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Military families and veterans say:
Bring them home now!

February 13, 2004 | Page 5

U.S. MILITARY officials insist that the occupation of Iraq is proceeding with few snags. But the soldiers who are being ordered to carry out this occupation for oil and empire tell a different story.

According to a recent survey, National Guard troops are leaving the military at a rapidly increasing rate. Last year, 16 percent of Army Guard troops left, but this year, 22 percent say they won't reenlist. And this is despite the military's "stop-loss" program, which is requiring thousands upon thousands to continue their service, even after their reenlistment dates.

The cause of this exodus is obvious. Conditions in Iraq are hellish. By the end of October, the Pentagon reported that 9,000 troops had been evacuated from Iraq due to combat wounds, non-combat-related injuries, psychological and stress-related conditions, and other illnesses. More recent statistics are hard to come by, but the number may well exceed 20,000 by now.

Military psychiatrists say that one in five soldiers will experience combat-related stress disorders upon their return. And of those evacuated for psychiatric reasons, the vast majority of them left after May 1, the day that George W. Bush declared the end to major combat operations.

Suicides among U.S. troops are also on the rise, according to military medical personnel. So far, at least 22 soldiers have taken their own lives, which isn't reflected in the Pentagon's tally of combat fatalities. But suicide now amounts to a shocking 7 percent of all service deaths in Iraq, and the rate of suicides among soldiers in Iraq is about 30 percent higher than among the civilian population.

Here, Socialist Worker prints excerpts from speeches by Stacey Paeth and Bill Davis at a session of the Chicago Social Forum on January 31. Stacey works at a hospital in northwestern Indiana and has two sons in the military. Bill is a Vietnam veteran, president of his machinists' local at United Parcel Service, a member of Chicago Labor Against War and former national coordinator of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

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Stacey Paeth

I HAVE two sons. Justin, who's 20 and a 2002 graduate, is in the Army in Iraq, and I have another son who's 19, a 2003 graduate and a Marine. Justin went in right after high school. He wasn't quite ready for college, was a soccer player, got recruited, was in Germany and then got sent to Iraq May 1.

When he went, supposedly the initial fighting was over with, and they were just going to go in there to maintain peace. But that's not, as you know, what's been happening.

He was there two weeks, and I got my first phone call from him. And it didn't sound like the Justin that I knew. He was very down, a lot of despair in his voice. There were a couple suicides in his unit, and he had already gone through an ambush and lost everything.

He called home asking me to send him different supplies, because everything he had was burned up. And the other soldiers were hanging out for three days until they were rescued.

As time went on, I didn't hear from him quite so often, but every time I did, he was really down. I got a letter from him saying he was sick, that he got sand flea fever at one point, he was sick from the water at another. He was pretty much living on his MREs (meals ready to eat), going on missions, living out of his vehicle.

He was trained to be a mechanic, to repair the Humvees, but he said he was doing everything but that. A few days before Thanksgiving, I'm sitting in my office--I work at a hospital--and Justin walks in. I hadn't seen him in six months.

We were surprised to see him, it was very emotional. He was skinny, he had lost 15 pounds, he was dirty. It took him three days to get home. He started from Iraq, went to Italy, to Ireland, to Baltimore to home.

And I could tell just by looking at him right away that he was in a little bit of shock, overwhelmed. All he could think about while he was over there, being as young as he is, was coming home. He wanted to see his family, he missed his friends, and he didn't want to be a soldier anymore.

He was very loyal to the military, but he wants to be home. Right away, he and I leave the building, and the first thing he says to me is, "Mom, can you please take me for a haircut?"

So after calling my husband and my family and everyone rushing over to my house to wait for him, he and I have a car ride. And he says to me, "You know, I'm only home because another soldier was supposed to go home, and that soldier was killed, and I was able to take his place."

And then he said, "Look at the bottom of my uniform." There was blood on his uniform, and he said, "I had to carry a soldier who had been ambushed. I can't get the blood out of my uniform. Can you please help me get the blood out?" I said, "Sure."

He was very quiet the first two days he was home. He didn't really talk very much at all, and he didn't leave the house. And during the time he was home, Bush did his thing of going to Iraq, a political move as you all know. And Justin at that point wouldn't watch the TV, he wouldn't talk about the war, he just wanted to see his friends and be a 20-year-old.

His friends all came home from school, they all came over, we had a little party for him. And right away, he went out shopping, bought himself some clothes, wanted to be a regular kid. He spent his two weeks at home with us and with his friends.

He did a lot of partying, and you know that 20-year-olds go out and party, but he drank a lot. A lot, a lot. Every night, he was trying to forget the pain, he was out drinking and being with his friends, and not talking about the war and not thinking about the war.

The two weeks, of course, were up very quickly, and it was time to take him back. And I'm sitting here telling you that no mother should have to take her son back to an airport to say goodbye to him to send him off to a war.

The day that he had to put on his uniform was the hardest thing that I think our family had ever had to go through. It was hard for him, it was hard for his friends who were all over at the house. Some of his friends hadn't seen him in uniform, and once they saw him come out, and he's all ready to go with his dusty uniform with a hole in his boots and his green bag, it was very hard for his friends, very hard for the family, very hard for everybody involved.

We went to the airport, and I don't think two words were said in the car. We get there, time to say goodbye, my husband and my family and Justin's girlfriend all say their goodbyes, I walk him to the gate, it was the two of us alone. There was nothing I could possibly say.

What can you say to your child on his way to a war? I tried to tell him, you know, Justin, your term is halfway up, you'll be getting out of there in six months, you'll be going back to Germany, it'll be over with before you know it, you have a beautiful girlfriend here, you have your family waiting here for you.

But the last thing he did was he handed me his watch. He said, "Hold onto this for me." I look at him in his eyes, and never in my whole life have I seen such fear, such sadness, such an overwhelming feeling in anybody's eyes. For that brief moment, I saw the whole war in his eyes, and I saw the fear of what he had to go back to, and I really realized that I had no idea.

I had no idea of what he was going to. I said goodbye, and the very next day, he calls me from Kuwait, and he says, 'I don't want to go back. I don't want to go back. I don't know what to do. I have to go back, but I don't want to go back to this, it's terrible there.'

I talked to him on New Year's Day. It was a time of reflection for him. He said he doesn't know why he's been fortunate enough to survive when so many people around him have perished. He's just very thankful and wants to come home. They've asked him to reenlist, and of course, he said no.

That's what my family has been going through, and this is just one story compared to what thousands of other families are going through. My whole point is: Why are they letting them come home for two weeks? How is it doing them any good? Especially a 20-year-old.

It's too much for a family to comprehend, too much for him to comprehend. It's an emotional roller coaster because there's such a high when they walk through that door, and you're just so glad to see them.

But for them to have to adjust to being a person, and then going back to the middle of a war zone where they're not getting good meals, where they're sleeping out of their vehicles, where they don't know what's going to happen to them day by day--it's just unacceptable. And we just need to put a stop to all of it.

Bill Davis

I'M A Vietnam veteran, and I've worked with veterans and GIs since 1970. I've done military counseling, I've done veterans' counseling. In the area of veterans' mental health, I think we're going to be seeing a surprising number of young men and women that neither they nor their parents ever dreamed of.

There are a lot of different categories of people who serve in the military. One of those categories, quite frankly, is people who enjoy what they're doing in the war. Fortunately, they're usually a minority. But there are people who feel no particular revulsion in taking human lives.

A much larger category are those who go into the military and feel that they are serving their country and haven't been exposed to some of the more abject horrors of war. They discover that they're having a very difficult time dealing with it. The military said this time that they were going to head off all of these problems miraculously by providing counseling for people in the field if they had particular problems or experienced something that could cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Unfortunately, most of the cases on record of people who have gone to them for help have been labeled "cowards" or "traitors" and brought up on charges--which is the most absurd thing. So they've really extended themselves in the trust department!

We discovered--since the Veterans Administration (VA) didn't want to recognize PTSD--that our best support was in peer groups being led by people who were somewhat knowledgeable in the field. Our particular good fortune was that our group was led initially by Robert Jay Lifton, a very noted person in the field who actually established the existence of PTSD.

This came to be accepted even by the VA. And when we took our issues to the VA, we were clubbed, beaten, gassed and maced. Sometimes they sprayed mace in the waiting rooms, and so people who were in there with us, but who weren't necessarily there to fight against the VA, got maced, too.

They told us straight out that if they acknowledged the existence of PTSD and problems with Agent Orange, it would bankrupt the VA. And we said that there's a very simple answer to that: Give more money to the VA.

They said that we came to our conclusions through "self-selecting populations," which apparently is not a viable scientific method. But since we were dying and committing suicide and having a large number of problems dealing with our experiences in the war, that was the only population we could draw on. We didn't have time for lab rats.

We feel to this day that far more veterans than died in the actual conflict have committed suicide--maybe upwards of 300,000. They did this either quickly or slowly through alcohol and drugs--and that's a number that continues to grow.

Now there's the recent acknowledgement by the military that they intend to be there through 2006. We don't know where they're going to get the people to do this. They can't keep recycling the same people, and eventually young people in this country aren't going to be willing.

They're already seeing it in the National Guard and Reserves--people aren't willing to make a commitment for one weekend and one month a year, and have it turn into the rest of their lives--or in some cases the end of their lives. The Guard and Reserves sold themselves on the idea that they're the people in your community who reach out and help in times of natural disasters and civil disturbances, not the people who are going to be fighting wars.

Historically, the National Guard and Reserves have fought in wars, going all the way back to the Second World War and the Korean War, where they played a very large role. In fact, the first landing in the Korean conflict was ballyhooed as this great Marine accomplishment, but the first group ashore was a National Guard unit of Puerto Rican citizens from New York City. They actually established the landing through their heavy casualties. And the charge up San Juan Hill was a militia unit that was comprised of Black cavalry.

As you can see, the military is as diverse as ever, and it's an equal opportunity employer. They're willing to take anyone of any race and get them killed.

From a labor point of view, it's the most dangerous job in the world. And this is true even without any kind of U.S. intervention underway. On a day-to-day basis, more people are killed and injured per capita in the military than at any corporation in the U.S.

The reasons for this? Crappy equipment, shitty supervision, lack of any kind of controls--whether from the EPA, OSHA or any other kind of oversight. The military is "self-sufficient" in this respect.

The number of people killed and injured in the military on a daily basis is also very rarely reported. We feel that there's a real need to bring some sort of safety measures.

Some people talk about unionizing the military. To our knowledge, there's only one unionized military in the world, and it's the Dutch armed forces. And U.S. officials would argue that they're not the most effective fighting group, and that's why they don't want a union in their army.

There are people who are looking into that now, as had been done several times in the past. And whenever you get close, there will be a mere sweep of the pen by Congress, and it won't be allowed.

Highly publicized as it is, the conditions facing our young people in Iraq are terrible. The garrison living conditions have improved somewhat, but the Pentagon wants to be on the cutting edge of labor relations like in American industry. So they've outsourced a lot of things, and this means running the military through the lowest bidders.

Lowest bidders are not always the best quality, and this also leaves plenty of room for graft, greed and corruption. It's no accident that generals routinely move out of the Pentagon and become captains of industry.

I know that, like with the Vietnam War, the daily casualties now are becoming something to watch in the news. The unfortunate aspect of reporting on casualties in the electronic media is that it becomes less a matter of concern and more a matter of casual passing. For people in families that don't have someone in the military and for those who aren't as politically astute, we need to link this up to what it's doing to our communities and our young people.

As they talk of expanding the war, I don't know how the hell they're going to do it. They've just about used up their Guard and Reserves, and they've rotated their regular military units in and out so many times, probably with each time that they spend at home getting shorter.

I don't know how they're going to do it without a draft, personally. And there's no way in hell they can run a draft that's fair and equitable. People who have ways of getting out of the draft will always get out of the draft, and the children of congressmen and presidents and industrialists will not fight these wars.

They will be asking our children and our brothers and sisters and cousins to fight this war. That's why we have to continue reaching out to our young people, stopping them from going into the military and doing whatever we can to get those young people who are currently in Iraq and Afghanistan back home.

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