I’m done defending Obama

December 17, 2009

Barack Obama's speech announcing a new commitment of 30,000 more U.S. soldiers to the war on Afghanistan added further urgency to the national meeting of U.S. Labor Against War (USLAW), held in Chicago on December 5-6. Cathy Smith represented the antiwar group Military Families Speak Out at the conference. Here, with permission, we republish her speech.

WHEN I was asked to speak to you today, I was inclined to speak with statistics and numbers. I was going to talk of the 4,300-plus killed in Iraq and the 900-plus killed in Afghanistan, 300 of whom were killed this year alone.

I was going to speak of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed (anywhere from 100,000 to a million-plus, depending on which source you use). I could have talked about the 130,000 vets homeless on any given night--one-third of all the homeless are vets--or about the 20 suicides daily. I could have even spoken about the numbers of troops coming home with PTSD or traumatic brain injuries, only half of whom are seeking treatment.

Then I realized we have all heard the same statistics, the same numbers, and part of the problem is that is the way we tend to think of these occupations--in numbers.

When we think in terms of numbers or statistics, that makes it very abstract, and that makes it easier. If we think of the number killed in these occupations, or the number of vets waiting to be treated for PTSD, or even the number of suicides, it's less painful.

Protesting the occupation of Iraq in San Francisco, January 2007
Protesting the occupation of Iraq in San Francisco, January 2007 (Josh On)

Numbers are impersonal. I have the very dubious honor of being able to share a more personal side of the aftermath of war. It may be more painful for you to hear the stories of my sons, but I also think that it is important to be reminded of occasionally--that they are more than numbers, more than mere statistics.

MY OLDEST son Tomas enlisted on September 13, 2001. After watching the president stand on the pile of rubble, Tomas, as were many of us, got caught up in the angry patriotism, and swore to go to Afghanistan and hunt down the evil-doers and seek retribution for the American dead. He went to Iraq instead, and after only five days in country, he was stuck in the mess that happened on April 4, 2004, in Sadr City. It is now referred to by many people as Black Sunday.

The catalyst to that day happened a few days earlier when we closed down their newspaper. Tomas always says he wonders how we would react if an invader came in and closed down the New York Times or the Chicago Tribune. The people took to the streets to protest. My son was part of a mechanized Bradley unit.

Unfortunately, because of the desire to appear less warlike at that time, his unit only took two Bradleys with them to Iraq. Tomas was put in the back of an open truck. Forget not having armor--it didn't even have a tarp over the top. He and 25 other soldiers were crammed into this open truck and sent into a street surrounded by buildings with snipers. On that day, there were eight Americans killed, 50 Americans wounded and 900-plus Iraqis killed...more numbers.

Among those killed on that day were Casey Sheehan, Mike Mitchell and Steven Hiller--all of whose parents since then have become my friends. My son was shot and paralyzed from the chest down.

The years following my son's injuries were spent fighting the VA [Veteran's Administration] for everything--for the big things like an accessible house and van, and the removal of the bullet in his knee that was causing lead poisoning, which had been left there because he couldn't feel it--to the little things like catheters that wouldn't slip off and anti-depressants that actually helped rather than make Tomas suicidal.

During this time, I realized there must be other families out there that were going through this type of thing.

In searching for a support group, I found MFSO and IVAW [Iraq Veterans Against the War]. I believe that IVAW and the antiwar movement saved my son's life.

In 2005, he went to Camp Casey and met Cindy Sheehan and members of IVAW and many others who felt like he did about the war in Iraq, and realized he had a voice and that people would listen to his story. That gave him purpose, and a reason to go on.

Tomas and I marched on Washington in September 2005 and we also started working on a documentary with Phil Donahue about the rush to war and the effects of that war on a family. We spent a good part of 2006 and 2007 traveling around the country speaking out against the war and showing our movie.

In early 2008, Tomas went to the VA emergency room, complaining of pain in his arm. He was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome, and given painkillers and sent home, even though he had just recently been taken off blood thinners for a clot in that very arm.

Three weeks later, he suffered a pulmonary embolism, because the blood clot that was causing the pain in his arm traveled to his lungs. He was found after several hours without enough oxygen, and was in a coma for days. When he finally came out of the coma he had lost his ability to speak and use his arms.

When you have been a paraplegic for four years and then become a quadriplegic, you realize how lucky you were. I once again went to war with the VA, and told them that Tomas would be doing his rehab in Chicago at the Rehab Institute. We were done with the VA's rehab--two hours daily in the sun--and would not be repeating it. Reluctantly, the VA agreed to foot the bill. I still believe that was hush money: We pay--no publicity about the misdiagnosis.

That's how I came to Chicago, and I liked it so much I stayed. Tomas has since regained his speech and limited use of his arms and hands. He is back in Kansas City, and now has 24-hour nursing and goes to rehab three times a week. We are currently discussing a colostomy because of repeated hospitalizations caused by bowel problems, and he has started having seizures on top of everything else. Quite a life for a 30-year-old man.

During all of this, my second-oldest son Nathan was sent to Iraq twice. It is a little harder to send a son to war when that war has already put one in a wheelchair.

Nate returned with signs of PTSD and thinks he may have a traumatic brain injury, or TBI, because of all of the mortars that blew up near him. He refuses to seek help. He was in field artillery, but in Iraq, he was a gunner in a Humvee because they didn't use the big guns.

After two tours and five years of active duty, Nate was done--a man who at one time thought the military was a career for him had had enough of the sand. But a month ago, he decided to reenlist because after being home for almost a year, he still hasn't found a job. So he and I are preparing to go through this again.

One thing I am not looking forward to is going over the paperwork to help him plan his funeral--you get to do that with them each time they prepare to deploy, and no mother should have to go through that.

But I feel as long as I never have to use those plans, I am still one of the lucky ones.
My stepfather Dale was a Navy SEAL in Vietnam. He is only 58 years old. He has non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and one of his kidneys is dead. He has had numerous strokes, and he has to go in every three months to have new cancers burned off of his arms. All of this because he was showered with Agent Orange daily.

The VA is only now admitting that this is real. What illnesses will they be treating my sons for in 30 years because of depleted uranium?

I LEARNED some new numbers this week. 30,000 was one of them.

I feel betrayed by the president that we helped elect. The unions played a huge part in Obama's victory. My son Tomas, nearing the end of his rehab here in Chicago, sat in the VIP tent in Grant Park, with Brad Pitt, Oprah, Tammy Duckworth and the like. He was a member of a group called Vets for Obama.

He cried openly because he was a part of the change--he had hope. He blamed Bush for not only his being shot in Iraq, but for the halt to stem-cell research. Obama was very clear in saying that he would immediately start bringing the troops home.

I have spoken adamantly all along that Obama just needed a little more time to fix Bush's mistakes. Now, it becomes his mess. I am done defending Obama. If 30,000 isn't a big enough number, how about 30 billion--that is what it will cost in dollars to keep those troops in Afghanistan for one year.

This could pay for 600,000 jobs at $50,000 per year each. That would go a long way toward fixing the broken economy. I imagine if 600,000 people got jobs tomorrow that paid 50 K a year. They might buy a new car, or a new house might be built--sounds like that would keep some union members in jobs.

The other new number I learned this week was 650. Yesterday, Aaron Hughes [a lead organizer with Iraq Veterans Against the War] and I were at the vets' stand-down at the National Guard Armory. The stand-down is for homeless vets to come and get a coat, a haircut, some medical attention and a warm meal. I had participated in stand-downs in Kansas City, but this was my first in Chicago.

I was not prepared for 650 homeless vets. How do we as a country allow this to happen? President Coolidge once said that a nation that forgets its defenders will be forgotten.

I stood alongside a member of the VA and asked if maybe they should change their slogan from "keeping the promise" to "understaffed and under-funded."

That brings me to the real point of my time here today. I was supposed to talk to you about how you could help your union members during and after deployments. Sure, I have a lot of little ideas: make sure they still have jobs when they get back; make sure the family that remains behind gets taken care of, whether it is small repairs to the house or Christmas for the kids, or even making sure they don't lose those houses to foreclosure.

Maybe they just need someone to talk with--whether it is the parents while their child is so far away, or the vet when he or she comes home to a country that has forgotten them. Make sure that none of your union brothers or sisters ends up in that line for a warm coat. But these are all little ideas. Let's stop talking about little ideas.

Let's stop talking about numbers. Remember that every number we talk about is more than a mere statistic. It is a mother or father who lost that child. When I hear the news stories about the fact that only 146 have died in Iraq this year, I guess that number seems small, unless you're the 5-year-old whose daddy won't be home for Christmas this year because he was one of those 146.

Let's stop talking. You are the union--always one of the most powerful voices in this country. When I think of how you can help these troops, I have only three little words: BRING THEM HOME!

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