Sixty veterans stood in formation, backs straight, feet slightly apart, hands held tensely to their brows in salute. In the gray
Kris Goldsmith, 23 year-old former combat soldier in the
Kris’s speech addressed the McCain camp sitting safely out of earshot in the
Since its inception in 2004, members of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) have worked feverishly to bring their narratives into the public limelight. From political conventions to anti-war rallies to the winter soldier hearings,
Kris, like many Iraq Veterans, did not become a political activist overnight. He spent his childhood growing up in a working-class suburb in
Once in the military, Kris was made front-line witness to the horrors of the war he had so eagerly embraced. Deployed to
The numerous photographs he took were never used for intelligence, but served another purpose: as trophies, sometimes referred to as war porn, for soldiers in his unit, "to send home to their friends and family to brag," Kris testified at Winter Soldier. "The images are burned into my head forever," he says. "The very pictures on the digital camera, are what haunt me to this day."
Kris was not just a passive observer of violence. He tells of abusing and terrorizing Iraqis, imprisoning people in their homes by making the streets unsafe for them and waking families in the middle of the night to raid their houses at gunpoint. Even the dead bodies of Iraqis were used as the butts of jokes told by soldiers. At one point, when Kris came across a six year-old Iraqi boy in an alley, it took all of the self-control he had remaining not to shoot the kid dead in the street to satisfy his anger.
Kris’ low morale and depression appears to be shared by many other
Mathis Chiroux is one such resister, an army journalist who was discharged after five years of service, only to be recalled to active duty earlier this year. Mathis is publicly refusing to deploy to
Mathis emphasizes that the G.I. movement against war is a spectrum, encompassing active duty troops who engage in small acts of disobedience, service people who openly refuse to fight, and veterans like Kris Goldsmith who, once released from service, devote their time to organizing for peace.
After months, and then years, of up-close exposure to violence, Kris’s long-held faith in the war began to falter. "There was no clear point when I decided I was against the war. It was a gradual process," he said in an interview. The mythical link between Saddam and Al Qaeda was exposed. Bush admitted, in January 2005, that there were no weapons of mass destruction in
Meanwhile, the war was taking a profound psychological toll on Kris. He began acting strangely, feeling constantly on edge, having panic attacks in response to the slightest bumps and bangs, and blunting his anxieties with heavy drinking. After finding out, just four months before he was set to leave the army and head off to college, that he had been stop-lossed, Kris broke down. On Memorial Day of 2007, he scrawled "Stop loss killed me. End stop loss now" on his arm with a sharpie and swallowed a liter of vodka and a dozen pills of percoset, intending to end his life.
After surviving his suicide attempt, Kris was accused by the military of faking his mental breakdown to get out of deployment. He was given a general, rather than honorable, discharge, and as a result was stripped of the educational benefits he had eagerly looked forward to.
Since being released from service, Kris has been diagnosed by a psychiatrist as having PTSD. He suffers from nightmares, panic attacks, and flashbacks, and he struggles with alcoholism. He gets meager assistance from the military to combat these problems. Kris received little information from the army about how to enroll in the VA system and has had to work largely on his own to get the healthcare he needs.
What is shocking about Kris’s narrative is not just the litany of horrors he was forced to endure, but also the fact that his tale is not at all unusual among young veterans returning from war. Hundreds of veterans have testified at the IVAW Winter Soldier Hearings, which were kicked off in March of this year and have since been held around the country. At these events, based on the 1971 Winter Soldier hearings on war crimes in
Amongst this company, Kris’s story becomes another note in the crescendo of voices speaking out about the atrocities of war:
Eyes downcast, Hart Viges, former army mortar man and 2004 war resister, tells of shooting mortars into a small town in
Former U.S. Marine Corps machine gunner John Michel Turner told of being congratulated for his first kill: an innocent man murdered in front of his friend and father. He also told of shooting mortars at a mosque because he was angry after one of his comrades was killed, and of getting the words "Fuck you" tattooed in Arabic on his wrist, because that was his choking hand. "I am sorry for the hate and destruction I have inflicted on innocent people," he said to the silent audience, his voice shaking. "I am no longer the monster I once was."
Tanya Austin, US army veteran, told the story of a female coastguard who was raped in the military and then discharged and punished for reporting the incident. "Every active duty member sitting in this audience knows someone who has been assaulted or raped or harassed," Tanya said, staring deadpan at the audience. "That has got to change."
Kevin and Joyce Lucey told of the suicide of their 23 year-old son, Jeffrey Michael Lucey, who had served five months as a marine convoy driver in
These stories document how acts of brutality harm the inflictor as well as the victim. In a war replete with atrocities, from the Abu Ghraib scandals to the Haditha massacres to the recent
Yet, the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) fails to give these returning troops the care they need. The Bush Administration has systematically voted against meaningful improvements to veterans’ benefits, and returning veterans are forced to deal with an over-taxed medical system. Hundreds of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have filed a class action lawsuit against the U.S. government charging them with medical neglect of returning veterans, pointing out that on average, 18 war veterans kill themselves each day – five of them while under the care of the VA. Meanwhile, the military has been punishing people like Kris for "malingering" at increasing rates and discouraging service members from receiving the help they need: over 21
Today, instead of holding an M-4 carbine firearm, Kris holds a marker that he uses to draw out the plans for the next day’s march on large, white sheets of paper. He says that it was only when he became involved in IVAW that he started to recover. "When I finally linked up with 200 other vets at winter soldier and shared my story for the first time, that’s when the real therapy started," he said. "Knowing that I wasn’t alone in the way that I felt and the things that I dealt with, that made all the difference."
However, Kris’s transition into being a political organizer was not seamless. He emerged from the military steeped in deep prejudice toward the Iraqi people, largely blaming them for what he had been through. It was only after he was "separated from military service and stopped being surrounded by people who hated Iraqis," that Kris was able to reverse these patterns of thinking. He began doing his own research into the true causes of the war and found himself immersed in a new community of veterans struggling to undo the damage the military had done themselves and to Iraqis as well. "I began to realize that the Iraqi people are also victims of this war," he says.
Veteran organizers like Kris are taking the political world by storm. Just before the RNC, IVAW led a 10,000 person strong march to the DNC to deliver a list of demands to Obama (after a tense stand off with police, Obama finally sent a liaison to accept the written demands). IVAW chapters all over the country have been organizing regional winter soldier hearings, street performances, writing and art projects, and support groups to help each other heal. Veterans, war resisters, and civilian allies have been helping support the troops that refuse to fight, and many veterans are busy organizing in the ranks of the military, fanning those small fires of resistance. Painful narratives become powerful political tools, as veterans use their stories to bring to light the day-to-day horrors of war.
"The actions of these young veterans show that anyone can change," says Jeff Paterson, Gulf War resister and Project Director of Courage to Resist, an organization that support troops who refuse to fight. "People who were trained killers literally transform themselves into peace activists. And these individual transformations, repeated over and over, can shake the very foundations holding up war and occupation."
"We are standing here today to demand a change," said Kris in addressing the gathering. He then joined the formation of veterans standing behind him, and the group began marching to city hall to join with another anti-war demonstration. They stepped in rhythm, shouting anti-war cadences: "We are veterans, anti-war veterans" and "They’re our brothers, they’re our sisters, we support war resisters." Their voices rang out loudly as they passed police and onlookers, their army camos and large flags constituting a jarring presence in the streets of