Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Winter Soldiers: 'We Have to Share This Pain'

Winter Soldiers: 'We Have to Share This Pain'


October 21, 2008
by Dahr Jamail

PORTLAND, Ore. - Veterans from the U.S. occupation of Iraq and
Afghanistan, along with Iraqis, Afghans, Vietnam veterans, and family
members of U.S. military personnel, converged in this West Coast city
over the weekend to share stories of atrocities being committed daily
in Iraq, in a continuation of the "Winter Soldier" hearings held in
Silver Spring, Md., in March.

At the Unitarian Church downtown, some 300 people gathered to hear
the testimonies, which left many in tears. The five-hour event was
comprised of three panels: Voices of Veterans from Iraq and
Afghanistan, The Human Costs of War, and Building Resistance to War.

The goal of the event is to give veterans a platform from which to
disseminate information about their experiences abroad to the general public.

"War changes people. You do not come out of a combat zone the same,"
Iraq war veteran Chanan Suarez Diaz told the audience while
moderating the veteran's panel. "War is very numbing … it comes to a
point that you see so much destruction you become numb. This bullsh*t
about bringing democracy or liberation is nonsense – we've killed
over 1 million Iraqis."

Jan Critchfield, an Army National Guard specialist, discussed his job
working in Iraq as an Army "journalist"; in his words, "I was a
propagandist, pure and simple."

A somber Critchfield said, "I'm not proud of any of what I did over
there – it was inhumane and it changed me as a person. I didn't do
anything but yell at people, push people around, and aim my gun at people."

Other vets spoke as photos taken by soldiers were shown on a large
screen above the stage.

Josh Simpson explained his work as an Army counterintelligence agent
in Iraq. "We would go to houses without any evidence, arrest people,
and pay our source hundreds of dollars. This was common. It was a
crazy cycle."

"We were raiding houses every night in Mosul," he continued. "You
ransack their stuff, then ask our officer who he wanted to detain."

The number of people detained was a measure of success for a unit,
Simpson explained. "People's mothers would be grabbing me, asking me
why I was taking their child away, and I never had an answer. It's
terrible to push an elderly Iraqi woman away so you can take her
child and load her into your Stryker vehicle, when you don't even
believe they belong there."

Evan Knappenberger served one year in Iraq with the Army 4th Infantry
Division working as an intelligence analyst. "We are responsible as
soldiers, we are murderers of over 1 million Iraqis," a visibly
shaken Knappenberger said. "I participated in burglary, trespassing,
knowledgeable negligence, criminal assault and battery, rape by
association, and gangsterism. I am standing here today as a criminal
– in a sense of the word that only someone who has worn the uniform
can understand."

"While I was in Iraq, I did many things, but nothing for freedom," he
added. "We've lost this war on the polemic battleground of semantics.
By naming arbitrary rules of engagement, we rationalized murder –
this I witnessed … by calling it liberation, we justified occupation,
this I witnessed…"

Chris Arendt, who was a block guard at the Guantanamo Bay detention
center during 2004-05, spoke of his experiences "working at a
concentration camp, and the people I was working for were invading
other countries."

He explained, "I had a lot of time to think about things. What we do
there is completely contrary to our own set of laws. We have 650
people in Gitmo right now waiting for us to do something with them.
What have they done? They don't even have charges! We are ruining
people's lives."

"Time is the silent killer there," Arendt explained. "You just put
people in a cell and tell them they are never going home, and watch
them slowly break apart. I wish I was angrier when I was there, but
it was impossible to feel there, you can't feel, feelings are just
not something you want to bring there in your rucksack, but I'm still
trying to unpack them, three years later."

David Mann was an Army specialist who was deployed to Nasiriyah,
Iraq, in 2003 and forced to return after his tour ended under the
"stop-loss" policy for a second deployment to Balad, Iraq, in 2005.

"We were told not to stop when children ran in front of our vehicles
as we invaded Iraq," he explained, his voice cracking. After being
stop-lossed, Mann checked himself into an emergency room after
threatening to kill himself.

Weeping he continued: "I told them I was going to kill myself if I
had to go back to war. I was sent back … every man, woman, and child
who has died in this war has died in vain, because it was a war based
on lies and profits."

The event was sponsored by Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW)
Seattle Chapter, the American Friends Service Committee, PDX Peace
Coalition, and the American Iranian Friendship Council, among many others.

On another panel, Dr. Baher Butti, formerly the chief psychiatrist at
a mental health clinic Baghdad, told the stunned audience, "The Iraqi
population has mass post-traumatic stress disorder. Everybody is just
trying to survive."

Dr. Zaher Wahab, professor of education at Lewis & Clark College, who
serves as a senior adviser to the Minister of Higher Education in
Afghanistan, spoke eloquently of the catastrophic situation in Afghanistan.

"There is now more bombing in Afghanistan than in Iraq, because they
are so short of troops," Dr. Wahab explained, "The average family
lives on one dollar per day, 2 million people are seriously mentally
ill, 70 percent of Afghanis are traumatized. The society is being
murdered by the occupation, and it's being done on live television."

Iraq war veteran and former Marine Benjamin David Lewis, 23 years
old, also attended the event. Lewis, who has served two tours in Iraq
and four years as a Marine, including being in Fallujah during the
November 2004 siege that killed thousands of Iraqis and destroyed
much of the city, had just received his involuntary activation order
to redeploy, as he is in the Individual Ready Reserve.

"My plane to Kansas City that takes me to be screened and get my
orders leaves tomorrow," Lewis told IPS on Oct. 18. "Presumably I'll
get my orders to go to Iraq or Afghanistan, but I'm going to refuse
to activate."

Lewis explained that when a soldier is screened for deployment, they
have five months to get their affairs in order before being shipped
abroad. At the end of this five months, he has decided he will
publicly refuse his orders to deploy.

When asked why he would refuse the orders, Lewis said his decision
was based on educating himself about the goals of the U.S. government
and military, coupled with his experience in Fallujah during both
2004 sieges, of which he said, "My battalion in spring 2004 was
operating in direct contravention of the Geneva Conventions [GCs]."

"During the spring siege we sent military-age males back into the
city, and were ordered to kill them," he told IPS.

Of the November siege, Lewis added, "The intention of the military
was to take over and occupy the main hospital in Fallujah, which
violates the GCs, as well as our being ordered to target all
'military age males.'"

The intention of his refusal to activate is "To let the American
public and other veterans know that this is an illegal war, and
everyone should be opposing it."

The first Winter Soldier event was organized in 1971 by Vietnam
Veterans Against the War in response to a growing list of human
rights violations occurring in Vietnam.

From March 13-16, 2008, IVAW held a national conference titled
"Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan" outside Washington, D.C. The
four-day event brought together veterans from across the country to
testify about their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"If we are going to end these occupations, we have to share this
pain," Camilo Mejia, Iraq veteran and chair of the board of IVAW,
stated to conclude the veterans' panel. "Only by sharing this pain,
and acting to end it, can we heal ourselves and educate the American public."


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