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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This article, originally posted to VVAW.NET, was forwarded to the blog by David Zeiger, November 11, 2009
Please Don't Thank Me For My Service - Veterans Day Any Year
I can see That Wall in DC. I'm thinking of those two hundred names and faces I can't remember, eighteen and nineteen year old boys from my Basic Training company, "Killed In Action" before their 19th birthdays. I've seen their names on that wall while looking for my own.
Every time I hear, "Thank-you for serving!" I want to reply, "Fuck You!"
For which of the following are you thanking me:
a) learning how to do field abortions on "pregnant gook girls";
b) Being part of a military that is responsible for millions of deaths in Vietnam;
c) Refusing orders to Vietnam;
d) Participating in the GI Movement;
e) Thinking for myself;
f) Not thinking for myself;
g) Following or not following orders?
As a member of the United States Army from 1965 - 1970, I was NOT defending America, our allies, your families or friends. America was NOT being attacked by the Vietnamese, much in the same way that America is NOT being attacked by Iraqis
I for one, do NOT thank current soldiers for their service in Iraq or Afghanistan! I thank and honor those who repudiate this nation's militarism. I thank Iraq Veterans Against the War for their thought, action and lives. I thank those veterans who organized and testified at the IVAW Winter Soldier Hearings last year and who continue to give witness to atrocity and mayhem. ivaw.org/wintersoldier/testimony
On Veteran's Day, I salute, in addition to IVAW, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Veterans For Peace, The National Liberation Front of Vietnam, WWII Allied Forces led by General Dwight Eisenhower; I salute Resistance Fighters against the nazi's throughout Europe; Resistance movements from South Africa to South Harlem, from Philadelphia to Nicaragua where my government spent millions attempting to overthrow a democratic government who's president had the nerve to be critical of the United States.
I do salute those who choose to defend America. Go get the bad guy, McCain will tell you right where he is, but why thank anyone for killing tens of thousands of civilians cause you can't find the right cave and invaded the wrong nation? Was their a right nation to invade? Should I thank today's soldiers for being lied to and believing in that lie? Perhaps their "good intentions" deserve a salute?
On this Veteran's Day, I again salute those veterans, from the armed forces of all nations who use their training, intelligence and compassion to seek ways in which our governments can find peace without increased militarization of the globe and our ways of life.
You may thank me, and I'd be honored, for my resistance to imperial war, for my support of the National Liberation Front of Vietnam, for my continued activism that nourishes my soul and gives me reason to live and create. You may thank me for encouraging young men and women to think for themselves and to resist deployment orders.
Just don't blindly thank me for anything you don't know about.
Perhaps that's why I can't seem to find my name on that Wall in a waking state.
This article, by Martin Fletcher, was published iun the London Times, October 9, 2009
American soldiers serving in Afghanistan are depressed and deeply disillusioned, according to the chaplains of two US battalions that have spent nine months on the front line in the war against the Taliban.
Many feel that they are risking their lives -- and that colleagues have died -- for a futile mission and an Afghan population that does nothing to help them, the chaplains told The Times in their makeshift chapel on this fortress-like base in a dusty, brown valley southwest of Kabul.
"The many soldiers who come to see us have a sense of futility and anger about being here. They are really in a state of depression and despair and just want to get back to their families," said Captain Jeff Masengale, of the 10th Mountain Division's 2-87 Infantry Battalion.
"They feel they are risking their lives for progress that's hard to discern," said Captain Sam Rico, of the Division's 4-25 Field Artillery Battalion. "They are tired, strained, confused and just want to get through." The chaplains said that they were speaking out because the men could not.
The base is not, it has to be said, obviously downcast, and many troops do not share the chaplains' assessment. The soldiers are, by nature and training, upbeat, driven by a strong sense of duty, and they do their jobs as best they can. Re-enlistment rates are surprisingly good for the 2-87, though poor for the 4-25. Several men approached by The Times, however, readily admitted that their morale had slumped.
"We're lost -- that's how I feel. I'm not exactly sure why we're here," said Specialist Raquime Mercer, 20, whose closest friend was shot dead by a renegade Afghan policeman last Friday. "I need a clear-cut purpose if I'm going to get hurt out here or if I'm going to die."
Sergeant Christopher Hughes, 37, from Detroit, has lost six colleagues and survived two roadside bombs. Asked if the mission was worthwhile, he replied: "If I knew exactly what the mission was, probably so, but I don't."
The only soldiers who thought it was going well "work in an office, not on the ground." In his opinion "the whole country is going to s***."
The battalion's 1,500 soldiers are nine months in to a year-long deployment that has proved extraordinarily tough. Their goal was to secure the mountainous Wardak province and then to win the people's allegiance through development and good governance. They have, instead, found themselves locked in an increasingly vicious battle with the Taliban.
They have been targeted by at least 300 roadside bombs, about 180 of which have exploded. Nineteen men have been killed in action, with another committing suicide. About a hundred have been flown home with amputations, severe burns and other injuries likely to cause permanent disability, and many of those have not been replaced. More than two dozen mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPs) have been knocked out of action.
Living conditions are good -- abundant food, air-conditioned tents, hot water, free internet -- but most of the men are on their second, third or fourth tours of Afghanistan and Iraq, with barely a year between each. Staff Sergeant Erika Cheney, Airborne's mental health specialist, expressed concern about their mental state -- especially those in scattered outposts -- and believes that many have mild post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). "They're tired, frustrated, scared. A lot of them are afraid to go out but will still go," she said.
Lieutenant Peter Hjelmstad, 2-87's Medical Platoon Leader, said sleeplessness and anger attacks were common.
A dozen men have been confined to desk jobs because they can no longer handle missions outside the base. One long-serving officer who has lost three friends this tour said he sometimes returned to his room at night and cried, or played war games on his laptop. "It's a release. It's a method of coping." He has nightmares and sleeps little, and it does not help that the base is frequently shaken by outgoing artillery fire. He was briefly overcome as he recalled how, when a lorry backfired during his most recent home leave, he grabbed his young son and dived between two parked cars.
The chaplains said soldiers were seeking their help in unprecedented numbers. "Everyone you meet is just down, and you meet them everywhere -- in the weight room, dining facility, getting mail," said Captain Rico. Even "hard men" were coming to their tent chapel and breaking down.
The men are frustrated by the lack of obvious purpose or progress. "The soldiers' biggest question is: what can we do to make this war stop. Catch one person? Assault one objective? Soldiers want definite answers, other than to stop the Taliban, because that almost seems impossible. It's hard to catch someone you can't see," said Specialist Mercer.
"It's a very frustrating mission," said Lieutenant Hjelmstad. "The average soldier sees a friend blown up and his instinct is to retaliate or believe it's for something [worthwhile], but it's not like other wars where your buddy died but they took the hill. There's no tangible reward for the sacrifice. It's hard to say Wardak is better than when we got here."
Captain Masengale, a soldier for 12 years before he became a chaplain, said: "We want to believe in a cause but we don't know what that cause is."
The soldiers are angry that colleagues are losing their lives while trying to help a population that will not help them. "You give them all the humanitarian assistance that they want and they're still going to lie to you. They'll tell you there's no Taliban anywhere in the area and as soon as you roll away, ten feet from their house, you get shot at again," said Specialist Eric Petty, from Georgia.
Captain Rico told of the disgust of a medic who was asked to treat an insurgent shortly after pulling a colleague's charred corpse from a bombed vehicle.
The soldiers complain that rules of engagement designed to minimise civilian casualties mean that they fight with one arm tied behind their backs. "They're a joke," said one. "You get shot at but can do nothing about it. You have to see the person with the weapon. It's not enough to know which house the shooting's coming from."
The soldiers joke that their Isaf arm badges stand not for International Security Assistance Force but "I Suck At Fighting" or "I Support Afghan Farmers."
To compound matters, soldiers are mainly being killed not in combat but on routine journeys, by roadside bombs planted by an invisible enemy. "That's very demoralising," said Captain Masengale.
The constant deployments are, meanwhile, playing havoc with the soldiers' private lives. "They're killing families," he said. "Divorces are skyrocketing. PTSD is off the scale. There have been hundreds of injuries that send soldiers home and affect families for the rest of their lives."
The chaplains said that many soldiers had lost their desire to help Afghanistan. "All they want to do is make it home alive and go back to their wives and children and visit the families who have lost husbands and fathers over here. It comes down to just surviving," said Captain Masengale.
"If we make it back with ten toes and ten fingers the mission is successful," Sergeant Hughes said.
"You carry on for the guys to your left or right," added Specialist Mercer.
The chaplains have themselves struggled to cope with so much distress. "We have to encourage them, strengthen them and send them out again. No one comes in and says, 'I've had a great day on a mission'. It's all pain," said Captain Masengale. "The only way we've been able to make it is having each other."
Lieutenant-Colonel Kimo Gallahue, 2-87's commanding officer, denied that his men were demoralised, and insisted they had achieved a great deal over the past nine months. A triathlete and former rugby player, he admitted pushing his men hard, but argued that taking the fight to the enemy was the best form of defence.
He said the security situation had worsened because the insurgents had chosen to fight in Wardak province, not abandon it. He said, however, that the situation would have been catastrophic without his men. They had managed to keep open the key Kabul-to-Kandahar highway which dissects Wardak, and prevent the province becoming a launch pad for attacks on the capital, which is barely 20 miles from its border. Above all, Colonel Gallahue argued that counter-insurgency -- winning the allegiance of the indigenous population through security, development and good governance -- was a long and laborious process that could not be completed in a year. "These 12 months have been, for me, laying the groundwork for future success," he said.
At morning service on Sunday, the two chaplains sought to boost the spirits of their flock with uplifting hymns, accompanied by video footage of beautiful lakes, oceans and rivers.
Captain Rico offered a particularly apposite reading from Corinthians: "We are afflicted in every way but not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed."
This article, by Mark Abramson,was published by Stars and Stripes, October 9, 2009
Recently released figures show Marines are taking their own lives at alarmingly high rates, and deployments appear to be taking a toll.
Through September, the Marines have recorded 38 confirmed or suspected suicides in 2009. Should the pace continue through the end of the year, the Marines would be facing a 20 percent increase from 2008 figures. Suicides also rose 27 percent from 2007 to 2008.
Ten suspected suicides this year remain under investigation, but those are classified as suicides because there is strong evidence to suggest that those Marines took their own lives, said Navy Cmdr. Aaron Werbel, suicide prevention program manager for the Marine Corps.
And while a recent Marine Corps report indicates that fewer than 42 percent of Marines who have committed suicide since 2001 had a deployment history, 56 of the 80 Marines who have taken their lives in the last two years have been to the war zones. That 70 percent figure is higher than Army figures for 2008, during which 61 percent of those who committed suicide were either deployed or had a deployment history.
Marine officials said they could not pinpoint an exact cause for the increase.
But, Werbel said, "A significant contributing factor is the operational tempo."
Dan Reidenberg, a psychologist and executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, or SAVE, said he believes deployments are a factor in servicemembers’ suicides.
"I think current people (in the military) have been deployed multiple times and that is creating stress," Reidenberg said. "I think it is the constant ongoing battle within as well as the battle outside those men and women (in the military) are fighting."
SAVE, a nonprofit organization based in Bloomington, Minn., was created about 20 years ago to raise awareness about suicide and to help prevent it. Reidenberg spoke to 5,000 Marines about suicide prevention at a base in North Carolina in May, he said.
The Marines are taking aim at the problem with a new top-down program called NCO Suicide Prevention Training.
The program requires Marine leaders from every base to select three noncommissioned officers to attend weeklong suicide prevention training in Quantico, Va. Navy corpsmen and other Navy personnel assigned to the Corps are included in the training.
"NCOs are being trained to look out for changes in personality, distress, and changes in sleeping patterns [to spot possible signs that a person is suicidal]," Werbel said.
"We are telling NCOs, you have to know your Marines … so you can see changes in behavior."
Those enlisted leaders will then give three days of training to NCOs at the battalion level, who will in turn give a half-day of training to all other Marine NCOs.
Taking a page from the Army suicide prevent program, the Marine training includes a video presentation. In the videos, Marines who attempted suicide and family members of those who have committed suicide share their experiences.
Other parts of the program feature people acting out various situations.
"I think it can be very effective," Reidenberg said about the Marines program.
The program should have an impact, especially with the "very real" videos in this age of technology, he said. Reidenberg also praised the Marines’ top-down approach.
The Marines started to develop the suicide prevention program before this year’s figures came to light.
"The reason we started doing it is our numbers were higher for 2008 compared to 2007," said Bryan Driver, spokesman for the Personal and Family Readiness Division at the Marines Headquarters.
The Marines will have a pretty good idea if the program is working if the suicide rate drops, Reidenberg said.
"You can’t ever say for sure that it was the program, but you can definitely say there was an impact."
Like the Marine Corps suicide prevention program, the Army videos also highlight spotting signs that indicate a person may be suicidal and situations where a soldier may have to deal with a suicidal buddy.
It also trains some soldiers to be facilitators. Facilitators may not be qualified to train other soldiers in suicide prevention, but they would learn how to talk informally to other troops about the issue, said Army spokesman Wayne Hall.
"The real important thing here is to get people talking," Hall said about the Army’s program.
In addition to programs such as NCO Suicide Prevention training, the Marines — like the Army — are addressing the issue by trying to help troops get over the stigma of seeking help.
"We are really trying to bust through that stigma. This isn’t a career-ender," Werbel said.
"The career ender could be not getting help."
This book review, by Jon Letman, was distributed by the Inter Press Service News Agency, August 17, 2009
KAUAI, Hawaii, Aug 17 (IPS) - Six months into Barack Obama's presidency, the U.S. public's display of antiwar sentiment has faded to barely a whisper.
Despite Obama's vow to withdraw all combat forces from Iraq before September 2011, he plans to leave up to 50,000 troops in "training and advisory" roles. Meanwhile, nearly 130,000 troops remain in that country and more than 50,000 U.S. soldiers occupy Afghanistan, with up to an additional 18,000 approved for deployment this year.
So where is the resistance?
In independent journalist Dahr Jamail's "The Will to Resist: Soldiers who refuse to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan" (Haymarket Books), Jamail profiles what may ultimately prove to be the United States' most effective anti-war movement: the soldiers themselves.
During the early years of the Iraq war, Jamail traveled to Iraq alone and reported as an unembedded freelance journalist. Over four visits, Jamail documented the war's effects on Iraqi civilians in "Beyond the Green Zone" (2007).
Although he is a fierce critic of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of the U.S. mainstream media which he says served as a "cheerleader" for war, Jamail admits he was raised to admire the military. However, after covering the war from Iraq between 2003 and 2005, Jamail was enraged by what he calls "the heedless and deliberate devastation [he] saw [the U.S. military] wreak upon the people of Iraq."
Back in the U.S., traveling the country speaking out against the war, Jamail met scores of soldiers who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan and found that he shared with them a "familiar anguish" which drove him to further explore their motivations as soldiers. In doing so he opens the door to a growing subculture of internal dissent that is increasingly bubbling up and spilling over the edge of an otherwise ultra-disciplined, highly-controlled military society.
"The soldiers I spoke with while working on this book are some of the most ardent anti-war activists I have ever met," Jamail told IPS. "Having experienced the war firsthand, this should not come as a surprise."
In "The Will to Resist", Jamail profiles individual acts of resistance that he envisions as the possible seeds of a broader anti-war movement. The book is filled with stories of soldiers who refuse missions deemed "suicidal", go AWOL, flee abroad, refuse to carry a loaded weapon, even arranging to be shot in the leg - and those who in a final act of desperation commit suicide.
Soldiers who refuse to deploy or follow orders risk court-martial, prison time, dishonourable discharge and loss of veteran's medical benefits, yet an increasing number of active duty soldiers and veterans are willing to do so.
Rather than accept a mission almost certain to bring death, some troops simply refuse to follow orders. Jamail describes soldiers in Iraq on "search and avoid" missions who grew adept at giving the appearance of going out on patrol when, in fact, they were lying low, catching up on sleep and trying to avoid being killed.
Jamail quotes one Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan as saying, "Dissent starts as simple as saying 'this is bullshit. Why am I risking my life?'"
Soldiers tell Jamail that incidents of refusing orders are unremarkable and "pretty widespread," to which he responds, "It is also understandable why the military does not want more soldiers or the public to know about them."
"Army Specialist Victor Agosto, who served a year in Iraq, has recently publicly refused orders to deploy to Afghanistan," Jamail told IPS, "and the Army, due to the threat of more soldiers and the broader public learning of this, backed away from giving Agosto the harshest court-martial possible, to one of the lightest."
Jamail also dedicates two chapters to soldiers who stand up to systemic misogyny and homophobia in the military. Extensive interviews with female soldiers detail a pervasive culture of institutionalised "command rape," harassment, abuse and assault which, in a number of high-profile cases (and many more unknown) end in ostracism, coercion, demotion, suicide and murder.
Citing studies from professional medical journals that offer a grim assessment of sexual intimidation and abuse within the U.S. military, Jamail writes, "According to the group Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, one in six women in the United States will be a victim of sexual assault in her lifetime. In the military, at least two in five will. In either case, at least 60 percent of the cases go unreported."
As Jamail recounts horrific cases of violence toward women in the military, he notes the irony of frequent claims that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are "liberating" women of those Muslim countries.
Like female soldiers, gay and lesbian service men and women are targeted for harassment and abuse. Jamail meets soldiers who, under the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy, must conceal their true identity, falsely posing as straight while battling internal conflicts about their own roles in the military.
In the blunt language of the soldiers, Jamail describes the military experience as a process of dehumanisation. "The primary objective appeared to be to mistreat and dehumanise your guys [fellow soldiers]," one Marine says. "I could not do it, not to my men and not to those people. I like the Iraqis, I like the Afghanis. Why were we treating them like shit?...That is when I really started questioning what the hell was going on."
For many soldiers however, the pain of war is simply too much to bear and so they choose their own final discharge: suicide. In an emotionally exhausting chapter, Jamail cites statistics from the Army Suicide Event Report which states active duty military suicides have risen to their highest rates since the Army started tracking self-inflicted deaths in 1980, and the numbers are growing.
Documenting the phenomenon of "suicide by cop," Jamail quotes from a Post Traumatic Distress Syndrome (PTSD)-wracked veteran's pre-"suicide" internet article in which he wrote, "…We come home from war trying to put our lives back together but some cannot stand the memories and decide that death is better. We kill ourselves because we are so haunted by seeing children killed and whole families wiped out."
Contemplating the long-term implications of the more than 1.8 million military personnel who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Jamail points out that the United States, for many years to come, will be faced with caring for tens of thousands of veterans whose lives are permanently marred by grave physical and traumatic brain injuries, psychological scars, PTSD, and a host of associated problems ranging from divorce and substance abuse to domestic violence, homelessness and run-ins with the law.
Other soldiers manage to cope somehow and, perhaps in a sense, recover. Following their discharge, some veterans profiled by Jamail seek to make peace with themselves by educating others about the realities they experienced in war.
The most successful and constructive of military efforts to resist war are made by those who turn their experiences into teaching tools and therapeutic exercises like music, video, theater, painting, books, blogs, photographic and art exhibitions, performance art and even making paper out of old military uniforms.
In a chapter titled 'Cyber Resistance,' Jamail contends the Internet "is probably the first time that we have available to us an inexpensive and extremely inclusive means to communicate and thereby advocate sustained resistance to unjust military action, at an international scale without losing any gestation time."
Websites like YouTube, Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, Blogspot and countless alternative news sources have given soldiers and veterans both a voice and the means to connect with those Jamail calls "fence-sitters, members of the silent majority and well-intentioned but resource-less individuals to participate in the promise of a historical transformation."
"While we don't have an organised GI resistance movement today that is anywhere close to that which helped end the Vietnam war," Jamail said, "the seeds for one are there, and they are continuing to sprout amidst a soil that is becoming all the more fertile by the escalation of troops in Afghanistan, the lack of withdrawal in Iraq, and an increasingly over-stretched military."
This article, by Penny Coleman, was posted to AlterNet, August 12, 2009
Wayne McMahon was busted on gun charges six months after he got out of the Marines.
He was jumped by a gang of kids in his hometown of Albany, N.Y. , and he went for the assault rifle he kept in the back of his SUV.
He's serving "three flat, with two years of post-release" at Groveland Prison in upstate New York.
Maybe it's tempting to write McMahon off as just a screwed-up person who made the kinds of mistakes that should have landed him in jail, but maybe that's because his injuries don't show on the outside.
Unlike physical injuries, psychiatric injuries are invisible; the burden of proof lands on the soldier (or sailor or Marine), and such injuries are easy for the public to deny.
The diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder include a preoccupation with danger.
According to Jonathan Shay, a Veterans Administration psychiatrist and author of Achilles in Vietnam, hypervigilance in soldiers and veterans is expressed as the persistent mobilization of both body and mind to protect against lethal danger -- they act as though they were still in combat, even when the danger is no longer present.
That preoccupation leads to a cluster of symptoms, including sleeplessness, exaggerated startle responses, violent outbursts and a reliance on combat skills that are inappropriate, and very often illegal, in the civilian world.
When I asked McMahon what he was doing with an assault rifle in his car, he told me that since he got back from Afghanistan, he didn't feel safe without guns around.
"There was almost always a gun," he said. "In the apartment, there was guns everywhere.
"I was just over in combat, and you guys gave me an M-16 and a 9mm and let me walk around for eight months straight. And now I get back, and I get jumped by a bunch of people, and I can't have a gun?"
McMahon sits across from me in his prison greens, elbows on his knees, leaning into his story about the kid he was and the man he is hoping to become. His eagerness and optimism make it clear that he believes his mistakes are behind him.
His parents were teenagers when he was born, and they separated shortly after. He bounced around on the streets of Albany, and, like so many other young Americans with dreams of escaping dysfunctional families and lousy neighborhoods, he saw the military as a get-out-of-jail-free card.
He enlisted in the Marines right out of high school.
For the first time in his life, McMahon found himself in a meritocracy. He was promoted regularly and quickly, making sergeant by the time he got to Afghanistan.
Then two days before his five-year contract was up, he was caught drinking on the job, busted down to lance corporal and administratively discharged. He lost all his benefits.
McMahon was in the Marine Corps from 2001 until 2006. He spent his last year working as an aircraft mechanic on a flight line in Afghanistan that was under near-constant attack. It was also a transshipment point for injured American soldiers who were being evacuated to Germany.
For eight months, his days and nights were spent up close and personal with the visceral evidence of what the rockets, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades do to human bodies.
"We had a lot of explosions. Almost every day. And I seen guys coming out from convoy missions where their Humvees would have exploded," he told me matter-of-factly. "The first two months were pretty terrible. "
After that, even though "a lot of other people found it hard to deal with, it wasn't really too rough for me." A bit of Marine bravado, perhaps, but reinforced with a bit of liquid courage:
"We Marines, we're smart," he explained. "There was no alcohol provided, but I was making my own from fruit juice I got from the chow hall and yeast they gave us at the pizza shop. It was horrible, really horrible -- but two little 20-ounce water bottles, and you were good for the night. " It was the only way he got any sleep.
Jonathan Shay also notes the almost-universal reliance on alcohol or drugs by psychically injured veterans. They afford some temporary relief from intolerable memories and from the emotional and physical exhaustion of maintaining a constant state of vigilance.
McMahon came home from Afghanistan with a serious drinking problem, a hair-trigger temper and conditioned to rely on his combat skills for survival.
Both his marriage and his military career quickly unraveled, and then he was arrested. Nobody diagnosed his PTSD until he got to Groveland.
McMahon's obsession with safety and guns, and his compulsive drinking are both typical of a post-traumatic stress injury, but instead of diagnosis and treatment, he was left to his own compromised resources and promptly landed in jail.
In terms of the bottom line, it's a trifecta for the military when that happens. A damaged soldier is disappeared, the cost of treatment avoided and the evidence that would prove how often veterans find it impossible to readjust when they come home is erased.
Traumatized soldiers are not a military asset. They are unreliable, and can be dangerous to their fellow soldiers and to themselves. Their care can take years and be quite expensive. But because the macho culture of the military stigmatizes mental health issues, most soldiers won't ask for the help they need.
When they try to manage on their own and fail, when the entirely predictable symptoms of their injuries get them into trouble, their behavior is used to justify kicking them out of the service.
They lose all their health and disability benefits, and in the absence of treatment and support, the same behaviors that got them kicked out of the military land them in jail.
Once they enter the criminal justice system, their military service is irrelevant. Soldiers and veterans with psychiatric injuries who, like McMahon, end up in jail, are handed -- and in fact often accept -- the full burden of responsibility for their actions. And when that happens, the system gets off free.
That's what happened to McMahon, and though it's still too soon for meaningful statistics about incarceration rates among this new generation of veterans, the anecdotal evidence suggesting a predictive relationship between military experience, PTSD and trouble with the criminal justice system continues to mount .
And this is not a new phenomenon. The National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study, published in 1990, found that more than a decade after the Vietnam conflict ended, 15 percent of male veterans still suffered from PTSD, and half of them had been arrested or in jail at least once.
Most Vietnam War veterans deployed for exactly one year. Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have experienced longer and repeated deployments, and top military psychiatrists acknowledge that veterans of these new wars may have an even harder time coming home.
And instead of improving, the situation is getting worse. In 2008, the Rand Corp. estimated that 300,000 soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan will suffer from post-traumatic stress issues, and 320,000 others will suffer traumatic brain injuries that express many of the same symptoms as PTSD.
And although most of them will not seek treatment, even when they try the VA has made such care extremely difficult to access.
For years, the Pentagon has chosen to ignore congressional directives to screen soldiers both pre- and post-deployment.
In May, the Hartford Courant reported that such screenings are still being administered in haphazard fashion. Only 1 percent of at-risk soldiers were referred to a mental health professional prior to deployment, and post-deployment screenings continue to be a laughably inadequate box to be checked on a form.
The Courant noted that the situation has remained unchanged since the paper reported on the issue in 2007.
And for veterans, the VA's claims backlog in May was approaching 1 million, a 14 percent rise since January.
By now, the anecdotal evidence associating combat-related PTSD with crime and incarceration ought to be part of the conventional wisdom. Its accumulation over the past century should have engendered enough concern to provoke some serious attention and study.
But the reality is that nobody knows the precise number of veterans who have ended up behind bars in the aftermath of America's wars.
There are more than a few reasons why military and government officials might want those numbers to remain hidden, but certainly among the most compelling is cost.
Large numbers of veterans in prison suggest a pattern, perhaps even a causal relationship between military service and behaviors that lead to incarceration, lending support to those who argue that such behaviors should be seen as possible symptoms of a service-connected injury deserving of treatment and support rather than punishment.
When the patterns are hidden -- the numbers unavailable -- it is easier for the military to pretend that the problem is with a given individual and not systemic.
In January 2008, when the New York Times reported that it had identified 121 cases in which veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan had been charged with murder, the Pentagon declined to comment because it could not duplicate the newspaper's research.
A year later, the Army finally admitted that there might in fact be a connection between the violent behaviors of some returning service members and their combat experience. Pete Geren, Secretary of the Army, announced that in response to a spate of homicides at the Fort Carson Army base, he was “considering” conducting an Army-wide review of all soldiers involved in violent crimes since returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The report, which was finally published last week, does in fact “suggest a possible association between increasing levels of combat exposure and risk for negative behavioral outcomes."
And though it accuses the Army of denying necessary care to soldiers, and specifically blames commanders for proscribing access, Eric Schoomaker, the Army's surgeon general, calls it “preliminary,” and insists that no causality can be inferred from the findings.
Without causality, there is of course limited accountability.
Shoomaker pointed out that soldiers themselves should bear some responsibility for failing to seek help, ignoring the fact that half of the surveyed soldiers accused of violent behaviors had been sent back to Iraq “early,” and that many of them had documented suicide issues. Schoomaker also stressed that though many soldiers claimed to have witnessed war crimes, an Army probe did not substantiate those claims.
The results of this report might have been an invaluable contribution to the public conversation about what war does to soldiers and who should be responsible for their readjustment into society. Instead, once again, soldiers are blamed for violent behaviors that are clearly symptomatic of their injuries. When individuals take the rap, there is no interrogation of the pattern. Officials remain free to dismiss and deny how many ex-service members are ending up in jail. And as long as the bodies remain hidden, they get away with it. Vets Demonized; the System Gets Off the Hook
Ed Hart has a hard time accepting official denial of a connection that to him seems more than obvious.
Hart is an 87-year-old Marine, a veteran of World War II. He is also a former president of Veterans for Peace, a retired attorney and a deeply concerned citizen.
"People like me are upset about what they did to us -- and what they continue to do to the fuzzy-faced kids they haul off to boot camp," Hart said. "Too many of those kids never made it back into reality; they were found guilty of terrible crimes and sent off to spend years in prison -- maybe all the years left to them -- and we can't figure out what happened to them?"
Hart did in fact try to figure out what was happening in the late ‘80s, when Vietnam veterans began showing up in large numbers in the criminal justice system. Along with his pro bono legal work, he began interviewing large numbers of vets in prison.
What he discovered has been corroborated by every Bureau of Justice Statistics survey since: incarcerated veterans are better educated than their non-veteran counterparts; they are more likely to have been employed at the time of their arrest; and they are more likely to be in jail for a first offense -- all of which should be factors in their favor at sentencing.
But instead, they are more likely to get longer sentences than non-veterans -- on average, more than two years longer -- for the same crime.
Guy Gambill, director of research and policy at the Veterans Initiatives Center and Research Institute (VICTRI), attributes this to a "know better" syndrome.
"Judges and juries, ironically, place veterans in a higher category, one with heavy moral undertones. The thinking goes that they should know better and therefore should be held to a higher standard of conduct," he said.
Hart also recognized that moral judgment, but in his days as a practicing attorney, he saw an element of demonization in the dynamic as well.
"I've seen prosecuting attorneys in their final statements point to the bewildered man at the defense table and tell the jury, ‘Look at him! He's a trained killer! We need to get him off the streets and make them safe for our women and children.' "
Mike Thomas has experienced that prejudice firsthand. Thomas did three tours in Vietnam, was wounded twice, and earned all kinds of medals, but he's doing 25-to-life at Mule Creek Prison in Ione, Calif., for spewing some racist bile at an Asian man over the phone.
The day he got home from Vietnam, he beat up an Asian man in a bar, and he did it again the day they let him out of jail. He was sent to a military hospital for two years with a diagnosis of Adult Situational Reaction, a diagnostic precursor to PTSD.
The military declared him "fully recovered." For 25 years, he held down a job as a sales manager.
Then, one morning, in the midst of a flashback, Thomas lost his balance. Aside from hypervigilance, the symptoms of PTSD also include flashbacks. Flashbacks can be so convincingly real that the sufferer behaves as though he or she were actually in the remembered moment.
"Everybody who's lived at the brink of terror for some time has stored that place in his memory," Hart explains with empathy. "There's always the possibility that something will take him back sometime, give him that little push that will take his balance away.
"But there ain't much more you can do to a guy on the phone worse than yell at him."
Nonetheless, the prosecutor, noting Thomas's two priors, decided to interpret his phone rant as a terrorist threat -- hence the draconian sentence.
Some might argue that Thomas's antagonism towards Asians made him an accident waiting to happen, and they're not wrong. But dehumanization of the enemy is central to how military training enables soldiers to overcome their inherent resistance to killing other human beings.
Author Jonathan Shay describes how images of the enemy were drilled into his Vietnam-era patients as a "demonized adversary … evil, loathsome, deserving to be killed as the enemy of God, and as God-hated vermin, so inhuman as not really to care if he lives or dies."
It seems a distortion of justice to send a man to prison for life because in the course of his military training a switch got flipped, making him temporarily more useful to his government.
The practice continues. Bob Herbert, writing in the New York Times, described "the growing rage among coalition troops against all Iraqis (known derisively as 'hajis,' just as the Vietnamese were known as 'gooks')."
He quotes Sgt. Camilo Mejía, an Iraq war veteran, who explained, "You just sort of try to block out the fact that they are human beings and see them as enemies. You call them hajis, you know? You do all the things that make it easier to deal with killing them and mistreating them."
"The sacrifice that citizens make when they serve in their country's military," Shay reminds us, "is not simply the risk of death, dismemberment, disfigurement and paralysis -- as terrible as these realities are. They risk their peace of mind."
"When I went to boot camp," Thomas said, "I was a good Catholic boy who'd never shot so much as a squirrel. But I turned 20, 21 and 22 in Vietnam, and that became my identity. I tried to filter life through that prism of horror, pain and loss. Not good. A recipe for disaster."
Thomas once tried suicide to escape "the despair, grief, survivor guilt, nightmares, depression, the pain of hearing my mother say she wished I had died in Vietnam so her memories wouldn't be tainted."
More recently, he asked Veterans for Peace -- by mail -- to sponsor a nationwide program for incarcerated vets. His proposal was accepted and in May, VFP Incarcerated Chapter 001 was officially incorporated at Mule Creek Prison.
Wayne McMahon was luckier in that New York state still maintains residential therapeutic programs for veterans at three of its prisons. (In 1999, there were 19, boasting a recidivism rate of 9 percent after five years compared to 52 percent for non-veterans. Unfortunately for taxpayers, those programs were consolidated for the sake of "efficiency and effectiveness.") He has taken advantage of courses in anger and aggression management, interpersonal dynamics, and substance abuse, and he has completed his training as a group facilitator.
McMahon has a job waiting for him when he gets out; he wants to go back to school; and he is going to try for a discharge upgrade from the military based on his PTSD diagnosis. The Hidden Numbers
Since its first study of the issue in 1979, the Bureau of Justice Statistics has been the best source of information on the number of vets who have ended up behind bars.
According to the bureau's most recent survey, in 2004, there were 140,000 veterans in the nation's prisons -- or about 10 percent of the total prison population. By 2007, that number had risen to156,100, but the prison population overall had increased, so the relative share of vets in the population remained unchanged.
But as Baruch College's Aaron Levenstein once said, "Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital. "
For example, the numbers above don't include veterans held in the nation's jails, or those on probation or parole. When those groups are included, according to BJS estimates, the number of veterans who were under correctional supervision in 2007 jumps to 703,000. In addition, just under 1.2 million vets were arrested in 2007.
At least some of those on parole or probation at a given point will be arrested later in the year, skewing the estimated total. But Christopher Mumola, author of the last two BJS surveys of incarcerated veterans, said "if 703,000 veterans are supervised in some fashion on a given day, and 1,159,500 arrests in 2007 involved veterans as well, that gives you a rough approximation of the maximum number of vets who are touched by the criminal justice system in a year of about 1.8 million to 1.9 million veterans."
Still, in all probability, that number under-represents the number of veterans behind bars for several reasons.
For one, Mumola points out, an inmate's military history is irrelevant to prison administrators. "(They) measure the things they operationally use or are bureaucratically accountable for. Whether someone is a veteran or not doesn't change how that inmate is handled, the privileges they have or anything like that." So prison administrators don't ask. And, Mumola added, "the federal government doesn't require them to keep those statistics."
Frank Dawson, a patient advocate at the Boston VA, has long been frustrated and dismayed by the lack of reliable numbers. Dawson says he believes veterans need support before their lives spin out of control, and, "as a national service provider, the VA can't target services unless it knows where its population is."
But Dawson, like everyone else, has been stymied in his efforts. "I keep on my desk a stack of 6,000 address labels that I got from the Department of Justice," he said. "Six thousand institutions, 6,000 egos, 6,000 systems, 6,000 sets of protocol. There is no standard intake anywhere. I keep that stack on my desk to remind me how complicated they have made it. "
In the absence of federal, state or local legislation requiring penal institutions to use standard intake procedures that include verification of an inmate's military history, veterans' advocates across the country are pressuring the courts to at least inquire about veteran status during the bail-screening process.
But Taylor Halloran, who recently retired as the VA's liaison to veterans in New York's downstate prisons and jails, said there are more than a few reasons why veterans might refuse to divulge their military background.
Halloran emphasizes that many veterans offer fake Social Security numbers or aliases at intake, or they fail to report their arrests to VA because they fear the loss of benefits -- which is at least partially true. Health care benefits are suspended for the term of an inmate's incarceration and, after 60 days, disability benefits are reduced by about half, but those too should be reinstated when a veteran is released.
Lots of veterans don't know or understand the VA's policies, many have families that depend on those checks, and the VA has a reputation for taking its time reinstating benefits after an inmate is released.
So it's sort of a devil's bargain: identify themselves and lose half of their disability benefits, or take a chance they won't get caught. But if they do, they are royally screwed.
They have to pay the government back with interest and fines, but the far more serious consequence is that they lose all future benefits, including health care, disability and education.
To many, the risk seems worth taking. A 1999 Inspector General's report sharply criticized the VA's failure to "implement a systematic approach to identify incarcerated veterans and dependents, resulting in additional past and future overpayments exceeding $170 million dollars."
A 2004 VA Performance and Accountability Report found $5.7 million in benefit overpayments in a 20 percent sample of cases, and the report noted that "tracking 100 percent of these cases would not be cost beneficial."
Halloran said he had to work to get his potential clients to come forward voluntarily. And even then, he "couldn't touch the guys the VA doesn't consider veterans -- anyone with a dishonorable or bad-conduct discharge." One in six incarcerated veterans has been dishonorably discharged.
New Wars, Old Problems
Although the data are imperfect, one thing the BJS surveys do well is identify trends and patterns. For example, its last survey showed that at about 40 percent, Vietnam-era veterans still constitute the vast majority of vets in state and federal prisons.
The Gulf War involved far fewer soldiers and lasted for only six months, but at 15 percent of the veteran population in state and federal prisons, they constitute the newest wave. Veterans of the Gulf War are almost twice as likely to be incarcerated as demographically comparable non-veterans.
At 4 percent of the incarcerated veteran population, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were only just beginning to show up in the 2004 BJS survey.
"It takes quite a while for these folks to show up in the criminal justice system," Chris Mumola explained. "They are out there in these conflicts, having these experiences, coming back, getting into trouble with the criminal justice system, being fully adjudicated, winding up in prison, and only then are they available to be interviewed in these surveys. It may take years and years to marinate before it really manifests itself. "
Unfortunately, the next BJS survey is not scheduled until 2012.
However difficult those populations might be to track, it would seem that if ever there was a population that should be easy to count, it's prisoners. Every one has a number. Files are kept. There are forms -- and now computerized records -- from which patterns might be gleaned.
And prisons aren't the only black holes into which our nation's damaged warriors are disappearing. They also end up in hospitals and mental institutions. They vanish beyond the margins of society when their lives, their marriages, their careers fall apart. They end up in boxes on the street, vilified, forsaken, and self-medicating. Far too many die too soon of disease, accidents, overdoses or suicide.
An honest accounting of their numbers would be ammunition for those who believe that soldiers and veterans are still not receiving the care and support they need.
It would help challenge the myth of the romantic warrior by better educating our children to the real dangers of military service. It would also contribute to a public better informed about the hidden costs of our military ventures, including the ongoing damage to our citizens and our treasury, and to our national character as well.
This article, by Dahr Jamail and Sarah Lazare, was posted to TomDispatch, August 9, 2009
Echo Platoon is part of the 82nd Replacement Detachment of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Soldiers in the platoon are relegated to living quarters in a set of dimly lit concrete rooms. Pipes peep out of missing ceiling tiles and a musty smell permeates beds placed on cracked linoleum floors.
For soldiers who have gone AWOL (Absent Without Leave) and then voluntarily turned themselves in or were forcibly returned, the detention conditions here in Echo Platoon only serve to reinforce the inescapability of their situation. They remain suspended in a legal limbo of forced uncertainty that can extend from several months to a year or more, while the military takes its time deciding their fate. Some of them, however, are offered a free pass out of this military half-life -- but only if they agree to deploy to Afghanistan or Iraq.
Specialist Kevin McCormick, 21, who was held in Echo Platoon for more than seven months on AWOL and desertion charges, was typically offered release, subject to accepting deployment to Iraq, despite being suicidal. "Echo is like jail," he says, "with some privileges. [You are] just stuck there with horrible living conditions. There's black mold on the building [and] when I first got there, there were five or six people to a room, which is like a cell block with cement brick walls. The piping and electricals are above the tiles, so if anything leaks or bursts, it goes right down into the room. "
Specialist Michael St. Clair went AWOL because he could not obtain treatment from the military for his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). On turning himself in, he ended up consigned to Echo Platoon. As he recalls it, "The number fluctuates all the time, but on an average you have 50 people sharing two functioning toilets and a single shower… Except for a couple of rooms none have doors, and there is minimal privacy with four or more people to a room. It's stressful not knowing what's going to happen to you."
Former military recruiter Staff Sargeant Jeffrey Nelbach went AWOL in 2004 in hopes of salvaging his family life. (It is not uncommon for soldiers to remain AWOL for years at a time.) Now, he's paying for it with a stint in Echo. He confirms the awful conditions. "It is an old, moldy building with bad ventilation. Fifty-plus people use the same latrine. And more and more people are going there."
Nelbach, who is quick to say that he's "not really for the war and not really against it," has lost his house and is struggling to support his children with no income during his first few months in Echo, a limbo-land where even military pay can be suspended. His experience has convinced him that "military justice is arbitrary and if your chain of command is bad, it means everything up is bad." "Not Many Have This Opportunity." According to Major Virginia McCabe, spokesperson for the 82nd Airborne Division, AWOL soldiers are confined to the holdover section at the 82nd Replacement Detachment at Fort Bragg if they are deemed a flight risk. She offered no criteria, however, for just how that is determined. "Each AWOL soldier has his or her own special circumstances," she said. "They stay in a holding platoon until a legal decision is taken. Or they might say they made a mistake and return to serve."
Normally, soldiers on a legal "hold" of some kind end up in platoons like Echo. It may be because he or she is seeking a medical discharge, switching assignments, or waiting for a court martial to be convened.
Echo Platoon, however, seems to be made up of a contingent of wayward soldiers the military does not know what to do with. Captain Kevin Thaxton, commander of the 82nd Replacement Detachment, of which Echo Platoon is a part, offers this explanation:
"While the entire replacement detachment contains 500 soldiers, there are 40 AWOLs in Echo and about 20 in for holdovers/personnel issues and post-UCMJ [Uniform Code of Military Justice] Punishment, totaling about 60 people.
"Some are given the opportunity to go back with their unit and deploy. Those who accept do not exactly have their records cleared, but they do get to start over, keeping in mind we know this person has had problems before. We don't advertise that they went AWOL, but the commanders and the NCOs know about it. Not many have this opportunity. It depends on how long they've been AWOL. You have to say OK, would I trust a person who decided they didn't want to serve at one time, someone who is always on the fence?"
"Having a Head Full of Insanity"
One soldier in Echo Platoon, Specialist Dustin Stevens, had gone AWOL before the invasion of Iraq, and did so because he was opposed to all wars. On turning himself in, he's been in the holdover section for six months now awaiting AWOL and desertion charges. He may not be halfway through his purgatory. Others in the platoon have been held for more than a year in a no man's land of small-scale arbitrary punishment in which, according to soldiers in Echo Platoon, officers in charge regularly verbally abuse them as well as make physical threats
Kevin McCormick describes his experience this way: "You're less than human to the commanders. [They act as if] you don't deserve to be alive. A sergeant told us he wanted to take us out and shoot us in the back of the head. We get threatened all the time there."
On being questioned about such threats, Captain Thaxton played it safe. "I can't confirm or deny verbal abuse," he responded. "It depends on if a person is angry after something has been done."
On average, two new soldiers are assigned to Echo Platoon every week, according to Stevens. Resigned to a long wait, Stevens sums up life in the platoon this way:
"I've been here almost seven months, and only a few people have gotten out during that time. There was a Purple Heart veteran who was here and is now serving a 15-month jail sentence. One guy, gone for 10 years, got two years in prison without pay, although he had a newborn daughter. It doesn't make sense. Unfortunately, our sentence does not take into account the time served here. Some of us get paid, albeit the E1 or entry level wages, but I'd gladly give them the money back if I could go home...
"[Soldiers in Echo Platoon] don't... get the benefits others get. You are pretty much a prisoner. You can't do anything. They say you are not confined, but you can't go more than 50 miles off post. It's almost impossible to get leave unless in dire emergency, so we're just sitting here, day by day."
Downplaying the punitive nature of the platoon, Captain Thaxton admits only that "people who get in trouble are restricted to post. It keeps them from getting in fights with other soldiers. However, they are allowed access to Post Exchange [shopping], the chapel and dining facilities along with a 50-mile radius for travel."
Thaxton repeated several times that soldiers in Echo Platoon "can go to behavioral health [care]." While the soldiers themselves admit this is true and that they do have access to mental-health care, they say it is of very poor quality. Doctors, they claim, just focus on "drugging them up," rather than giving them adequate therapy in order to help them deal with their specific problems. The platoon's soldiers regularly confide suicidal urges to each other.
In Echo Platoon the deleterious effects the U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan are having on ordinary soldiers are clearly visible. By December 2006, it was already estimated that that 38% of all Army personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan had served multiple tours of duty. By October 2007, the Army reported that approximately 12% of all combat troops in Iraq were coping by taking antidepressants and/or sleeping pills.
In April 2008, the Rand Corporation, a military-affiliated think-tank, released a study stating: "Nearly 20 percent of military service members who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan -- 300,000 in all -- report symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression."
Like others who have turned against America's wars after multiple deployments to Iraq, Michael St. Clair has his regrets:
"I had always idealized the military, like we were going out to fight the Nazis, and had real moral high ground. When I got over [to Iraq], I was shocked by the brutality. My whole first tour, I can honestly say I never saw an Iraqi guy who deserved to die, who had weapons or was attacking us or anything. In many instances American soldiers took really bad decisions that killed innocent Iraqis. I had a hard time reconciling that with what I had thought I would be doing. By the time my second tour was over, I had morphed into a killer. A lot of people don't understand what war actually is. I don't know what's worse: being charged with felony or having a head full of insanity."
On St. Clair's return from his second tour, the military did a post-deployment health assessment, and six months later a reassessment. That is when his PTSD symptoms began to appear, and he was prescribed medication for depression. According to St. Clair, when he reported a panic attack, he was told he would not be sent to sniper school, and that he would not be given any further training because he was considered too unstable, which made him a danger to the country. Nevertheless, his military psychiatrist was, he claimed, pressured by higher ups to declare that he had a pre-Army personality disorder and was not suffering from PTSD. In despair, he went AWOL for 10 months before turning himself in.
His story is one more instance of the troop-unfriendly and skewed practices of the military machine. Diagnosed with PTSD, he was finally given a medical discharge for a personality disorder in an effort by the military to continue their systematic denial of the psychologically destructive effects of war. Staying AWOL After his deployment to Iraq, Kevin McCormick went AWOL because he felt suicidal and wasn't getting the help he needed. While in Iraq, he says, "I had a lot of problems back home. My mom had recently passed away. When I asked for help it got pushed back in my face. Even the Inspector General denied me treatment." (Essentially, the Inspector General represents a soldier's last recourse in attempting to correct a problem. If the IG refuses to help, there are few alternatives available.)
When, after four-and-a-half-months AWOL, McCormick turned himself in, he was offered absolution if he agreed to serve again, an absurdity not lost on him. "They offered me that deal," he exclaims, "when it was a known fact that I had issues with my mental care. They offered me a chance to go back to the unit!" His refusal to do so left him languishing in Echo Platoon for eight months until he finally received a medical discharge.
Even though his decision to go AWOL was in no way a protest against the U.S. occupation of Iraq, he is now opposed to it. "I personally don't feel we need to be in Iraq and I've been there and seen it firsthand. I think the U.S. being there is pointless."
His blunt advice to soldiers who go AWOL and intend to turn themselves in is, "If you're AWOL, fuck going back."
Staff Sergeant Nelbach will have spent over nine months in Echo Platoon by the time he is tried in October. His court martial will in all likelihood bring further punishment. Due to his higher rank and the fact that he was a platoon leader, Nelbach is in charge of making sure that soldiers in the platoon follow through on their work assignments. He also accompanies people to medical appointments and does necessary paperwork. He is thus seen by other platoon soldiers as the one who runs the place. Yet he is aware that none of this will help him when he comes to trial. "It's inhuman," he insists. "There's no fairness to it. It's always been mass punishment there." Warehousing Soldiers Assigned to Echo Platoon in January 2009, Dustin Stevens continues to bide his time awaiting charges that might still be months away. "[It's] horrible here. We are treated like animals. We're all so lost and wanting to go home. Some of us are going crazy, some are sick. And the way I see it, I did nothing wrong. By reading or talking to people all of the time I try to stay out of this place in my mind… There are people here who should be in mental hospitals."
James Branum, Stevens' civilian lawyer, is also the legal adviser to the G.I. Rights Hotline of Oklahoma and co-chair of the Military Law Task Force (MLTF) which offers training to the legal community and information about G.I. Rights and military law to service members and their families. He says AWOL troops make up three-quarters of Echo platoon and that medical cases are the bulk of the remainder. Accustomed to inordinate delays from the military, he says, "People are in this unit for months and months. The [authorities] take forever to do anything. You are going to be there six months if you're lucky, twelve if you're not."
On the legality of such detention without trial, Branum comments:
"I think there are some illegal elements about how they are running the place, but the general concept is not illegal. You have people there with legitimate medical and psychological issues, but instead of proactively helping them, the military shuffles them off to this replacement [detachment] to be treated like dirt. They are told they have no rights when they do have a right to talk to their commander, to have an attorney, and to talk to Congress. Echo, if run properly, would be a good thing. Not so when people are being warehoused and told repeatedly they have no rights. That is illegal."
As for the military's goal in running Echo Platoon and other similar units at military bases around the country:
"To me it doesn't seem productive. Oftentimes, the military doesn't know what it is doing. There isn't a logical explanation for this. Maybe deterrence is one. Other soldiers see these guys being ill treated and don't want to resist. They also want to break and wear people down so they'll deploy rather than keep resisting. The Army isn't true to its own processes at times. If their goal is to get folks deployable, this isn't the way. You don't want guys with physical or psychological issues to deploy."
In 2008, USA Today revealed that more than 43,000 troops listed as medically unfit had been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan anyway. A Yardstick of Desperation In a discussion of her group's role in dealing with the legal holding of soldiers, MLTF co-chair Kathleen Gilberd commented:
"Fort Bragg is not an isolated situation. Placement in legal-hold [detachments] where soldiers languish for months is common to all the services. What we're seeing is the command not making up their minds. Their indecision has severe consequences for those with open-ended medical issues because they cannot avail themselves of help until their legal situation is resolved."
Chuck Fager, the director of the Fayetteville Quaker House (the town of Fayetteville adjoins Fort Bragg) claims that the military is primarily focused on "making numbers" for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. "Orders from the Pentagon say you have to send X [number of] troops," he points out. "The military does not have them and is constantly looking around for where to get them. One potential pool is the mass of soldiers gone AWOL. Eventually they either go back or get picked up... We are guessing [military officials] think they can persuade a significant number of these AWOL soldiers to deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan. "
The U.S. still maintains more than 130,000 soldiers in Iraq and, by year's end, will have at least 68,000 in Afghanistan, a figure likely to rise in the years to come.
Think of Echo and other platoons like it as grim yardsticks for measuring the desperation in which a military under immense strain is now operating. Looking up at that military from Echo's airless limbo, from a world of soldiers who have fallen through the cracks of a system under great stress, you can see just how devastating America's two ongoing wars have been for the military itself. The walking wounded, the troubled, and the broken are now being pressured to reenter the fray.
If Chuck Fager is right, the future is bleak for the members of Echo Platoon who endure deplorable conditions with little idea about whether their future involves charges, trial, deployment, or medical release. It is a painful irony that some of those who volunteered to serve and defend our nation are now left particularly defenseless and vulnerable as a direct consequence of its ill advised foreign adventures.
This article, by Benjamin Lewis, was posted to Alternet, May 14, 2009
In October 2008 I announced at a Winter Soldier hearing in Portland, Oregon that I was being considered for involuntary activation back into the Marine Corps for a third tour of duty as an infantry mortar man; the day after this announcement I reported to Mobilization Command in Missouri as ordered. I reported with the intention of exercising civil disobedience in order to make a political point by refusing activation. The Marine Corps selected me for activation and since that time I have been publicly refusing service. My scheduled report date was May 18, 2009.
On April 16, 2009, I was contacted through Mobilization Command and told that the military no longer needed all the personnel being recalled in my group. The Marine Corps gave me the option to pursue orders and I declined. It is possible that my orders were canceled in order to remove me and other potentially vocal war resisters from the public eye. Certainly more drastic cases of government intervention to silence dissent have been a part of U.S. history. However, it is more likely that the Marine Corps actually did decide it no longer needed my group of reservists in light of rising retention rates, an ominous sign for our society as we continue to engage in warfare around the world.
Regardless of the cause, I no longer face involuntary activation orders.
My resistance was a conscious decision to cease participation in any way the continued maintenance and creation of empire through military intervention and global abuses of economic tyranny. That is I resisted on ideological grounds. I think that in order for institutions to change their behavior it is often necessary to work outside the framework of those institutions. I did this in one way simply by no longer recognizing the military’s sovereignty over my person and also by speaking out and educating citizens about the practices of their military.
Resistance takes many forms and functions: from active civil disobediences to the reservists who quietly ignore their activation orders and continue on with their lives. When a person is attempting to overthrow injustice or to increase human understanding even the smallest forms of resistance, such as suspending judgment amidst the whims of mass culture, become ripples in the water to be proud of. Though we can acknowledge that in America we have made great strides to improve human capabilities and bring about societal change for the better, we still have far to travel. Not as a country, but as a people. I will continue the work of supporting and organizing for GI Resistance that I started and continue to pursue the goal of peaceful justice. This is an important struggle that affects all society and it is far from over.
It has become clear that the institutionalized militarism within the U.S. has now had an immeasurable impact on us and the world. The fallout of this impact is still being assessed. Certainly anti-U.S. sentiment has increased drastically in the world in response to a militaristic U.S. foreign policy and debilitating foreign investment practices. Predictably, the more the U.S. flexes its military and economic muscles, the more enemies are made. And, clearly, if we are to address the growing violence around the world we must begin investigating some of the inherent unintended consequences of capitalism.
It is crucial that we acknowledge how dependent our society has become on militarism. The current global economic crisis is a compelling example. Trillions of dollars have been invested into the military, money that could have been invested back into our society in countless ways to stave off our current crises and assist students with education, create environmentally sustainable markets, alleviate world hunger, create jobs of value for communities, and preserve natural habitats, to name a few.
Recently the Bush doctrine and its many policies that are being adopted by the Obama administration have reinforced the trend or using our military to contend with our foreign relations; we seem unable to behave responsibly as the world’s leading power. It is likely that these trends will continue from president to president unless we change the nature of the presidency itself.
We have seen another generation of veterans come home damaged by their experiences, and the human consequence abroad has been far more severe. Our emphasis on institutionalized militarism as an integral part of our economy, with the military and military related projects amassing more monetarily and materially than the rest of the world combined, is quickly bringing us and the globe to the brink of our own demise; not only financially, but also environmentally.
Further, our very culture is at stake. More and more we become detached from the events and people around us as we fall victim to the mass culture that is largely encouraged by Western corporate and other financial interests. As we busily keep up with popular culture and satiate our habits of fashionable consumption, we see how our true interests are being ignored. Unemployment is rising, the banks once again have gambled with our futures and won, retirement is slipping away, health insurance is simply unattainable to most given the cost of rent and food. Regardless of the assurances from our government we nevertheless see that it is becoming harder to get a college degree, pay for healthy food, stay out of debt and so on. If this path continues, the future looks bleak even in the wealthiest country on the planet.
In order to pull ourselves out of this mess we must first acknowledge it. As a society we must take responsibility for our actions, intentional or unintentional. Only when we acknowledge our mistakes can we freely educate ourselves on issues and talk about the world in meaningful ways with the bridge of understanding. That is the path to peaceful and synergistic human relations. It can no longer be denied that America was formed and molded through the displacement of hundreds of advanced societies that had formerly held sovereignty over the continent. We still have not accepted responsibility for that, much less current world turmoil. A familiar example is the C.I.A.’s involvement in training the mujahidin we are now combating in Afghanistan, another piece of evidence showing us how we helped to create the global war on terror.
The events of 9/11 were horrible beyond doubt, but the amount of horror that has transpired since then has been worse still. And, like many other acts of violence, could have been prevented. The U.S. has been the single biggest perpetrator of terrorism in the world in recent decades through a variety of tactics. These tactics include economic sanctions, biased aid, imposed free trade agreements, self-exclusion, direct military intervention, support of brutal dictators among others; all this in the name of protecting vital U.S. interests. U.S. interests usually translate into the interests of those who would profit and acquire power, and that is very rarely the average American.
I have advocated throughout my campaign that it is necessary for our society’s preservation to begin questioning our inherent militarism. The achievement of the largest military force in history seems hardly something to be proud of in light of the thousands that die everyday of easily treated maladies and starvation. I have also been active in encouraging other service members facing reactivation to consider their options instead of operating in fear of potential consequences from the military. It is up to us as Americans to ensure the rights of these service members who have been asked more of than anyone should ever give.
The GI resistance movements against the Vietnam and Iraq wars have been incredibly successful in educating the public about the realities of war, and it is likely that active GI resistance to the Afghanistan war will continue to grow and strengthen. We must support these individuals in their struggles. Whereas in the past monarchs and warlords oppressed the majority of people on this planet through absolute control, today oppression is channeled through economic means. Since economic oppression is a much larger, more complex and less tangible means of oppression, it has been difficult for many to see. By now most realize that their opportunities depend largely on their economic station in life.
We have reached an ironic conclusion in our reasoning -- that to participate in what is considered honorable military service to ones country is to actually work against our own interests and the interests of all human society; ironically, those that oppress keep themselves in bondage as well. We must not ask what we can do for our country, but what our country can do for us. A country is, after all, only a tool, an institution set up by the people, for the people, to help them achieve their potential.
It is true that governments can be a great tool for a population to organize, but what governments cannot do is to ensure our individual freedoms. That is the responsibility of society itself. Only through a well developed collective consciousness can these big and difficult issues begin to be discussed and comprehended. Freedom is not something given or ensured by a military, that is a delusion; freedom is something we all have inherently. When we realize and accept this responsibility only then will we be able to claim our true freedom.
We are much more dependent on our neighbors than most Americans like to admit, most believe instead on the notion of ‘pulling one’s self up by one’s own bootstraps.’ Yet surely most do not make their own cloths or build their own appliances, much less grow their own food. And, with joblessness soaring all over, it has become more difficult to attain the bootstraps necessary to begin with. Our lives are restricted by the amount of money we have. Whether it is college or food, money is increasingly the primary determinant of being able to fulfill our potential as people. Whether or not this is the best system of economy to use we do know that there is enough money, technology and resources on this planet to increase everybody’s quality of life substantially and that our current system limits that ability.
The truth is humans in modern civilization are an incredibly inter-reliant species. One path to a more vibrant human future is to generate commerce within our own communities rather than use an intermediary like Wells-Fargo or Safeway we could invest in local Credit Unions or Co-Ops. Through this simple act we can make sure that economic power stays within our communities instead of being invested by others for their own interests and deter possibly immoral usages of the products of our hard work. Even if items are more expensive the local emphasis will allow for employers to pay more. If we look at money as a source of power to be used for good or for evil it makes as little sense to support Wal-Mart which siphons off our local resources to a unknown place and leaves our communities in foreclosure, as it does to support the military complex which impacts us much more fundamentally.
The U.S. is the largest economic force in history, and more than half of its treasure is tied up in the military. Surely it is transparent that one leg cannot move without the other. If we hope to change our path without constant war, class war as well as physical combat, it is up to the people to stop participating in a system that we know is bankrupt and to crawl out of the framework that was constructed for us. It is time to make a new society, our own society, a society bent on the betterment of humanity instead of the oppression of the many for the privilege of a few, and that is the greatest and noblest task of our generation, and of every generation.
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama's top military officials said Thursday they will make sure he knows the potential downside of any timetable for pulling U.S. forces out of Iraq, including the 16-month deadline Obama set during his presidential campaign.
"Our obligation is to give the president a range of options and the risks associated with each of those options, and he will make the decision," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said. He said the 16-month option is one of several. He did not provide a range, nor say which option he himself prefers.
Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are both holdovers from the Bush administration and one-time critics of a swift or deadline-driven withdrawal. Speaking publicly for the first time since Obama took office, both men suggested that the 16-month timeline is not as firm as Obama's campaign rhetoric implied.
"We've certainly heard 16 months for a long time," Mullen told reporters. "We've looked at options, looked at that option, and the risks that are associated with that."
When Obama is ready, Mullen said, "I will advise him accordingly, and then he'll make the decision."
Meanwhile, the U.S. diplomat who has seen Iraq transformed from chaos to relative calm over the past two years said that a hasty departure of U.S. troops would carry severe risks. Al-Qaida might be emboldened and Iraq's security and political gains threatened, Ambassador Ryan Crocker said.
Speaking to reporters a day after he and the top U.S. commander in Iraq briefed Obama by video connection, Crocker declined to say what he and Gen. Ray Odierno told the president.
But he noted that the president was committed to a responsible pullout of the more than 140,000-strong U.S. force.
"A precipitous withdrawal runs some very severe risks," Crocker said in Baghdad.
He said that al-Qaida had been "much weakened" due to setbacks on the battlefield and a loss of support within the Sunni Arab community.
"But as long as they can cling to some handhold here, they are going to keep trying to literally fight their way back," Crocker said.
"And perhaps most important it would have a chilling effect on Iraqis," he said of a quick U.S. departure. "I think the spirit of compromise, of accommodation, of focus on institutional development — all of that would run the risk of getting set aside."
Iraqi officials have said they hope the new administration will stick by the generally longer timeline established in the U.S.-Iraq security agreement which went into effect this month. The deal provides for U.S. combat troops to leave the cities by the end of June, with all U.S. troops gone from the country by 2012.
Military officials said there was no decision made at Wednesday's session in the Situation Room. The meeting on Obama's first full day in office was meant to frame his pledge to quickly end a war he has called misguided and wasteful. He has pledged to turn the nation's focus to what he calls a more pressing conflict in Afghanistan.
Gates called the meeting with Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and others just the start of a process to evaluate numerous options for Iraq.
"There was a good give-and-take," Gates said.
"We discussed a deliberate and yet rapid process," Mullen said.
In a statement after the meeting, Obama said he had told the generals and advisers to come up with a plan for a responsible drawdown, but he did not mention the 16-month timeline.
Military commanders say Iraq is much more stable and safe than it was a year ago, and certainly far calmer than in the darkest days of sectarian bloodshed in 2005 and 2006.
American soldiers are still dying in Iraq, but in fewer numbers even as they take greater risks and fewer precautions.