Winter Soldier heads to the northeast

October 8, 2008

Brian Lenzo and Tristan Brosnan report from local Winter Soldier events held in New York and Massachusetts.

ACTIVISTS ARE taking the testimonies of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans on the road with a series of "Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan" events in several cities.

Inspired by the Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) hearings held in Maryland earlier this year, the Northeast Winter Soldier turned out more than 200 people at Monroe Community College (MCC) in Rochester, N.Y., on October 4.

The hearings are modeled on the 1971 Winter Soldier Investigations organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, which made the case that atrocities weren't aberrations but the logical consequence of war and occupation.

The seven-hour event drew 250 people and featured Elliot Adams, national president of Veterans for Peace and a former paratrooper who served in Vietnam, Japan and Korea; Tod Ensign, director of Citizen Soldier; and Michael Schwartz, author of War Without End: The Iraq War in Context.

Some 15 local peace and justice groups, including Military Families Speak Out (MFSO), Veterans for Peace, Campus Antiwar Network (CAN), Students for a Democratic Society, the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and Rochester Against War, had tables at the event. IVAW members also offered sessions on how to support war resisters and counter-recruitment.

The main event of the day featured IVAW members who talked about their experiences and the lessons they have drawn from participating in our government's wars. IVAW board of directors member Adrienne Kinne, the MC of the day, opened the session with Rochester IVAW member Tim Braley, who silenced the crowd with his description of combat conditions in the middle of a densely populated Iraqi city.

Chris Grohs, a former medic with the 82nd Airborne Infantry, spoke of the horrors he witnessed in Iraq.

"The things soldiers do, the things they have to do, are not the fault of individuals or bad apples," Geoff Millard of Washington, D.C., told the crowd, to thunderous applause. "It's the occupation itself that's to blame." Geoff also described the state of veterans' health care, saying, "The military medical system isn't there to heal us, they're there to get us well enough to fight their wars."

Robynn Murray of Buffalo, N.Y., gave compelling testimony about her experience as a young woman who was supposedly deployed as Civilian Affairs, but ended up a machine gunner in Iraq. Bringing the audience to tears, she talked about her anguished decision to refuse to fire in a civilian-populated area, despite being under fire herself.

The panel ended with IVAW regional coordinator and Rochester chapter president Bryan Casler, who explained the indoctrination soldiers are subjected to, and the dehumanizing behavior that is encouraged daily. He also expressed how influential the antiwar movement has been in bringing veterans together and giving them the courage to stand up against the war.

Following Casler's testimony, the crowd stood up from their chairs and chanted "What do we want? Troops home! When do we want it? NOW!" IVAW members led the crowd out of the auditorium on a march to a local Veterans Affairs outpatient clinic, which is closed on weekends due to limited funds.

Marchers carried signs that read "No Iraqi ever gambled away my life savings," "Bail out our troops," "Banks are open, but the VA is closed" and "No Afghani ever denied me health care." Protesters chanted, "We support war resisters. They're our brothers, they're our sisters!" and "Support Walter Reed, not corporate greed!"

Outside the VA hospital doors, war resister Mathis Chiroux urged continued actions to support soldiers who refuse to fight. "We'll be sure to see more just like me in the future," he said. MFSO member and Vietnam veteran David Dornford expressed his anguish in seeing our government send his son to fight an illegal and brutal war.

Roberto Resto spoke about the U.S. government's long history of negligence when it comes to war veterans, stretching back to the famous "Bonus Army," who marched on Washington to demand benefits after the First World War. They were fired upon and driven out by a military contingent led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Major George S. Patton.

Protesters marched back to MCC, at one point taking over five lanes of traffic on a major roadway, with motorists honking in support, some even waving out of their cars and slapping hands with protesters as they swarmed through traffic.

More than 15 local groups joined together to organize and staff the event. The combination of amazing guest speakers, powerful and moving testimony from IVAW members and the participation and energy of the crowd was a glimpse of what our movement could be like.

IN AMHERST, Mass., over 100 community members and students gathered on October 1 for a Winter Soldier event at the University of Massachusetts (UMass).

The event was organized by the Western Massachusetts chapter of IVAW and the Pioneer Valley Antiwar Coalition, and was co-sponsored by numerous local groups, including the Western Massachusetts chapter of CAN, the Northampton Committee to Stop the War, the ISO and the GI Rights Hotline.

Ted Goodnight, an IVAW member who served in the National Guard for 15 years, talked about his experience in Afghanistan. "I turned against the war in Afghanistan when I found out I was being used as a tool for someone else's economic gain," he said.

In 2005, Goodnight was sent to Mississippi as part of a humanitarian aid mission in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. "Instead of doing humanitarian aid work, we were marching up and down the streets with loaded rifles and shotguns, supposedly to prevent looting in rural Mississippi."

Another IVAW member, Daniel Blain, spoke about his ongoing struggle to receive status as a conscientious objector. Blain explained how, after his child was born in 2005, "The first thing that came to my mind was not 'Wow, I'm a dad,' but 'How can I train to kill someone else's baby?'"

Also featured was Natalia Tylim, a member of the Western Massachusetts CAN chapter, who explained the importance of getting involved in local antiwar organizations.

"No one protest alone will be able to bring these occupations to a close," said Tylim. "What is needed is a strong, consistent antiwar movement at home that recognizes the right of Iraqi people to resist occupation, and is able to give confidence and support to veterans and active-duty soldiers to galvanize resistance within the military."

UMass Muslim Student Association member Zamil Akhtar talked about the rise of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism in the U.S., drawing connections between the wars abroad and the wars at home.

The following day, the Western Massachusetts chapter of CAN, in coordination with IVAW, organized an antiwar speak-out at the UMass Student Union, which 70 people attended. Students new to the movement as well veterans all took to the megaphone to speak out against the wars.

Dan Keefe, a member of the Justice for Jason campaign, connected the racist wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the racist hate crime committed against Jason Vassell last semester at UMass.

This was a step forward in organizing an antiwar movement capable of ending the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Courtney Cenname and Chelsea Miller contributed to this article.

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