Web Only / Features » March 17, 2008
The War That Never Ends
Iraq Veterans Against the War’s ‘Winter Soldier’ hearings revealed the awful truths of the occupation and the ongoing struggle for those who have returned home.
Last Memorial Day, Sgt. Kristofer Goldsmith tried to kill himself. He had just been stop-lossed along with 80,000 other soldiers as part of the surge of U.S. forces to be sent to Iraq in the Bush administration’s last-ditch attempt at victory. Goldsmith already suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), though Veterans Affairs (VA) refused to diagnose him. His contract with the army was almost up, and he couldn’t bear the thought of an 18-month deployment.
Like the dozens of disgruntled veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who testified at the Iraq Veterans Against the War’s (IVAW) emotional and groundbreaking “Winter Soldier” hearings, held from March 13-16 at the National Labor College near Washington D.C., Goldsmith had enlisted as a proud American eager to defend his country and trusting of the government that would send him into battle. Goldsmith hails from Long Island, and a day after watching smoke pour out of the collapsed World Trade Center towers, he had told friends that he “wanted to kill everyone in the Middle East.”
Goldsmith arrived in the sprawling ghetto of Baghdad’s Sadr City at age 19. He admits to following the command of his superiors and taking photos of unearthed dead bodies, more as war trophies than as evidence. “The images of dead bodies are burned into my memory,” Goldsmith said. His unit harassed the local population, and stopped cars, even as someone’s wife was going into labor in the back seat. And one day he trained his weapon on a six-year-old Iraqi boy pointing a stick at him as if it were an AK-47. “We were so desensitized. … The U.S. government put me in that position,” he said. “It took a lot of thinking not to kill the boy that day.”
Veterans like Kristofer Goldsmith discovered first-hand how the government sent them ill-prepared into a war under false pretenses, changed their rules of engagement with every deployment, brainwashed them into dehumanizing the Iraqi population, and brought them home without adequate means of caring for those for whom the war still rages on.
IVAW’s Winter Soldier hearings, held just days before the five-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq on March 19, were inspired by the original Vietnam Winter Soldier hearings, which took place in the relative obscurity of a Howard Johnson motel in Detroit in 1971. (The phrase, “Winter Soldier” comes from a 1776 Revolutionary War quote by Thomas Paine: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”) The national media all but ignored those hearings, and the documentary Winter Soldier, produced by 18 filmmakers who attended the hearings, was left undistributed until Milestone Films picked it up in 2005. (See In These Times’s review of the film.)
The legacy of the first Winter Soldier hearings was ever-present in Washington D.C. Vietnam Veterans Against the War provided security at the National Labor College, forming a metaphorical circle of support around the new generation of their brethren-activists in arms. And that support was crucial. Unlike the Vietnam vets, the new generation finds they can follow the path of resistance already taken by others before them.
IVAW enjoyed other advantages over the original Winter Soldier hearings. A well-organized public relations team disseminated word of the event to journalists and documentary crews, resulting in healthy coverage in the progressive media world, and even some in the mainstream media. IVAW purchased an advertisement in the magazine Military Times in order to recruit more members. On the IVAW website, viewers could watch live streaming of testimonials and panels throughout the weekend, and on a base in Texas, active duty soldiers did just that until a Non-Commissioned Officer allegedly turned off the television. Pacifica Radio and Democracy Now both picked up the hearings as well.
The original Winter Soldier hearings were marred in mainstream political discourse by allegations of lies and unsubstantiated claims of war crimes by the U.S. military, as well as by the external appearance of many Winter Soldier testifiers as long-haired radicals–all of which resurfaced during Winter Soldier participant Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) presidential campaign in 2004. This time around, IVAW seemed determined to present its hearings in a more appealing light to mainstream America. From the security and hyper-organization surrounding the event, to the polished shoes and business-casual dress worn by many vets, to the verification and corroboration team that checked out the story of each testifier, everything seemed to say: “We’re not radicals, we’re your military, and you need to hear our stories.”
IVAW was founded in July 2004 at the annual convention of Veterans for Peace in Boston to give voice to active-duty service people and veterans who oppose the war in Iraq but are under pressure to remain silent. IVAW calls for “the immediate withdrawal of all occupying forces in Iraq; reparations for the human and structural damages Iraq has suffered, and stopping the corporate pillaging of Iraq so that their people can control their own lives and future; and full benefits, adequate healthcare (including mental health) and other supports for returning service men and women.”
The organization’s goals are political in the sense that IVAW seeks to do what the Bush administration, antiwar activists and the Democratic-controlled Congress have been unwilling or unable to accomplish: end the war in Iraq. But the Winter Soldier hearings in Washington D.C. were as much a forum for individual testimonials and a therapeutic way to come clean with stories of unethical behavior, and even war crimes.
Horrific tales from the front lines filled the weekend, and many a tear followed.
Jason Hurd, an Army National Guard medic who served in Baghdad in 2004-05, said his unit regularly opened fire on civilians. After taking stray rounds from a nearby gunfight, a machine gunner fired 200 rounds into a nearby apartment building. “Things like that happened every day in Iraq,” he said. “We reacted out of fear for our lives, and we reacted with total destruction.”
“Over time, as the absurdity of war set in, individuals from my unit indiscriminately opened fire at vehicles driving down the wrong side of the road,” Hurd continued. “People in my unit would later brag about it. I remember thinking how appalled I was that we were laughing at this, but that was the reality.”
Vincent Emanuele, a rifleman during his second tour in Iraq in 2004, described facing no repercussions for shooting at cars or indiscriminately firing into towns, releasing prisoners out in the middle of the desert, punching, kicking and throwing softball-sized rocks at them. Emanuele says he saw decapitated corpses in the road and drove over them, as well as shooting men in the back of the head for allegedly planting Improvised Explosive Devices. “These are the consequences for sending young men and women into battle.”
Sergio Kochergin described how the rules of engagement became more lenient as the war wore on and the casualties mounted. At first it was necessary to call the command post to report suspicious activity; later it was OK to “just take them out. … anyone digging close to the road, we had to take them out.” Kochergin’s roommate shot himself in the shower in Iraq. Kochergin himself later came close to doing the same once he returned home.
Jason Washburn, who served three tours with the Marines, described opening fire “on anything we saw in town.” He recalled a woman carrying a huge bag walking toward his unit. They killed her with a grenade launcher. It turned out she had groceries in the bag. Washburn also reported that his unit carried shovels (which would implicate someone digging IEDs) and weapons to plant on a body in case they shot an innocent civilian. He testified that the practice was encouraged behind closed doors.
Jon Michael Turner, a Marine from Burlington, Vt., offered the most dramatic–and most graphic–testimony. He stood and tossed his medals into the crowd, yelling, “Fuck you, I don’t work for you no more.” A machine gunner in Anbar Province, Turner showed videos of a 500-pound laser guided missile hitting Ramadi and of his unit machine-gunning the minaret atop a mosque. He showed digital photos of a mutilated body in a car after it had been shot up by a 50-caliber machine gun, with a close-up image of brains; part of a human face on a Kevlar helmet at Abu Ghraib; and a gruesome picture of the open skull of a boy he had just shot in front of the boy’s father–Turner’s first confirmed kill on April 18, 2006. For that, Turner was personally congratulated by his commander, who then offered a four-day pass to anyone who killed the enemy with a knife in hand-to-hand combat. “I am sorry for the things I did. I am no longer the monster I once was,” Turner concluded as he closed his eyes to suppress tears.
But the most emotional testimony of the weekend may have been that of Joyce and Kevin Lucey, whose son Jeffrey killed himself on June 22, 2004, a year after returning from Iraq, where he took part in the battle of Nasiriyah. Kevin tried repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, to get the VA to help Jeffrey after he began drinking heavily and exhibiting signs of PTSD. In late May, he had been involuntarily committed to a veteran’s hospital, but discharged after only a few days and despite confessing the urge to kill himself.
“Neither our veterans nor their families should have to beg for the care they deserve,” Joyce said at the Winter Soldier hearings. “Our Marine physically returned to us, but his soul did not. He lost it in Iraq.” Joyce closed by reading part of Jeffrey’s suicide note, prompting audible sniffling and sobs from hundreds in attendance: “I am embarrassed at the man I have become … only as a child did I truly enjoy life.”
On June 21, after launching a tirade over how the VA was treating him, Jeffrey sought out Kevin and embraced him. Then, his father described finding his son, the next day, hanging from the rafters of the basement with a garden hose, and held him one last time. To this, a woman in the audience began to moan in agony until she was comforted and led out of the testimony room by counselors attending the hearings.
Barring pro-war demonstrators and any hint of Fox News, the Winter Soldier hearings offered a safe and therapeutic environment for veterans and their families to share their stories and lean on their comrades for support. But the war inside of them continues, and their transition back into civilized society hasn’t come as easily as their slide away from it.
As for Sgt. Kristofer Goldsmith, who narrowly avoided killing a six-year-old Iraqi boy pointing a stick at him, he’s almost broke and can’t go to college because he’s been denied his GI Bill benefits. So he works Wednesday nights as a pizza delivery boy. “I was one of the most professional soldiers,” he said, “but now I deliver pizza because it’s the only job that I can call in two hours before and say that I’m still at the VA.”
Jacob Wheeler is a contributing editor at In These Times.