Antiwar Veterans Redefine Veterans Day
Last November 11, antiwar veterans and their supporters marked Veterans Day with a range of coordinated events around the country. Until the 1950s, November 11 was known as Armistice Day to commemorate the end of World War I. This year, members of IVAW (Iraq Veterans Against the War) and their civilian allies evoked the original meaning of this holiday through Operation Recovery, a campaign to transition this country out of our declared "endless war" and heal some of its wounds.
Operation Recovery demonstration, Washington, DC—photo by Rose Marie Berger
In Chicago, members and supporters of the Justseeds Artists' Cooperative and IVAW created street art and a gallery exhibition in support of Operation Recovery—photo from Justseeds
Military resister Jeff Hanks turned himself in on Veterans Day at Fort Campbell, Kentucky—photo from www.hillbillyreport.org
Volunteers at Coffee Strong prepared donation bags for outreach to veterans at nearby Fort Lewis, Washington—photo from www.ivaw.org
Operation Recovery: End the Deployment of Traumatized Troops was launched this past October 7, the tenth anniversary of the Afghanistan War, seeking to end the military's abusive practices of deploying soldiers suffering from traumas including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and Military Sexual Trauma (MST). IVAW's research estimates that approximately 20 percent of active duty troops are suffering from untreated trauma. Many service members have shared stories of being denied treatment as well as being punished and mocked for seeking it, even as military suicides continue to rise. The Operation Recovery campaign is one step among IVAW's broader goals to not only ensure the right of service members to heal, but also to end the wars and occupations, deliver reparations to Iraq, and hold accountable the people who are responsible. Operation Recovery events included:
¨ An art opening and Warrior Writers workshop in Chicago
¨ Street outreach in New York, Philadelphia, Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, and Manhattan, Kansas
¨ Outreach on bases to active duty soldiers at Fort Riley, Kansas and Fort Lewis, Washington
¨ Teach-ins and organizing meetings in Savannah, Georgia and San Francisco, California
They also included the public surrender of an injured AWOL soldier, Army Specialist Jeff Hanks, at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. Hanks went AWOL to resist redeployment to Afghanistan last fall after the military refused to treat him for severe PTSD. Supported by military and civilian allies alike, Hanks and other veterans testified about the military's negligent and often abusive treatment of severely traumatized soldiers seeking care. Hanks decided he wanted to turn himself in publicly to draw attention to these widespread practices. If he is court-martialed, he could face up to two years in prison and a lifetime felony conviction on his record. The Army could also attempt to forcibly deploy him again. At the gates of Ft. Campbell, 25 supporters stood with Hanks as he told his story to reporters. Another AWOL soldier from his unit traveled to join the rally, disclosing similar experiences. One supporter explained that her husband, who is currently deployed, was sent against medical advice.
In the weeks following the November 11 actions, a number of other soldiers gone AWOL from the 101st due to mental health struggles have reached out to Operation Recovery for support.
Visibility and support are important factors influencing not only the morale of traumatized troops and their families, but also the military's treatment of people who go public. Aaron Hughes of IVAW shared with supporters that, "Jeff's command was extremely hostile when he turned himself in on Veterans Day, but after the CBS story aired on Friday, they changed their tune" (Hanks was interviewed by Katie Couric).
At an Operation Rescue event on the University of Illinois campus in Champaign-Urbana, IVAW members and civilian antiwar organizers publicly mounted a large display counting off the years' 334 Army suicides. The striking art drew veterans, students (including Iraqi-Americans), professors, and workers into conversations with the organizers. "It felt like an important presence to have because there were so many pro-military groups, including the military, who were there using the day to drum up support for the wars. We effectively inserted a different understanding of what it means to support the troops, which is to bring them home," said Sarah Lazare from the Civilian-Soldier Alliance, who helped organize the event.
In San Francisco, 50 people—from a range of veterans' and civilian organizations—gathered to launch Operation Recovery on the West Coast. IVAW members explained the campaign and strategized with people from over 15 organizations and at least 5 cities. They subsequently kicked off a multi-year set of healing ceremonies and events led by veteran and non-veteran members of the Ohlone Nation, working alongside Veterans for Peace.
The November elections revealed a striking wall of silence around war as a campaign issue. Politicians across the spectrum seem to find it expedient to keep people from thinking about or discussing the wars. Unfortunately, the various forms of violence that people experience in the military, and the effects of bringing war home in their bodies, have long been taboo subjects in this country. But veterans and their loved ones are refusing to continue quietly confining health and safety impacts to their homes and bodies.