Winter Soldiers tell their story

Eric Ruder reports on the testimony of antiwar veterans and active-duty soldiers at Winter Soldier in Washington.

FOR THREE days, a steady stream of U.S. military veterans took the stage to describe their experiences from the front lines as part of "Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan" organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW).

Their eyewitness accounts of free-fire zones in dense civilian areas, house raids that terrorized residents, indiscriminate shootings, severe beatings and torture of detainees, and the medical neglect they faced upon returning home riveted the audience of several hundred people who attended the event in Silver Springs, Md.--and many more who followed the hearings through the independent media.

The fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq has been accompanied by a deluge of media coverage focused on the supposed successes of the surge of U.S. troops to Iraq ordered by George Bush in early 2007.

But this historic gathering of firsthand witnesses to the atrocities committed by U.S. military forces was a searing indictment of the Pentagon's war strategy and its callous disregard for the lives of Iraqi civilians.

What you can do

Go to the Iraq Veterans Against the War Web site to watch testimony videos and read more about Winter Soldier. You can also get news and updates about war resisters and other initiatives by antiwar veterans and active-duty troops at the IVAW site.

The Citizen Soldier Web site is an excellent resource for active-duty soldiers looking for news and advice about their rights. Soldiers can also contact the GI Rights Hotline Web site, or call 877-447-4487 from the U.S., 202-483-2220 from outside the U.S., or 06223-47506 from Germany.

Camilo Mejía's book, Road from Ar Ramadi, provides an eyewitness account of the brutality inflicted by the U.S. in Iraq--and how Mejîa made the decision to take a stand against it.

For an excellent history of the GI rebellion during the U.S. war on Vietnam, read David Cortright's Soldiers in Revolt, republished by Haymarket Books. David Zeiger's Sir! No Sir! is an inspiring documentary about the Vietnam soldiers' revolt, and is available on DVD, along with many other supplemental materials.

Hart Viges joined the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division after September 11, 2001, was deployed to Kuwait in February 2003, and participated in the initial Iraq invasion force in March. His voice heavy with regret, he recounted his orders to launch a mortar assault on the city of Samawa in southern Iraq after some people were spotted entering a building.

"We got that fire mission, and we destroyed that building with our mortars," said Viges, who was part of a panel focused on the military's rules of engagement. "This isn't army to army. People live in towns. It's beyond imagination to think that civilians don't live in towns. It's upside-down thinking...I don't know how many innocents I've helped kill.

"Another big piece of weaponry they used on this little town of Samawa is the Spectre Gunship AC-130 with a couple belt-fed howitzers, a super gatling gun...I'm not sure of the exact nomenclature.

"They would sweep around Samawa, just pounding the city. This is definitely a sight to be seen, this airplane. Even though the rounds are coming from up in the sky, it's almost like the ground is shaking. Over the city, over neighborhoods, Kiowa attack helicopters with their Hellfire missiles, F-18s dropping bombs that would shake you to the bone, all the while I was laying down mortar fire on this town, full of people...

"Never a good thing came over the radio. One time, they said to fire on all taxi cabs because the enemy was using them for transportation. In Iraq, any car can be a taxi cab. You just paint it white and orange, and there you have it.

"One of the snipers across the radio replied back, 'Excuse me, did I hear that right? Fire on all taxi cabs?' And the lieutenant colonel replied back, 'You heard me, trooper. Fire on all taxi cabs.' And once that conversation ended, the town pretty much lit up. All the units that were in there fired on numerous cars."

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ONE BY one, the testifiers, sometimes with voices trembling and tears welling in their eyes, delivered harrowing testimony--while those sitting next to them on the panel nodded grimly, recognizing their own experiences in testimony given by someone who might have been deployed hundreds of miles away at a completely different time.

One veteran underlined his testimony by throwing his medals into the audience. Anothher tore up a commendation he received for his service.

This was the largest turnout yet of IVAW members, with more than 200 attending. Across the country and around the world, activists, students, concerned citizens and troops on military bases both at home and abroad tuned into a live video stream of the hearings, causing the IVAW's Web site to go down due to the high traffic.

But major U.S. network and cable news channels had a virtual blackout on coverage. Among leading U.S. newspapers, only the Washington Post even mentioned Winter Soldier, and its story ran in the local section.

In addition to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, military family members, mental health advocates, GI rights organizers and independent journalists such as Amy Goodman, Jeremy Scahill and Dahr Jamail gave testimony.

Joyce and Kevin Lucey told the heartbreaking story of how they watched their son Jeffrey return home from combat and spiral out of control as he struggled to deal with the trauma of the experience. As his father described how he lowered Jeffrey's body to the floor of the basement after he had committed suicide by hanging himself with a garden hose, people throughout the audience wept.

Other panels dealt with gender and sexuality in the military, racism and dehumanization of the enemy, the crisis in military and veterans' health care, and the future of GI resistance.

Bryan Casler was a Marine who, in the course of his four years of active-duty service, was deployed first to Iraq, then to Afghanistan, and then again to Iraq. His testimony captured the indifference of the U.S. military for the well-being of Iraqis, as well as U.S. soldiers.

"During my first deployment, I was deployed to Kuwait in support of the invasion of Iraq," said Casler. "This was in 2003. Our unit was responsible for guarding Gen. Tommy Franks. While stationed in Kuwait, we received alerts for incoming missiles or possible gas attacks.

"As a Marine, being with the general, you feel like you're going to get the most current information, and you're going to be protected because you are going to be up to date and around these other important people.

"It was very disheartening to see the generals running out of their tents, putting on their gas masks, and I look over to our commander and say, 'Shouldn't we put on our gas masks?' He said, 'We'll wait. The siren hasn't been sounded yet.'

"And several minutes later, maybe five or 10 minutes, they would come running back out because they had forgotten to sound the siren for the rest of the base. As Marines, we knew our place. We were at the bottom of the food chain. We are the ones that get forgotten about."

Casler went on to explain that his unit had no clearly defined mission except to keep moving forward. In such circumstances, he said, the first instinct of every Marine is to rely on the tactical training that is drilled into recruits from the start of basic training, which is to use lethal force to repel attacks and destroy the enemy.

"When your mission is not defined, you are going to use...those skills that you have to handle hostile people--not friendly people, not people that are looking for your help or looking for a hand," said Casler. "All you have is hammers, and everything you find is nails. And you are going to crush it. You are going to crush every nail that you find. We are crushing the Iraqi people with the training we're given."

Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan represents a major achievement for the antiwar struggle. In addition to providing powerful evidence of the criminal nature of U.S. policy, Winter Soldier has given the IVAW an unprecedented opportunity to expand its reach by building chapters in cities and on military bases where veterans and troops might have watched the testimony.

And Winter Soldier has provided the antiwar movement with an organizing tool that can help educate people new to the movement about the real effects of U.S. war policy.