As the blood of US soldiers continues to drain into the hot sands of Iraq over the last several days with at least 27 US soldiers killed and the approval rating for his handling of the debacle in Iraq dropping to an all-time low of 38%, Mr. Bush commented from the comforts of his ranch in Crawford, Texas today, “We will stay the course, we will complete the job in Iraq.”
Just a two hour drive away in Dallas, at the Veterans for Peace National Convention in Dallas, I’m sitting with a roomful of veterans from the current quagmire.
When asked what he would say to Mr. Bush if he had the chance to speak to him, Abdul Henderson, a corporal in the Marines who served in Iraq from March until May, 2003, took a deep breath and said, “It would be two hits-me hitting him and him hitting the floor. I see this guy in the most prestigious office in the world, and this guy says ‘bring it on.’ A guy who ain’t never been shot at, never seen anyone suffering, saying ‘bring it on?’ He gets to act like a cowboy in a western movie…it’s sickening to me.”
The other vets with him nod in agreement as he speaks somberly…his anger seething.
One of them, Alex Ryabov, a corporal in an artillery unit which was in Iraq the first three months of the invasion, asked for some time to formulate his response to the same question.
“I don’t think Bush will ever realize how many millions of lives he and his lackeys have ruined on their quest for money, greed and power,” he says, “To take the patriotism of the American people for granted…the fact that people (his administration) are willing to lie and make excuses for you while you continue to kill and maim the youth of America and ruin countless families…and still manage to do so with a smile on your face.”
Taking a deep breath to steady himself he continues as if addressing Bush first-hand; “You needs to resign, take the billions of dollars you’ve made off the blood and sweat of US service members….all the suffering you’ve caused us, and put those billions of dollars into the VA to take care of the men and women you sent to be slaughtered. Yet all those billions aren’t enough to even try to compensate all the people who have been affected by this.”
These new additions to Veterans for Peace are actively living the statement of purpose of the organization, having pledged to work with others towards increasing public awareness of the costs of war, to work to restrain their government from intervening, overtly and covertly, in the internal affairs of other nations and to see justice for veterans and victims of war, among other goals.
I type furiously for three hours, trying to keep up with the stories each of the men shared….about the atrocities of what they saw, and committed, while in Iraq.
Camilo Mejia, an army staff sergeant who was sentenced to a year in military prison in May, 2004 for refusing to return to Iraq after being home on leave, talks openly about what he did there:
“What it all comes down to is redemption for what was done there. I was turning ambulances away from going to hospitals, I killed civilians, I tortured guys…and I’m ashamed of that. Once you are there, it has nothing to do with politics…it has to do with you as an individual being there and killing people for no reason. There is no purpose, and now I’m sick at myself for doing these things. I kept telling myself I was there for my buddies. It was a weak reasoning…because I still shut my mouth and did my job.”
Mejia then spoke candidly about why he refused to return:
“It wasn’t until I came home that I felt it-how wrong it all was and that I was a coward for pushing my principles aside. I’m trying to buy my way back into heaven…and it’s not so much what I did, but what I didn’t do to stop it when I was there. So now it’s a way of trying to undo the evil that we did over there. This is why I’m speaking out, and not going back. This is a painful process and we’re going through it.”
Camilo Mejia was then quick to point towards the success of his organization and his colleagues. “When I went back to Iraq in October of 2003, the Pentagon said there were 22 AWOL’s. Five months later it was 500, and when I got out of jail that number was 5,000. These are the Pentagons’ numbers for the military. Two things are significant here-the number went from 500-5,000 in 11 months, and these are the numbers from the Pentagon.”
While the military is falling short of its recruitment goals across the board and the disaster in Iraq spiraling deeper into chaos with each passing day, these are little consolation for these men who have paid the price they’ve had to pay to be at this convention. They continue to pay, but at the same time stand firm in their resolve to bring an end to the occupation of Iraq and to help their fellow soldiers.
Ryabov then begins to tell of his unit firing the wrong artillery rounds which hit 5-10 km from their intended target.
“We have no idea where those rounds fell, or what they hit,” he says quietly while two of the men hold their heads in their hands, “Now we’ve come to these realizations and we’re trying to educate people to save them from going through the same thing.”
After talking of the use of uranium munitions, of which Ryabov stated 300 tons of which were used in the ’91 Gulf War, and 2,200 tons and counting having been used thus far in the current war, he adds, “We were put in a foreign country and fire artillery and kill people…and it shouldn’t have even happened in the first place. It’s hard to put into words the full tragedy of it-the death and suffering on both sides. I feel a grave injustice has been done and I’m trying to correct it. You do all these things and come back and think, ‘what have we done?’ We just rolled right by an Iraqi man with a gunshot in his thigh and two guys near him waving white flags….he probably bled to death.”
Harvey Tharp sitting with us served in Kirkuk. His position of being in charge of some reconstruction projects in northern Iraq allowed him to form many close friendships with Iraqis…something that prompts him to ask me to tell more people of the generous culture of the Iraqi people. His friendships apparently brought the war much closer to home for him.
“What I concluded last summer when I was waiting to transfer to NSA was that not only were our reasons for being there lies, but we just weren’t there to help the Iraqis. So in November of ‘04 I told my commander I couldn’t take part in this. I would have been sent into Fallujah, and he was going to order me in to do my job. I also chose not to go back because the dropping of bombs in urban areas like Fallujah are a violation of the laws of warfare because of the near certainty of collateral damage. For me, seeing the full humanity of Iraqis made me realize I couldn’t participate in these operations.”
Tharp goes on to say that he believes there are still Vietnam vets who think that that was a necessary war and adds, “I think it’s because that keeps the demons at bay for them to believe it is justified…this is their coping mechanism. We, as Americans, have to face the total obvious truth that this was all because of a lie. We are speaking out because we have to speak out. We want to help other vets tell other vets their story…to keep people from drinking themselves to death.”
When he is asked what he would say to Mr. Bush if he had a few moments with him, he too took some time to think about it, then says, “It is obvious that middle America is starting to turn against this war and to turn against you…for good reason. The only thing I could see that would arrest this inevitable fall that you deserve, is another 9/11 or another war with say, Iran. There are some very credible indications in the media that we are already in pre-war with Iran. What I’m trying to do is find a stand Americans can take against you, but I think people are willing to say ‘don’t you dare do this to us again.’ My message to the American people is this-do you want to go another round with these people? If not-now is the time to say so.”
The men are using this time to tell more of why they are resisting the illegal occupation, and it’s difficult to ask new questions as they are adding to what one another share.
“I didn’t want to kill another soul for no reason. That’s it,” adds Henderson, “We were firing into small towns….you see people just running, cars going, guys falling off bikes…it was just sad. You just sit there and look through your binos and see things blowing up, and you think, man they have no water, living in the third world, and we’re just bombing them to hell. Blowing up buildings, shrapnel tearing people to shreds.”
Tharp jumps in and adds, “Most of what we’re talking about is war crimes…war crimes because they are directed by our government for power projection. My easy answer for not going is PTSD…but the deeper moral reason is that I didn’t want to be involved in a crime against humanity.”
Ryabov then adds, “We were put in a foreign country to fire artillery and kill people…and it shouldn’t have even happened in the first place. It’s hard to put into words the full tragedy of it-the death and suffering on both sides. I feel a grave injustice has been done and I’m trying to correct it. You do all these things and come back and think, what have we done?”
Michael Hoffman served as a Marine Corps corporal who fought in Tikrit and Baghdad, and has since become a co-founder of Iraq Veterans Against the War.
“Nobody wants to kill another person and think it was because of a lie. Nobody wants to think their service was in vain,” says Hoffman.
His response to what he would say to Mr. Bush is simple, “I would look him straight in the eye and ask him ‘why?’ And I would hold him there and make him answer me. He never has to deal with us one on one. I dare him to talk to any of us like that, one on one, and give us an answer.”
Hoffman then adds, “What about the 3 year old Iraqi girl who is now an orphan with diseases and nightmares for the rest of her life for what we did? And the people who orchestrated this don’t have to pay anything. How many times are my children going to have to go through this? Our only choice is to fight this to try to stop it from happening again.”
Earlier this same day Mr. Bush said, “We cannot leave this task half finished, we must take it all the way to the end.”
However, Charlie Anderson, another Iraq veteran, had strong words for Bush. After discussing how the background radiation in Baghdad is now five times the normal rate-the equivalent of having 3 chest x-rays an hour, he said, “These are not accidents-the DU [Depleted Uraniaum]-it’s important for people to understand this-the use of DU and its effects are by design. These are very carefully engineered and orchestrated incidents.”
While the entire group nods in agreement and two other soldiers stand up to shake his hand, Anderson says firmly, “You subverted us, you destroyed our lives, you owe us. I want your resignation in my hand in the next five minutes. Get packin’ Georgie.”