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Kelly Dougherty
Soldiers and Families Against the War

June 30, 2006 | Page 11

KELLY DOUGHERTY served in Nasariyah, Iraq, as a member of the Colorado Army National Guard. After her return, she cofounded Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). Kelly spoke about her experiences and the antiwar struggle as part of a panel discussion with war resisters Camilo Mejía and Pablo Paredes at the Socialism 2006 conference in New York City.

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I WAS in the Colorado National Guard as a medic, but when I was activated to go to Iraq, I had been in the military seven years. I had been on one overseas deployment before--to the Balkans.

You can listen to sound files of a selection of meetings from Socialism 2006 and view photos of the event at the Traprock Peace Center Web site.

It may seem naïve, but I wasn't expecting to get called up, even though it looked like the war was going to happen. I was a medic in a medical unit, and the military police company that I used to be in got activated to go to Kuwait. I was transferred back to that unit and changed job titles from medic to military police.

At the time, I was against the idea of a war against Iraq. Up to that point, I hadn't been really politically educated, but I definitely had certain viewpoints.

When you're in the military, you feel very intimidated and helpless to stand up for yourself because you're under all this pressure to follow orders and go with the flow. Don't stand up for yourself--not only because you face punishment, but also because you don't want the people you're serving with to say that you're hurting the integrity of the team.

I went with the unit to Kuwait in February 2003. About three or four weeks after the war started, we moved north into Iraq and spent the next 10 months there.

I think it's important to hear soldiers from Iraq tell their stories, regardless of where they were. Some veterans were in combat units that saw a lot of gunfights, a lot of roadside bombs, they lost a lot of people in their unit. They can really testify to how horrible war can be--not only for the soldiers, but for the civilians.

But my experience wasn't really like that. I think it shows more the day-to-day routine of a foreign occupation.

We were in the south, which was and still is generally one of the safer areas in Iraq. In the time I was there, I was never shot at, we never got hit by a roadside bomb, there were never any suicide bombers attacking us. We were generally safe compared to a lot of other veterans I've talked to, and the Iraqi people in that area were generally safer than Iraqis in other parts of the country.

But at the same time, you saw the inescapable violence--whether it was intentional or unintentional--that happened every single day just because we were in their country as an occupying army. You don't have to be in a place where there are gunfights every day to see how horrible the occupation is for the people who live there and the people who are forced to fight it.

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AS PART of a military police company, our two main jobs were patrols and convoy escorts. We were escorting Kellog, Brown and Root (KBR) fuel tankers and flatbed trucks from Kuwait north to military bases in Iraq.

It's hard to comprehend how many vehicles drive in Iraq every day for these convoys. And they're U.S.-contracted vehicles going up and down the streets that the Iraqi people drive on.

There are often traffic accidents caused by military vehicles or contracted vehicles, and it's almost always the Iraqi people who come out the worse for it because they're driving in their small cars or they're crossing the street. If they get hit or their car gets damaged, there aren't a lot of resources that they have. So there's this low-level destruction that goes on day after day after day.

When trucks in these convoys broke down, we had to guard them from the Iraqi people. The logic was that if you let the Iraqi people have a truck or what's on a truck that broke down, then they're going to see that they can have that, so they're going to start running vehicles off the road on purpose.

So we would guard these vehicles for hour after hour after hour while we called back to have KBR send someone to recover the truck. And in the meantime, we would get in a confrontation with Iraqi civilians who were waiting around trying to get anything from the truck--a door handle, a tire, the lug nuts. Or they wanted the actual cargo--a lot of times, these trucks carried diesel fuel, but they had other things, too.

In almost every instance, we would be told finally that they're not going to send someone, they can't right now, so just leave the vehicle. It was so frustrating for us, because here we were getting into violent confrontations, hurting the Iraqis with rubber bullets and mace and riot batons.

Luckily, it never turned deadly on either side with my unit, but I always thought that this was going to be the day that some Iraqi brings an AK47 and shoots at us, and I know once that happens, people are going to open up fire.

To go through that--to feel like you were putting yourself in danger, and it was really scary many times, especially in the evening.

I remember one time in particular when we had gone to secure two semi trucks that had jackknifed and were blocking the road. There were people everywhere. It was dark, and we were vastly outnumbered.

People were running up to the trucks, and we were trying to keep them back--hitting them, macing them to keep them away. And we knew we were just going to leave the trucks in the end.

It was so frustrating. Why do I have to hit an Iraqi with my riot baton? Because I feel my life is in danger? But at the same time, I know that what I'm guarding is not viewed as an asset when it comes down to it.

A lot of times we would destroy the cargo and the engine block so that vehicles couldn't be driven after we abandoned them. We would burn the fuel and burn the cargo on the truck, because those were our orders. So there's produce on that flatbed truck, and there are 300 Iraqis standing around, but we can't let them take the produce because it will create too much of a crowd, and we'll have to push them back--like the Iraqi people were just dogs.

I think this is just inherent in the fact of occupation. You can't escape it. You can't say if more women joined the Army, or if people with a better education or a better social conscience joined the Army, it wouldn't be like that. It's the situation that determines how people respond. And there's no way around that.

I was against the war, but I had this hope that maybe we'll go in there and have a positive impact--that we'll help the Iraqis to rebuild, we'll make things better for them. I didn't see that happen at all.

I think that's really what made me decide that I wanted to get more involved and more educated about what was going on--it's not just Iraq, it's other wars, it's policies, it's the military and how it's run. That's what led to me to become involved when I got back, but it was a process.

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I THINK that a group like the IVAW has tremendous potential to effect change and stop this war. As veterans, our voice carries a lot of weight. Not that our views against the war are more important than anyone else's views, but people take them seriously because we've been in the military and we've witnessed that firsthand.

I think one of the big challenges facing not only our group, but [other] veterans' and antiwar groups is getting women more involved in the movement. The military is very male dominated. I think about 10 to 15 percent of the military is women, but it's a hyper-masculine, violent culture that women are in.

So when women get out of the military, I think the last thing many of us want to do is join an organization full of military men even if they're antiwar. Many women have had bad experiences in the military--the way they're treated by their counterparts, and they don't want to deal with that anymore. They just want to try to move on with their lives.

In a lot of cases, that military mentality slips into groups like ours. I think that IVAW has been aware of this, and right now, a little over 10 percent of our members are women, so it's a similar ratio to the military. But we're really trying to incorporate women and make them feel safe and make them feel like this is the place where they can come to be around fellow veterans, but not feel that sense of danger that they may have felt in the military.

For instance, when we were escorting convoys in Kuwait, women couldn't be out alone after dark because there was such a high incidence of sexual assault against women by soldiers. So you're in an area where you can't trust the soldiers you're over there fighting with, and you constantly have to look over your shoulder. At the same time, you're going out in the same roles as the men--to do patrols, convoys, raids, checkpoint. These are basically infantry tactics, but women do them, too, even though they're not called infantry soldiers. It's like fighting a war on two fronts.

Specialist Suzanne Swift recently refused to redeploy to Iraq. She was also in a military police company. She refused to go because she was getting sexually assaulted and sexually harassed on a daily basis while she was in Iraq, and also once she returned to her unit.

When she finally decided to report one of her sergeants, he wasn't punished, and she was made to feel like a pariah--like, look what you did. It's common. I think a lot of women might feel like it's their fault, or I just have to keep my mouth shut.

Often, if women want to report something, the chain of command will ask do you really want to do this? This sergeant that you say assaulted you has a military career and a family--do you really want to ruin someone's military career? They're made to feel very guilty.

This goes all the way up. The same system that will condone and sanction torture of prisoners is the same system that silences women and makes them feel intimidated and even encourages men to continue in this behavior.

I think it's important for our group and other groups that we work with to recognize that there are women in the military, and that their stories are similar to the men's, but that we also face different struggles that are specific to being a women in the military and in the peace movement.

I think a lot of people take for granted that there are women in the military and the IVAW--oh, that's great. But you can still see that a lot of people don't identify women veterans as being on an equal level as the male veterans. If I'm wearing this IVAW shirt at a rally and standing by Camilo, I guarantee that a lot of people will talk to Camilo and not look at me because they just think that I'm there as his girlfriend.

I've encountered that kind of mentality over and over--to go somewhere wearing my desert camouflage uniform top with my name on it, and an older veteran says to me, "Your husband must have been in the military."

So I think it's about education. People don't mean to be disrespectful or not value your experience, but I think people don't know. So that's one of the thing that IVAW is focusing on.

We're having a meeting in Seattle this August with Veterans for Peace, and we'll be having education courses to deal with those kinds of issues, so that we can make our organization one that doesn't just say it's welcoming to everyone, but truly is welcoming and safe and a place where people feel like they don't have to be on the defensive.

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