Winter Soldier on the Hill

In an unofficial hearing held in a small chamber of the House of Representatives on May 15, Congressperson Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX) listened with sympathy to nine testimonies from Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) describing the indiscriminate killing of Iraqi civilians, racism toward "everything that wasn’t us," abuse of detainees, mutilation of Iraqi dead, and high-level cover-ups and corruption. After they had finished testifying about atrocities committed by the U.S. military in Iraq, Jackson-Lee asked if they would be willing to help organize a mass mobilization in Washington, DC in an effort to end the war.

The request, perhaps meant as a gesture of good faith from a progressive Democratic, was met with an unexpectedly tepid response from the veterans. "Beyond amassing hundreds of thousands of people, which has been done before, there have to be clear objectives," said Army officer Luis Montalvan, who served two tours in Iraq with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment and who had testified earlier about corruption and lack of accountability at the highest levels of the U.S. military. 

IVAW members testifying in Congress

Jackson-Lee queried the other testifiers and got similar answers. Adam Kokesh, a former Marine who served in 2003 with the 3rd Civil Affairs Group in Fallujah, explained that he was less interested in mobilizing thousands of people for a mass demonstration than in organizing direct resistance to the war within the military.

James Gilligan, a former Marine who served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, minced no words: "I fly this flag upside down because my nation is in distress. I do not see why we need to wait a day, a week, a month for impeachment." Gilligan’s response was met with enthusiastic clapping from the audience.

At the end of the hearing, Geoff Millard, the DC Chapter president of the IVAW, gave a closing statement. Like the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, which "was the leading force that led to the end of that occupation" in the 1970s, Millard said that the resistance from veterans would be key to ending the war. "The only question is will Congress be there to help us?"

A Growing Movement

Since its founding in 2004 with only 7 members, IVAW has grown to a national organization with 1,200 members, half of whom joined in the last year. Its members include veterans and active-duty personnel who are working for an immediate withdrawal of troops, full benefits and care for military personnel, and reparations for the Iraqi people.

In its first years the organization generally played a supportive role in the antiwar movement, with members speaking at antiwar events and marching at the head of antiwar mobilizations. In the last year the group has come into its own, focusing on organizing resistance within the military. Most recently, they organized "Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan," a four-day event, hosted by the National LaborCollege in Silver Spring, Maryland. Dozens of veterans and active-duty personnel testified about atrocities they had seen or committed in Iraq. Panels covered issues of racism and sexism in the military, the dehumanization of Iraqis, the abuse of detainees, the indiscriminate killing of civilians, the role of corruption and military contractors, and the breakdown of the military.

The Second Vietnam

Two months later, the unofficial hearing hosted by the 72-member Congressional Progressive Caucus was a smaller affair. The press, however, showed up in force, with CNN and Fox News promising to attend and C-SPAN recording the event.

All of the presenters had also provided testimony at the earlier Winter Soldier hearings in March and much of their testimony echoed their previous statements. For example, Jason Lemieux, a Marine who served three tours in Iraq (in Karbala, Husaybah, and Ramadi), testified on how the rules of engagement used by U.S. forces "lead to widespread destruction for all life and property in Iraq." Lemieux described an incident in which a Marine platoon, after being fired on by snipers, responded by firing a battery of weapons, including tank rounds, at an Iraqi village where there were known civilians. He explained how his commanding officer falsified the number of incoming rounds received from four to "double digits" to cover-up the excessive force used in the incident. Lemieux also testified about being ordered to shoot at unarmed civilians and he characterized such cover-ups of civilian casualties as "routine."

"In my unit the primary loyalty is not to democracy or the flag or to America or the Iraqi people or to the rule of law. It is to each other’s safety at the expense of everything else," Lemieux said.

Sergio Kochergin, who served two tours in Iraq with the U.S. Marine Corps, made one of the most disturbing charges of systematic cover-ups. Kochergin explained that soldiers were given drop weapons: "Drop weapons are the weapons that are given to us by the command so if the person [is] shot, an AK 47 will be dropped on the body." He added that commanding officers had to be aware of the practice. "These weapons could not come from anywhere else, but the hard chain of command."

Scott Ewing, a cavalry scout deployed to Iraq in March 2005, testified that civilians were routinely the victims of American fire: "I witnessed more innocent civilians injured or killed by American forces than by the enemy." He described encountering two Iraqi women who were bleeding after being shot by U.S. forces, one of whom died from a shrapnel injury to her head. Ewing also described the arbitrary detainment of Iraqi civilians. "In one case we detained three men just because they were running…. There was no evidence they had done anything wrong, we detained them anyway."

Geoff Millard, formerly in the Army National Guard, spent 13 months in Iraq during the so-called Operation Iraqi Freedom. Millard testified that racism toward Arabs and Muslims was endemic among soldiers in Iraq. "Everything that wasn’t us became ‘hajis’," Millard said, citing an Arabic term of endearment that is often used by U.S. military personnel to denigrate Arabs and Muslims.

According to Millard, racism was common even at the highest levels. Millard described a traffic control shooting in which, "A young private made a split second decision and put more than 200 rounds into a car" containing an Iraqi family. After being briefed on the incident, Millard testified to hearing a general tell a room full of soldiers that, "If these fucking ‘hajis’ learned to drive, this shit wouldn’t happen."

Other soldiers echoed the charges of racism and dehumanization of the Iraqi people. When dealing with detainees, "Our unit engaged in punching, kicking, butt stroking, at times throwing [detainees] out of the back of our Humvees…and throwing softball-sized rocks at their backs as they ran away," said Vincent Emanuele, who was deployed in 2004 to Iraq with the U.S. Marine Corps.

Emanuele described how the bodies of Iraqi dead were routinely mishandled and mutilated. When dead bodies were found by soldiers, "Standard operation procedure was to run over these bodies with Humvees and sometimes take pictures."

Kris Goldsmith, a former Army Sergeant, spoke about his own racism when he entered the military. "I joined the army to kill Iraqis, to kill Muslim, to kill people [with] a skin tone that was other than mine." He then apologized, "I’m no longer a racist, no longer filled with hatred like that." The 22-year-old served in Sadr City.

"It was bad when Saddam was in control; it is now worse than 2005," said Goldsmith of conditions in U.S.-occupied Baghdad. He showed slides of raw sewage in the streets, describing how any clean-up was done perfunctorily by U.S. forces once a week, at best, with no real attempt to improve living conditions for Iraqis. "This is a school which is flooded," said Goldsmith showing a slide. "That’s a kid being exposed to massive amounts of sewage. That is sewage outside of the Red Crescent hospital."

Goldsmith explained that the people he met in Sadr City were not grateful for the U.S. occupation, but resentful and angry, encouraging children to throw bricks at soldiers. He showed images of graffiti on the sides of buildings. One of them, spray-painted in blue Arabic script, read, "Welcome, America, to the second Vietnam." Another written in broken English said, "The U.S. and Allawi are terror men," referring to the former Iraqi prime minister.

Goldsmith’s testimony also hinted at the deep psychological trauma that many veterans of the Iraq war are struggling with and the lack of support provided by the U.S. military. "Since I returned, I attempted suicide, I never redeployed, I lost my college benefits," said Goldsmith, who is prevented from collecting education benefits due to the nature of his discharge from the Army.

Encouraging Resistance

After the hearing, members of IVAW gathered in the neighboring Cannon Building of the House, just above the heads of dozens of tourists streaming through the metal detectors, to show just what they meant by direct resistance. Army Sgt. Matthis Chiroux, a 24-year-old photojournalist who served nearly 5 years in the military, read a short statement to members of the press, announcing his refusal to deploy to Iraq. "As an army journalist whose job it was to collect and filter service members’ stories, I heard many a stomach-churning testimony of the horrors and crimes taking place in Iraq. For fear of retaliation from the military, I failed to report these crimes," said Chiroux. "Never again will I allow fear to silence me. Never again will I fail to take a stand. In February I received a letter from the Army, ordering my return to active duty, with the purpose of mobilization in Operation Iraqi Freedom…. Thanks in great part to the truths of war being fearlessly spoken by my fellow IVAW members, I stand before you today with the strength and clarity and resolve to declare to the military and my government and the world that this soldier will not be deploying to Iraq." 

Chiroux refuses to deploy, with IVAW members

Chiroux’s statement was followed by comments by Kelly Dougherty, IVAW’s executive director. "I would like to let Matthis and everyone here know that IVAW stands in support and solidarity with your decision, which I know is very difficult and very personal…. IVAW’s strategy to end the occupation in Iraq is to encourage and organize resistance and opposition to this occupation from within the ranks and from the recent veterans."


Erin Thompson is a freelance journalist and photographer; photos are by her. This article was originally published in the Indypendent,