Contents: The Sir! No Sir! blog is an information clearing house, drawing on a wide variety of sources, to track the unfolding history of the new GI Movement, and the wars that brought the movement to life.
Where applicable, parallels will be drawn between the new movement and the Vietnam era movement which was the focus of the film Sir! No Sir!
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The Sir! No Sir! Blog has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article nor is the Sir! No Sir! Blog endorsed or sponsored by the originator. Links are provided to allow for verification of authenticity.
This article, by Paul Reikoff, was published on the Iraq and Afghan Veterans of America website, October 1, 2009
Every year, Congress needs to pass 12 appropriations bills by October 1st to keep the federal government up and running. If lawmakers don’t meet this deadline, the government operates on temporary funding or shuts down.
And Congress rarely meets this deadline. In fact, 19 out of the last 22 years, Congress has failed to pass the VA budget on time. When the VA budget is late, the nation’s largest healthcare provider is forced to wait in limbo, relying on stop-gap funding measures. VA hospitals and clinics can’t plan for critical staffing and equipment needs, leading to long waits for appointments and rationed care. As a result, 6 million veterans who rely on the VA for health care pay the price for Congress’ bickering and inefficiency.
Despite repeated assurances that the VA budget would be passed on time this year, the September 30th deadline has come and gone. And the only thing that’s passed is another milestone: 20 out of the last 23 years, the veterans‘ health care budget is late. This year, the VA is not alone. The only budget that did pass on time was the one that funds salary checks for members of Congress. So Congress gets paid, and vets get stuck waiting. Again.
If Adam Vinatieri missed 20 out of his last 23 field goals, he’d be out of a job, and all of Indianapolis would be outraged. But Congress repeatedly misses the mark, gives itself a pay raise, and hardly anyone notices.
In the last two weeks especially, veterans have fallen victim to government inefficiency at its worst. First, it was thousands of late GI Bill payments and now it’s a late VA budget. Congress has spent months debating new government health care plans, and can’t even fund the ones we already have. Wait until Glenn Beck hears about this one. His head might actually explode.
With over half of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans still serving on active duty and poised to flood the VA system in the next few years, we cannot allow this ineffective funding process to continue.
The only way to ensure the highest quality of care our nation’s veterans deserve is to provide sufficient, timely, and predictable funding. In recent years, Congress has delivered record increases in VA funding. And when this year’s budget is approved, Congress will have increased VA funding by 15 percent over 2009 levels. But that can only happen if the budget is actually passed.
Ironically, the solution to chronic VA budget delays is wrapped up in this year’s proposed budget. “Advance appropriations,” or approving the VA health care budget one year in advance, is the top legislative priority for IAVA and many other leading veterans groups in 2009 and is included in the pending budget. Advanced appropriations would provide the VA with many more tools to prepare for the surge of veterans coming home and would put the years of tardy budgets behind us.
The men and women who have bravely served our country should not be forced to wait any longer for the care they have earned. If lawmakers aren’t pressured into passing the VA budget and advance appropriations and quickly, this trend will surely continue. And I’ll be writing a similar piece again this time next year. Veterans shouldn’t have to play this wait-and-see game, while Congress goes to the bank.
This report was posted by Paul Reickoff on, to IAVA.org February 12
Earlier this week, I told you about an amazing group of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans that were coming to Capitol Hill for a historic trip to Congress, to advocate on behalf of their fellow vets. Today, I want to tell you just one of their extraordinary stories. Rey Leal served as a Marine in Fallujah during some of the heaviest fighting, earning a Bronze Star with valor as a Private First Class, an almost unheard of accomplishment for a soldier of his rank. But when he returned to southern Texas, he needed help coming home from war. Instead of having resources at his fingertips, his closest VA hospital was over five hours away. Rey’s a tough Marine, and a boxer, but he shouldn’t have to fight to get care at a veterans’ hospital. And at his nearest outpatient clinic, there was just one psychologist, taking appointments only two days a week.
The psychologist only works two days because that Texas clinic, like many VA clinics and hospitals, has to stretch its’ funding to make sure the money lasts the whole year. They don’t know how much funding they’ll have next year because the VA budget is routinely passed late. In fact, 19 of the past 22 years, the budget has not been passed on time. As a result, the VA is forced to ration care for the almost 6 million veterans that depend on its services.
For the millions of veterans like Rey, we must fix this broken VA funding system.
Imagine trying to balance your family’s budget without knowing what your next paycheck will be. That’s what we’re asking of the largest health care provider in the nation to do. And it doesn’t work.
The good news is that there is a solution. “Advance appropriations,” approving the VA health care budget one year in advance, would supply timely and predictable funding, and it’s an effective way to ensure the highest quality care that our veterans deserve. It doesn’t make for a sexy news story. But it is a critical, comprehensive way to tackle many of the challenges facing vets ranging from PTSD, to homelessness to military sexual trauma. And it wouldn’t cost a dime. That is not something you hear much down in Washington lately.
While the lack of cost is highly unusual, advance appropriations is not a new concept for how the federal government does business. Low-income housing and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting already depend on the advance appropriations process to plan their programming. If this policy is good enough for Big Bird, then it should be good enough for vets like Rey.
That has been our message all week in Washington. Now this week, in the face of a surge of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans from across the country, Congress has rapidly responded. Senator Daniel Akaka (D-HI) and Congressman Bob Filner (D-CA), the chairmen of the Senate and House Veterans’ Affairs Committees, are introducing bipartisan legislation to provide advance appropriations for the VA. And Rey and the rest of our Storm the Hill team of young veterans will be there to support this historic change.
It’s reassuring to know that in these tough fiscal times, Congress is not only listening to Wall Street CEOs, but that they are also listening to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
And Senator Akaka and Congressman Filner are not alone in supporting advanced VA funding. It has a broad coalition of support. President Obama and Senator McCain both backed the idea during the 2008 campaign, and new VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has signaled early support for the concept.
Every major veterans’ organization in America is also on board. The IAVA crew in Washington this week represents the first wave of veterans’ groups hitting Capitol Hill to push for advance appropriations in 2009. This week, the young vets have boldly taken the beach. And in the coming days and weeks, other generations of veterans will follow. We are coordinating our political fire—just like we did on the battlefields of Baghdad and Normandy. Together, we will show Capitol Hill, the media, and the entire country, that 25 million veterans of all generations stand united behind the right solution to fix VA health care funding once and for all.
This report was posted by Perry Jefferies on, to IAVA.org February 11
I’ve spent the last two days with nearly two dozen committed, skilled, and motivated Veterans and supporters from all walks of life. We’ve all arrived in Washington D.C. with at least one goal in common – to introduce the 2009 Legislative Agenda from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. We are also engaging in what is, if not the first, then uncommon exercise of near-real-time communications with the public and the donors that helped us get here. IAVA set up a great page at www.StormTheHill.org that consolidates emails, pictures, mms, and twitter feeds from the five teams all moving in different directions on Capitol Hill. It is pretty cool and even integrates stories from other news agencies as they are published.
It is a privilege to be a part of this extraordinary effort and to discuss our agenda with busy lawmakers and staffers that see us. Our prime target this year is to secure a concept known as “advanced appropriation” for the VA budget. Last year we helped push through the 21st Century GI Bill – an 87 billion dollar bill that will positively affect an entire American generation. Although advanced appropriations is a more difficult concept to grasp – it has a price tag easier for the Congress to swallow – it is FREE. The problem is that it can be difficult to explain and the idea of a group coming to Capitol Hill from all over America to ask for something that costs nothing is pretty alien here.
Enough got it however, that it looks like we’ll have some good news soon. Wait for word about a new bill here and know that the crew at IAVA have been able to pull off another success that is a credit well above what could be reasonably expected from them. And call, write, and support the lawmakers that support the troops by seeing IAVA reps, getting good grades on the annual report card (by the IAVA action fund), and follow up promises with action.
This report was published by KRGV, February 10, 2009
Washington, D.C. - Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) kicked off its fourth annual Storm the Hill advocacy week in Washington, D.C. Among them is U.S. Marine Corps Sergeant Reynaldo Leal, Jr., an Edinburg resident.
Leal and other group members from across the country will visit Capitol Hill to talk to legislators about issues facing their generation.
"When I came back from serving in Iraq, I saw many veterans struggling to receive the care and benefits they deserve," said Leal. "Veterans have demonstrated their willingness to serve and sacrifice for our nation and are now bringing a new fight to Capitol Hill.”
IAVA is the nation's first and largest nonprofit group for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
Leal was chosen as an IAVA representative after an extensive, nationwide application process.
The Valley native was deployed to Iraq twice with 3rd Battalion 5th Marines. During his service, he was awarded several honors, including the Bronze Star with Combat V.
This article, by Pauline Jelinek, was published by the Asocited Press, February 5, 2009
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Army is investigating an unexplained and stunning spike in suicides in January. The count is likely to surpass the number of combat deaths reported last month by all branches of the armed forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the fight against terrorism.
"In January, we lost more soldiers to suicide than to al-Qaida," said Paul Rieckhoff, director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He urged "bold and immediate action" by the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.
According to figures obtained by The Associated Press, there were seven confirmed suicides last month, compared with five a year earlier. An additional 17 cases from January are under investigation.
There was no detailed breakdown available for January, such as the percentage of suicides that occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan or information about the dead. But just one base — Fort Campbell in Kentucky — reported that four soldiers killed themselves near the installation, where 14,000 soldiers from the two war have returned from duty since October.
Some Fort Campbell soldiers have done three or four tours of duty in the wars. "They come back and they really need to be in a supportive environment," said Dr. Bret Logan, a commander at the base's Blanchfield Army Community Hospital. "They really need to be nourished back to normalcy because they have been in a very extreme experience that makes them vulnerable to all kinds of problems."
Officials said they did not know what caused the rise in suicides last month and that it often takes time to fully investigate a number of the deaths. "There is no way to know — we have not identified any particular problem," said Lt. Col. Mike Moose, a spokesman for Army personnel issues.
Yearly suicides have risen steadily since 2004 amid increasing stress on the force from long and repeated tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The service has rarely, if ever, released a month-by-month update on suicides. But officials said Thursday they wanted to re-emphasize "the urgency and seriousness necessary for preventive action at all levels" of the force.
The seven confirmed suicides and 17 other suspected suicides in January were far above the toll for most months. Self-inflicted deaths were at 12 or fewer for each of nine months in 2008, Army data showed. The highest monthly number last year was 14 in August.
Usually the vast majority of suspected suicides are eventually confirmed. If that holds true, it would mean that self-inflicted deaths in January surpassed the 16 combat deaths reported last month in all branches of the armed forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and other nations considered part of the global fight against terrorism.
Army leaders took the unusual step of briefing congressional leaders on the information Thursday.
An annual report last week showed that soldiers killed themselves at the highest rate on record in 2008. The toll for all of last year — 128 confirmed and 15 pending investigation — was an increase for the fourth straight year. It even surpassed the civilian rate adjusted to reflect the age and gender differences in the military.
"The trend and trajectory seen in January further heightens the seriousness and urgency that all of us must have in preventing suicides," Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army's vice chief of staff, said Thursday.
The other services did not immediately provide information on their suicide figures for January. But the Army in the past few years has posted a consistently higher rate of suicides than the Navy, Air Force and Marines as it has carried the largest burden of the two largely ground wars.
In announcing the 2008 figures last week, the Army said it would hold special training from Feb. 15 to March 15 to help troops recognize suicidal behaviors and to intervene if they see such behavior in a buddy. After that, the Army also plans a suicide prevention program for all soldiers from the top of the chain of command down.
Yearly increases in suicides have been recorded since 2004, when there were 64 all year. Officials have said over the years that they found that the most common factors were soldiers suffering problems with their personal relationships, legal or financial issues and problems on the job.
But Army Secretary Pete Geren acknowledged last week that officials have been stumped by the spiraling number of cases.
The relentless rise in suicides has frustrated the service, which has tried to address the issue through additional suicide prevention training, the hiring of more psychiatrists and other mental health staff, and other programs both at home and at the battlefront for troops and their families.
In October, the Army and the National Institute of Mental Health signed an agreement to do a five-year study to identify factors affecting the mental and behavioral health of soldiers and come up with intervention strategies at intervals along the way.
Originally published by Courage to Resist, April 20, 2008
"Since I joined up with Courage to Resist and Iraq Veterans Against the War, my life has changed. I plan to write a book about all of this, and to make positive change in my community when I get out," said AWOL PFC Ryan Jackson, before turning himself in at Fort Sill, Oklahoma on April 4. He had been absent without leave since December when a local commander vetoed his pending discharged from the 35th Signal Brigade at Fort Gordon, Georgia.
Donate to Ryan's defense today via Courage to Resist by noting "Ryan Jackson" in the "comments and notes" field online, or on your check memo line.
Send Ryan a message of support by emailing email@example.com
Look for a letter writing campaign to military authorities soon.
25-year old PFC Jackson joined the Army in 2005, and aspired to join the Special Forces. While stationed in Korea, inspired by the writings of Vietnam and Iraq war objectors, Jackson began to rethink his involvement in the Army.
“I feel ashamed every day,” Jackson wrote in his recent conscientious objector (CO) application. “I feel ashamed for taking part in the killing of others, and for allowing my comrades to be killed themselves. By putting on a uniform, I am showing my support. … I can no longer be a part of the Armed Forces or any organization of a violent nature.”
After two and a half years of honorable service, Ryan says he could no longer ignore his conscience. “Once my beliefs started to evolve and change, I became a different person,” he explains. “It starts to take a hold of you, giving you hope that you can make a difference, that you can change what you are doing, and that it is not too late!”
After surrendering to the military at Fort Sill, he was ordered to return to his unit at Fort Gordon, Georgia—which he did without escort. Once he arrived at Fort Gordon, however, he was placed under arrest. Ryan has been held in the brig under pre-trial confinement for the last week.
Army’s conscientious objection process “wrong”
When Ryan realized he was a conscientious objector, he knew he was obligated to take action. “I started to build an administrative packet,” Ryan explained. “I would come into work late, go home early, things of that nature. I explained my beliefs to my chain of command and advised them this would continue until I could be administratively discharged.”
James Branum is Ryan’s Oklahoma-based civilian attorney. “PFC Jackson decided to do whatever it took to be released from his obligation to an organization he could no longer be a part of,” he said. “PFC Jackson wrongly believed that there would be no point in filing for CO status, so he instead did his best to accumulate as many negative counseling statements as possible for minor issues, such as not coming in the morning or missing PT.”
Ryan’s attempts to have himself thrown out of the Army were nearly successful. His out-processing paperwork was half way completed when a local commander arbitrarily stopped his pending discharge last December.
Ryan also concluded that the military’s CO application process was “immoral, unethical, and wrong.” How could career officers sit in judgment of his beliefs he questioned. In the CO application he submitted on April 4, Ryan explained, “I've come to realize that my beliefs are not valid or sincere based on what any person that reads this says or thinks. My beliefs are valid because I say they are and because they are my beliefs and they compel me to be a better person.”
It is nearly unheard of for soldiers to be incarcerated prior to conviction of a non-violent offence. However, Ryan has been in pre-trial confinement since reporting to Fort Gordon last week.
On April 16, Military Magistrate Captain Eric Allen upheld Ryan’s ongoing pre-trial confinement during a Fort Gordon hearing. Capt. Allen acknowledged that Ryan returned to the Army at Fort Sill, Oklahoma on his own accord, and later reported as ordered to Fort Gordon, Georgia without supervision. Capt. Allen also noted that Ryan’s “motivation for the AWOL as frustration with the chapter discharge and Conscientious Objector processes,” and acknowledged “PFC Jackson’s current resolve to work things out through the appropriate channels.”
It’s likely that the military did not appreciate Ryan’s views of the war, his solidarity with GI resisters, or his willingness to share these views.
We heard from Ryan during a rush phone call that he was being transferred from Georgia to a navy base in South Carolina for the remainder of this pre-trial confinement.
Courage to Resist interview
Courage to Resist 23 min. audio interview with Ryan Jackson, April 2008.
Prior to surrendering at Fort Sill, Ryan shared a few thoughts about what might happen to him next.
“I really don’t just worry about it, because there are so many great people that have inspired me in the past that have faced so much worse than me.
“I looked at people in history – Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, who faced real persecution for their beliefs – and came to the conclusion that these people did this before me, to fight for civil rights and fight for peace and nonviolence. I said, ‘Well, who am I in this day and age when we supposedly have this freedom?’ The worst they’re going to do to me is possibly imprison me for a little bit, but I’ll still live to tell about it another day.
“I would guess that the percentage is very high of people who have a lot of problems with the Army, a lot of problems with the way they treat people….They have a way of trying to make you feel like you’re worthless.”
Support GI resisters—Free Ryan Jackson!
“It is in the Army's best interest to discharge PFC Jackson,” says attorney James Branum. “He will never be able to function in the military again due to his issues of conscience.”
Courage to Resist, Iraq Veterans Against the War and other organizations have launched a public action campaign to support this courageous resister. The military has gone out of their way to prosecute Ryan for his association with anti-war groups, his open disdain for all war—and specifically the Iraq War, and his determination to support other GI resisters when his case is resolved.
“No matter what the Army decides to do with me, if I just take it and turn it into a positive experience and use my story and what I have to say to people to hopefully inspire other people and maybe save one person from going to kill other people and possibly being killed, then the sacrifice I made, I feel, is worth it,” declares Ryan
This article, by Erin Thompson, was originally published by NYC Indymedia, March 26, 2008 and republished by zMagazine, masy 1, 2008
On March 14 President George W. Bush spoke from the White House to U.S. soldiers during a video conference about their deployment in Afghanistan. "I'm a little envious. If I were slightly younger and not employed here, I think it would be a fantastic experience to be on the front lines of helping this young democracy succeed. It must be exciting for you...in some ways, romantic...you know, confronting danger."
Romantic was not the picture painted just a few miles away in Silver Spring, Maryland, during the second day of testimony by U.S. veterans during "Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan," organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). "For those of you who don't know, those are brains," said Jon Turner, a former Marine, while showing a slide of the inside of a man's head who had been killed by one his friends in his platoon.
Turner and other soldiers on the "Rules of Engagement" panel depicted their tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan as horrifying events in which soldiers indiscriminately killed civilians, wantonly destroyed property, conducted house raids, planted weapons on civilians (in order to be able to classify their deaths as insurgents), and mutilated the dead.
"I want to apologize to all the people in Iraq," said Sergio Kochergin, abruptly breaking off the end of a story about a friend who had shot himself in the shower four days after arriving in Iraq. "I'm sorry and I hope this war is going to be over as soon as possible."
Kochergin's testimony helped establish how the rules of engagement used by soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan lead to many of the atrocities described by the soldiers. The rules define when and how soldiers can fire their weapons or engage in combat. Kochergin described how initially his platoon, which patrolled an Iraqi town on the Syrian border, had to radio to the command post and "If they're doing some sort of illegal activity, we were allowed to take them out."
After a while, though, these rules were abandoned by commanders, who, at one point, told soldiers to fire at any Iraqis carrying bags and shovels, assuming that they were planting explosive devices. Finally, the soldiers were given no rules of engagement at all. "It was up to us to make the decision," said Korchergin, who called that policy "inappropriate."
For many soldiers, the rules of engagement in Iraq were "broadly defined and loosely enforced. Anyone who tells you different is a liar and a fool," said Jason Lemieux, who served three tours in the Marines. While he was initially given rules of engagement that corresponded to the Geneva Conventions, "By the time we got to Baghdad, I could shoot at anyone who came close enough to make me uncomfortable," said Lemieux, who described being so traumatized by the shooting of an unarmed Iraqi man, by a commanding officer shooting "two old ladies carrying groceries," and by fellow soldiers taking potshots at unarmed civilians, that he blocked it all out.
Garrett Reppenhagen, who served in Baquba, Iraq, described a firefight in which U.S. soldiers began spraying bullets into several vehicles of what they thought were armed insurgents. After killing seven Iraqis, the soldiers discovered, to their dismay, that the men were actually bodyguards to the deputy governor. "All these men were not only innocent, they were our allies," said Reppenhagen. "This is the kind of confusion that goes on every day in Iraq."
Jason Washburn described members of his unit shooting an Iraqi woman carrying a large shopping bag, only to find out that, "She had been trying to bring us food," said Washburn. "And we blew her to pieces for it."
Other soldiers emphasized that they were not reprimanded for shooting civilians. "One thing we were asked to do was carry draw-up weapons. In case we did shoot a civilian, we could toss it on a body and make it look like an insurgent," said Washburn. "If they were carrying a shovel, heavy bag, digging anywhere near a road, we could shoot them" within the rules of engagement."
Soldiers also spoke about the callous attitude many soldiers had toward shooting Iraqis. After shooting a man who was being pursued for planting an IED, according to one testifier, the Marines "left his body to rot in the field it was still there two weeks later," said Indiana resident Vincent Emanuele, who served in the Marine Corps in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. "His picture was on the backdrop of a laptop for a screen saver for one of our more motivated Marines."
Jon Turner, a machine gunner who served two deployments in Iraq, described intentionally killing civilians and mutilating the dead. He then ripped off the dog tags around his neck, declaring, "I don't work for you anymore."
"On April 18, 2006, I had my first confirmed kill," said Turner. "I shot him in front of his friend and his father." After the kill, "My company commander personally congratulated me," Turner said. "This is the same individual that stated that whoever gets his first kill by stabbing him to death would get a four day pass."
Turner presented a slideshow, which included close-up shots of Iraqis killed by his platoon, the inside of a young Iraqi's skull, and part of a blown off face, which soldiers had placed on the top of a Kevlar helmet. "It just goes to show you that...we had no respect for their bodies afterwards."
He also presented photos of Iraqis bound in their living rooms during a house raid and described beating and choking men "if they were giving us a problem." In a grisly admission, Turner revealed that he had tattooed the words symbolizing "fuck you" on his "choking" wrist and, "anytime I felt the need to take aggression, I would use it." Although he began his testimony in defiance, Turner ended with a plea. "I am sorry for the things that I did; I am no longer the monster that I once was," he said to a tearful audience.
James Gilligan, who did tours with the Marines in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantánamo Bay, told of participating in an operation to detain three Afghani herdsmen who were suspected of spotting rocket attacks for "insurgents" in Pakistan. Gilligan witnessed a Marine helicopter gunner open fire on the men while they were fleeing down a hillside.
He also described the looting of gold coins by soldiers at the Iraqi Atomic Energy Agency. The coins, which had the face of Saddam Hussein and the head of the Iraqi nuclear facility on them, were "liberated" by senior NCOs and officers, according to Gilligan, who was told about the incident by fellow Marines. "After we were leaving the country, a lot of these guys were talking about how they were bringing them home." Gilligan explained that the looting of the gold coins was just a small part of the looting he saw.
Gilligan also mentioned his experience as a security guard in Guantanamo Bay. While he wasn't actually involved in any interrogations, he interacted with MPs on the base and heard of stories about how sexual humiliation and waterboarding were used on detainees. In order to visit a "stress doctor" to treat his nightmares related to his PTSD from the Iraq invasion, Gilligan had to visit Camp X-ray, which housed detainees in metal cages "lying out in the open, 23 hours a day" in the extreme heat.
Many of the former soldiers, who were clearly still traumatized by their experiences, challenged the audience of several hundred members of the media, friends, and family, as well as allies in the antiwar movement, to use their message as to end the war.
"They went to Iraq hoping to do good, hoping to do right. We found that we were killing Iraqi people in horrible ways," said Reppehagen. "And most soldiers are going through this whether they've seen an atrocity or not, the truth of the matter is that the war is the atrocity."
Posted, by Mark Benjamin, to Salon Magazine, March 13 2008
"It has often been remarked but seldom remembered that war itself is a crime. Yet a war crime is more and other than war ... It is an act beyond the pale of acceptable actions even in war. Deliberate killing or torturing of prisoners of war is a war crime. Deliberate destruction without military purpose of civilian communities is a war crime." -- Former infantry platoon leader William Crandell opening the "Winter Soldier Investigation" in Detroit, Jan. 31, 1971
More than 100 veterans gathered in a Detroit hotel in early 1971 to talk about things they had seen and done in the Vietnam War. Called the Winter Soldier Investigation, the group spoke about a horrifying array of allegations: convoys driving over civilians; burning of villages; bodies thrown out of helicopters; torture, mutilation and infamous "free-fire zones," where anyone not wearing a U.S. uniform could be killed.
Thirty-seven years later, more than 100 veterans will gather over the next several days for "Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan." The event is designed to be another purging of the horrors of war, and another effort to put American military policy on trial in the public eye. The gathering this time, at the National Labor College outside Washington, D.C., is sponsored by the group Iraq Veterans Against the War. "Soldiers will certainly be testifying about their experience and observation of actions which are absolutely in violation of international law," says IVAW spokesperson Perry O"Brien, who served as an Army medic in Afghanistan in 2003.
In interviews with Salon, several veterans from the group described incidents in Iraq that they believed constituted wrongdoing by the U.S. military, including disproportionate use of air power resulting in civilian deaths. The soldiers were unable to provide Salon with any conclusive evidence of war crimes. But as the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq approaches, the allegations they and other Winter Soldier members will publicize in Washington this week add to a long-term set of questions about the damage and destruction wrought by U.S. military operations over years of war.
The first Winter Soldier Investigation, sponsored in 1971 by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, ultimately helped fuel the antiwar movement in the United States. And the kinds of atrocities in Vietnam they alleged have been well documented since then. The first event also resulted in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee asking John Kerry, the young veteran who would go on to be a U.S. senator, to testify three months later, when he famously asked, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
In fact, the first Winter Soldier investigation was largely ignored by the media, initially. "I don't think we had nearly the effect we had hoped for," the Vietnam veteran Crandell told me in a telephone interview. "The reporters on the scene were very impressed," he said. "But the networks sat on it." Perhaps that was because it was held in the Motor City (a bad decision then, organizers admit). Perhaps it was because the country wasn't yet ready to hear how a seemingly invisible enemy in Southeast Asia had driven otherwise honorable American soldiers to commit unthinkable atrocities, including acts that were officially or unofficially condoned by military policy.
It is unclear whether Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan will gain wider attention from the media and the public, but its organizers say that today's technology could make a difference. "The modern soldier carries a digital camera almost as a sidearm," explained O'Brien. The group says that potentially explosive photos and video from Iraq displayed at this Winter Soldier investigation will help "expose the human consequences of failed policy" in the war zones. The searing images from Abu Ghraib, of course, came to light because soldiers working inside the prison made use of their personal digital cameras.
The veterans of Winter Soldier face the challenge of condemning U.S. military policy without the event being interpreted as -- or twisted into -- an unpatriotic attack on their fellow troops. "That is the tightrope they have to walk," explained Rick Weidman, a Vietnam veteran and director of government relations at Vietnam Veterans of America. "Don't blame the troops who are thrust into the middle of a goddamn civil war where you can't tell who the enemy is." He added: "You don't blame the troops for being put in an impossible situation. Some of this stuff is part of war. You could not retake Fallujah without what many people consider atrocities."
Vietnam veterans faced a similarly difficult balancing act 37 years ago. When Crandell opened the Winter Soldier Investigation in 1971, he tried to make it clear that the event was not intended to put American troops on trial. "There will be no phony indictments; there will be no verdict against Uncle Sam," Crandell said back then. The testimony, he argued, was supposed to expose "acts which are the inexorable result of national policy."
But it is unclear if Americans who are politically conservative will pick up on that distinction, particularly at a time when just about any critique of the war is quickly spun by both right and left. "I think they have to be as clear as they can," Crandell continued. "I still have conversations with Vietnam vets 40 years later who feel defamed by what we did. I feel sorry about that." But Crandell said this new Winter Soldier event should still go forward, "to whatever extent it helps with resolving the war or the maverick policies that need to be curtailed."
Some Iraq veterans agree that the pro-war crowd will work to create the impression that the event is an unpatriotic smear against the troops. "It troubles me a little bit," Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans for America said about the coming event. "I hope that they are thinking this out, because there are plenty of people who are going to want to have their ass."
Rush Limbaugh is likely to be one who goes after them. The widely heard right-wing radio host last fall claimed that some veterans who oppose the war are, in fact, "phony soldiers."
Limbaugh has said he was referring to the case of Jesse MacBeth. Several years ago MacBeth, then an IVAW member, alleged he committed war crimes in Iraq as a soldier in the Army. In May 2006, the Army reported that MacBeth, in fact, had never served in Iraq at all.
IVAW counters that the MacBeth incident occurred before the organization put in place a requirement that members provide proof of service. For Winter Soldier, the group has also assembled a verification team of combat veterans to interview soldiers testifying, examine discharge paperwork and review corroborating evidence including additional witnesses, video and photos.
But even with all that evidence, people sitting in the audience at National Labor College may have trouble evaluating some of the testimony they hear. Wartime accounts are notoriously difficult to untangle and verify, even when coming from multiple primary sources who appear to be telling the truth to the best of their knowledge. Soldiers are limited to a grunt's-eye-view of the world. They will tell it like they saw it, but admit that they don't have all the answers about what may have happened in a given incident.
One example that will likely be discussed at the Winter Soldier meeting in Washington involves a powerful air attack carried out on apartment buildings in Baghdad in 2003. Soldiers who witnessed the attack told Salon that they believe innocent civilians were killed. But they witnessed it at night, from a distance, and never saw direct evidence of dead civilians.
"I'm pretty sure we saw some pretty fucked-up shit," said Clifton Hicks, who was a private in the 1st Armored Division in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 and will be testifying at the Winter Soldier event. Hicks and two other soldiers from the division's 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment described a Nov. 13, 2003, nighttime airstrike on five apartment buildings a few hundred yards outside the perimeter of Camp Slayer, their sprawling base located just south of the Baghdad airport.
In separate interviews with Salon, all three soldiers described the buildings as shoddily constructed structures, maybe four stories high. The Iraqis living there would stand and stare when the soldiers rode by on vehicle patrols. Laundry hung out to dry on the balconies. But the structures provided one of the few clear lines of sight into the soldiers' compound, and occasionally somebody would take a random pot shot at the base from one of the apartment buildings. After one such attack involving a lieutenant colonel on the base in fall 2003, the military launched an airstrike using an AC-130, a four-propeller gunship armed with powerful cannons.
The strike appears to have occurred as part of Operation Iron Hammer, an early effort to snuff out a growing insurgency through massive use of air power in Baghdad. The officer allegedly involved in calling in the airstrike, Lt. Col. Chuck Williams, was quoted on Nov. 13, 2003, by CBS News discussing Operation Iron Hammer. "If you are trying to send a message by firing and harboring yourself inside of an area like this, we want to send the message right back that you can be reached," he told CBS. "We will find you and surgically remove you." A Pentagon news article dated the next day noted only that an AC-130 "destroyed a building that had sheltered terrorists firing on U.S. forces for several days."
Steven Casey, who back then was a scout in the same Army unit, provided Salon with videotape of the strike taken from the roof of a building at Camp Slayer, date-stamped Nov. 13, 2003. While the airstrike can clearly be heard on the tape, darkness and distance render it mostly useless for verification purposes. (Word had quickly spread through Camp Slayer that the strike was coming and soldiers had gathered on a rooftop to watch.)
The Army would not comment on the airstrike. Williams, the lieutenant colonel allegedly involved in calling in the airstrike, refused a request for an interview.
But it is not just the darkness on the videotape that makes the story hard to gauge. News clips from that time period claim that the military was evacuating civilians prior to Operation Iron Hammer airstrikes, in an effort to destroy empty buildings that had been used to launch attacks on U.S. forces. Brig. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, who commanded the 1st Armored Division at the time, claimed in a Nov. 20, 2003, press conference that "we have had no civilian casualties resulting from Iron Hammer."
Salon also contacted a human rights group, which said they had staff in Iraq at that time, but they could verify no details about the airstrike or its outcome. And the three soldiers interviewed admit that while they saw the heavily damaged buildings after the strike, nobody got out of their vehicles to see if there were, in fact, dead civilians in the rubble.
Regardless of what happened that night, dozens if not hundreds of interviews with returning veterans have shown that throughout the war, the military regularly responded to real or perceived threats with overwhelming firepower. Some of those incidents clearly resulted in unwarranted civilian deaths. Other attacks may have inadvertently resulted in an unknown but potentially significant number of civilian casualties. (It should also be said that many officers and soldiers have taken great pains to protect civilians throughout the war.)
The U.S. military's overall approach with using overwhelming force supposedly changed under the counterinsurgency strategy implemented by Gen. David Petraeus starting in early 2007. Civilians were now seen as the "center of gravity" in the war effort, and it was deemed that great lengths should be taken to protect them and win over their support. High-level military officials say Petraeus has been successful in changing the way the military conducts itself in this regard; the Air Force has implemented rigorous protocols to reduce collateral damage from airstrikes.
Still, the vast majority of the American public does not have a clear picture of what has gone on for years in Iraq and Afghanistan due to U.S. military operations. In the coming days, the new generation of veterans gathering for the Winter Soldier event hope to make it more clear.