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Iluminating The Way: Antiwar Veterans Organize At Largest Military Base In U.S.


As the war in Afghanistan drags through its eleventh year, discussion of U.S. occupation has been forgotten in election cycle discourse.

Yet in Fort Hood, Texas, a community of military veterans, soldiers, and allies who are unable to forget are organizing their community in response to the widespread trauma that underlies U.S. policies of endless war. Calling their campaign Operation Recovery, members of Iraq Veterans Against the War and The Civilian-Soldier Alliance are working with Under the Hood Cafe and Outreach Center to demand service members' right to heal.

Even as the U.S. military claims to draw down its forces, suicide rates among active duty service members and veterans continue to climb. According to the Army's own studies, the year 2011 set a record for the highest number of Army suicides in military history. That same year also marked a spike in sexual assaults within the ranks of the military. While comparable studies of trauma in occupied populations do not exist, the death count in the “Global War on Terror” continues to rise, with over 12,000 Afghan civilians killed since 2006 and more than 185,000 Afghan civilians displaced in 2011 alone, marking a 45 percent jump from 2010.

War trauma is acutely felt at Fort Hood, the largest military base in the country that houses many soldiers on their way to and from war zones. The Army reported in 2010 that the base's suicide rate was double the national average, and today the base's sexual assault counselors and healthcare providers cannot meet the swelling need for help. Military communities have decided to take matters into their own hands by organizing within this sprawling military installation for the right to heal from war's trauma and an end to the dehumanization and abuse that underwrites U.S.-led occupation.

Maggie Martin is a two-time Iraq War veteran and a Field Organizer for Iraq Veterans Against the War, currently based at Fort Hood. In this interview, Maggie discusses campaign strategy, talks about Fort Hood military communities, and explains how healing is a force against war.

Can you tell me what you and other IVAW members are doing at Fort Hood?

We're here organizing an active duty outreach drive for Operation Recovery. We're trying to get the word out about the work we're doing at Fort Hood around the right to heal. We're also collecting stories and information from soldiers here about the situation on the ground, particularly around issues of access to mental and physical healthcare.

People are experiencing things like stigma for trying to seek care. People are having profiles violated. Medical profiles are from doctors and healthcare workers to put restrictions on certain kinds of work for service members related to what they're capable of due to their mental health status. Violating a profile means assigning service members work that is unsafe for them.

What kind of response have you been getting from active duty service members?

Most people who have experience with traumatic injuries are able to tell us some of the things that have been difficult for them around getting treatment. A lot of people are still afraid to get help because of stigma. There are also issues of unofficial punishment where there is not necessarily a paperwork trail but people are getting disrespected and treated badly for seeking care. This is not necessarily across the board – we've heard from some folks that their command and leadership are doing the right thing and really encouraging soldiers to get care and help. It is important that everyone get the care they need and deserve, and we are trying to figure out how to ensure that.

What is the focus of the campaign right now?

We're trying to set up interviews, do house visits, and have one-on-one conversations with new members at the Under the Hood Cafe and Outreach Center, both IVAW members and potential members. This includes people who come to our ribs and rights events, as well as different trainings we put on, including Warrior Writers and G.I. rights trainings. We are trying to solidify people's roles in the community and understand more about why they came into the community and why they're interested in Operation Recovery as well as what they want to see for the future. Next Saturday, before I leave, we're going to have a larger IVAW chapter meeting for the Fort Hood chapter and the Austin chapter that's forming. We'll invite potential members as well, both active duty and veterans. That should help us get a sense of where the community here wants to take the campaign and how they see themselves continuing as an area of operation for the campaign.

Have you found that talking about trauma is an effective starting place to relate to service members?

Yeah, it is. I think that our one-on-one conversations with people show us that the reason they came to Under the Hood is because of the injustices that are happening around service-members' care, and they feel really betrayed that they have given so much and their comrades have given so much but can't even get decent healthcare. It is an important issue to people. It is something that can be seen as a really blatant disregard for the dignity and respect of soldiers. With the reduction of the military, we are seeing so many more folks being forced out and not allowed to re-enlist. Many of them are people who have been deployed repeatedly and are now struggling with their own physical and mental health issues and are now being disregarded and discarded.

As a veteran, how does it feel to be organizing active duty service members at a massive military base like Fort Hood?

I think one thing that's really interesting for me about going back to a military base is remembering where I was when I was in the military, what was important to me, what issues I thought about, and what power and control over my own life I thought I had, which was pretty much none when I was in. Going back, I feel like I know a lot more about how widespread the issues are that service members are facing. I know more about service members' rights. I think it is really helpful to remember back to where I was and try to be a bridge for people to understand more or to explore their own ideas just by inviting them to Under the Hood Cafe and Outreach Center, asking questions, and making space. It's also cool being able to organize around service members' rights while not being in the military anymore because there is a lot more freedom and less fear of the military legal system.

How is Operation Recovery an anti-militarist campaign?

Militarism and dehumanization go hand in hand and really work off of each other. Operation Recovery is predicated on reclaiming our humanity through talking about human rights. I think that if people and soldiers see themselves as people worthy of dignity and respect and healthcare, then that's a step in the direction away from the dehumanization that happens to soldiers in their training that is carried on to the work they do overseas.

That reminds me of this quote we used as a prompt for our Warrior Writers workshop yesterday from Thich Nhat Hahn, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk: "Veterans are the light at the tip of the candle, illuminating the way for the whole nation. If veterans can achieve awareness, transformation, understanding, and peace, they can share with the rest of society the realities of war. And they can teach us how to make peace with ourselves and each other, so we never have to use violence to resolve conflicts again." I think that the military is so separated from the rest of American culture, and people believe that the military is happy to participate in these things and that everything we engage in is for this greater just cause. The reason I joined IVAW is because I believe that it is powerful for people who have been immersed and participated in the military to counter the popular belief that the military is a separate group of heroic people carrying out the needs of our country. I think that soldiers speaking out creates a shift in the American consciousness.

How does the trauma that service members face relate to the trauma faced by those living under occupation?

I think that we see cycles of trauma repeat themselves within families and communities with service members here in the States. We know a lot less about this trauma in occupied countries because we are so separated from what is happening in occupied countries. People in the military aren't getting care, they're struggling with drugs and alcohol and prescription drug abuse, they can't sleep at night, they're having nightmares and flashbacks, they have a hard time distinguishing when they're safe and in danger. You add some hardcore weaponry to that equation, and it is pretty obvious this is a recipe for disaster.

What was Ft. Hood like under Fort Hood Commanding General Donal Campbell? General Campbell has been tapped for the role of new commander of U.S. Army Europe, which amounts to a promotion. Can you tell us a little about his track record so far?

General Campbell was a target of Operation Recovery because he was in control of such a large military installation that had been repeatedly deploying many soldiers since the early stages of the war. Soldiers at Fort Hood have been through a lot of serious combat, a lot of multiple deployments, and a lot of traumatic injuries. In 2010, this base had the highest suicide rate of any military installation. It is important for us to identify and hold accountable the military leaders who are responsible.

General Campbell recently held a Facebook "town hall" meeting that purportedly aimed to get feedback about base policy from the Fort Hood community. In reality, it seemed to be more about public relations than about how to help service members. We got a lot of political non-answers to tough questions we were asking. In response to questions highlighting lack of access to care for service members, General Campbell responded by telling people to contact his office if they are having problems. We really think that's ridiculous. If someone gets turned down from help from their supervisor, if they get told they are weak and need to suck it up, they are not going to feel comfortable going to the post commander to ask for help. The town hall responses were disingenuous and lacked any concrete solutions or steps for improvements. We also know that one of the active duty service members we have been working with is being targeted and penalized by his command for demanding his right to heal at that Facebook town hall meeting.

What does General Campbell's promotion say about the values of the U.S. military?

I think it shows that they want these tough leaders who are going to carry out orders and make hard decisions and be willing to put soldiers' welfare second to the needs of the military. It shows that the military has no accountability to the community or even to the soldiers under their command, and the only way we're going to be able to make a difference is to go to the people who control their promotions and cash flow.

What's next for Operation Recovery?

We're going to release an Appeal for Redress for service members' and veterans' right to heal. IVAW members and other veterans and service members across the country will be invited to sign on to the Appeal for Redress and engage with their congressional representatives. An Appeal for Redress is a protected form of communication for active duty service members to resolve an issue and seek redress through their congressional representatives. It is protected under the Military Whistle-Blower Protection Act that is supposed to keep service members safe from reprisals from command and leadership that they're trying to address. We're in the process of figuring out what we want to come out of this and what local campaigns will be happening under the larger umbrella of Operation Recovery. I think there will be specific demands for specific local targets. Our overall goal will be to put pressure on congressional representatives and build up to open hearings for service members and veterans to be able to share their stories about dealing with traumatic injuries in the military and VA system. The hope is that congress will put pressure or force military and VA to give proper care.

Why is this organizing relevant now?

I think it is crazy that we're in the eleventh year of the war in Afghanistan, in a presidential election year, and the war is not even an issue in the presidential campaigns: it's not even being discussed. Soldiers coming home from Afghanistan, and soldiers who have come home from Iraq, are starting to see mental health issues surface in their lives. More and more service members and veterans are dealing with the consequences of traumatic injuries, yet this issue is getting less and less coverage and spotlight in the political arena. We think it is really important to keep standing up for service members and let people know that the wars are not over for those who participated and for those who were and are occupied. We need to remember these things and learn from mistakes as we move into the future. 

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