did. I used them to the best of my ability.” The acts of violence perpetuated by soldiers are not isolated incidents. They are a result of systematic training that valorizes violence and preys upon soldiers’ emotions, especially their love for one another. The vets will be living with the memories of war for the rest of their lives. But the military bureaucrats in the Pentagon, the politicians and the war profiteers who create the system that manipulates soldiers and creates war — they don’t have to face the terrors of war or acknowledge the blood on their hands.
The goal of basic training is to break enlistees down and build them back up as killing machines. The military is constantly developing new technologies to manage the troops. The ‘brotherhood’ is one of the main tools that the military uses to get soldiers to fight. The government has learned that soldiers aren’t fighting for the government, or for freedom, but for their fellow soldiers. The military’s strategy is to foster soldiers’ sense of loyalty to each other. Basic training is structured around teaching soldiers that their failure, or their refusal to participate hurts their whole group. Soldiers are assigned to a ‘battle buddy.’ When one of them loses, his buddy loses, and vice versa.
While the military teaches soldiers to care for each other, it simultaneously dehumanizes local populations. Like in Vietnam, where the military called the Vietnamese ‘gooks,’ today, Iraqis are all called ‘Hadjis’ and soldiers are discouraged from associating with Iraqi people.
Tariq, one of the activists on the tour, served in the Air Force for four years making bombs on a base in Korea in the 90′s. The first night in basic training his unit was forced on their hands and knees, naked, with chains around their necks. He talks about how as a punishment, a friend of his was thrown into twelve foot deep water, hands and feet tied together and told to swim. They pulled him out right before he drowned. Another friend’s head was held under water until he passed out and was revived with an oxygen tank. The military uses these techniques to teach obedience. Through their military training soldiers learn how to be abusive.
Troops are trained to respond to fear and anger with violence and then thrown into situations where fear and anger abound. Walking Iraq city streets in a military uniform makes soldiers an obvious target, but it is often impossible for soldiers to identify who is trying to kill them. Steve said, “It’s like being in a dark room and someone keeps punching you, and you don’t know who. Sooner or later you’re going to punch back and not care who you hit.”
Women in the military have it the worst. Unlike male soldiers, they can’t go back to the base and feel safe. Sexual assault and rape are rampant within the military and the military bureaucracy does little to protect women or punish their assaulters.
Military training doesn’t stop when troops go home to the base — it carries over into their civilian lives where ex-military are far more likely than civilians to be abusive and violent. “You desensitize a person to killing, even children, and you can’t turn off that switch,” Steve said. “They’re cold.”
“They [the government] learned from Vietnam,” Steve says. “It’s better for the government to fuck one person up really, really bad, then five people just a little bit.” The enlistment contract is binding for the troops but not for the government. Instead of a draft, the government has been implementing the “Stop Loss Policy” which forces soldiers to stay in the military past the terms of their contracts. A quarter of soldiers are on their first tour in Iraq, half are on their second, and the rest are on their third or more. The government knows that every soldier is connected to hundreds of family and friends. Reusing the same soldiers allows the government to keep more Americans removed from the war.
Soldiers have no constitutional rights in the military. You literally become state property. The military can use its ownership over soldiers to control what information gets out about the war. Only one media team came to Toby’s base in Iraq the whole time he was there. Before they came, the soldiers were trained what to say. “They came to me. And I told them I didn’t have anything to say. Because I couldn’t tell the truth.”
De-Troop The Troops
A 2004 Pentagon statistic counted 40,000 soldiers AWOL (absent without leave) out of an army of 550,000. We ran into soldiers all along the tour route – some just in training, some AWOL, others back from the war – all opposed to the war. The veterans say most soldiers and even some officers talk openly about not knowing why they are there and what they are fighting for.
The troops are not sounding the battle cry. But most of them aren’t signing on to the anti-war movement either. This is partly because the military teaches soldiers that ‘protesters’ hate them. This is also because the anti-war movement often assumes that soldiers are naturally in support of the war. For soldiers, joining the anti-war movement means admitting that everything that happened to them and their friends in the war was for nothing. That’s a difficult barrier to cross. But it would be so much easier if there were a visible anti-war community that they knew would welcome them.
The history of the Vietnam War anti-war movement shows that we can only be successful if meaningful connections are created between activists and soldiers. GI resistance is the key to ending the war, and that can only happen if activists create decentralized networks to provide services like alternative healthcare, legal advice, and temporary homes for homeless and AWOL soldiers. Welcoming veterans into the anti-war movement will mean actively helping them assimilate to non-hierarchical organizing theory and practice, and helping them fight internalized sexism, racism, and heterosexism. Remember that militarism is built on a foundation of racism, sexism, and homophobia and that these ideas are pervasive in military culture and training. I do not mean to excuse prejudices but to recognize that folks who believe in equality at their core may still harbor problematic language and ideas. It is also hard for vets — or anyone — to get used to activist culture and lingo.
After Steve had a pretty serious PTSD attack, Ryan, another activist on the tour, made him a tea with stress-relieving herbs. Steve told Ryan, “I think that stuff is working, man, but I wouldn’t tell you cuz that’d be gay. Not gay in the cool homosexual way, you know what I mean.” And we do, because to understand these guys means we have to really listen beyond the language they are using. They’re open to confronting their -isms, and we can help them by keeping an open dialogue instead of being judgmental or dismissive.
We had a hell of a time just trying to get the vets to work in a consensus-style group with us. In the one meeting we managed to get everyone to come to, they were jittery and off topic. They are so used to the authoritarian structure of the military that they don’t understand that their input is important. Separate times I asked Steve and Toby, “What do you want?” They both looked at me quizzically. They hadn’t even considered what they wanted, because they aren’t used to what they want being important. More than once, instead of saying they didn’t want to have a meeting, the vets just didn’t show up. Part of creating a supportive community for veterans is teaching them the tools to become empowered activists.
One of the biggest assets of the military is the instant community felt between all veterans. In joining the movement, they risk being alienated from fellow veterans. IVAW is an important tool because there is a deep level of understanding between anti-war veterans. Also, speaking out against the war allows them to begin the process of healing. “In some way it’s redemption,” Toby said. “I feel like if this works, I’ll have saved myself.”
The vets hate it when they meet people who ask them “How many people did you kill?” or say “Thank you for your service,” or “We’re proud of you.” Because they’re not proud of what they did, and don’t want to be seen as a symbol – the stoic soldier.
Next time you see a veteran, don’t assume he or she is pro-war and don’t try to talk politics immediately. Instead say “Welcome home,” or “How are you?” or “How many friends did you lose?” Instead of asking vets to authenticate our beliefs, we have to listen to them, to allow them to transform our understanding of what war is and how it operates. At the same time we can help them take back a little piece of their humanity.
The author is a member of UPRISE/UC Santa Cruz Students Against the War.