Monday, May 11, 2009

Soldiering on in Pasadena at Winter Soldier Southwest, Iraq and Afghanistan

Pasadena, CA--May 9, 2009

By Horace Coleman

The energy level was high. The atmosphere outside the lecture hall where Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) held Winter Soldier Southwest, Iraq and Afghanistan was like a combination convention, music festival, major sports event and appearances by popular celebrities.

“Event staff” volunteers (security, facilities, registration) at Pasadena City College functioned as if a mini Rose Bowl Parade / football game was going on. Wendy Barranco, president of the LA chapter of IVAW that hosted the event, quickly moved from place to place checking and overseeing detail after detail, resolving the usual last minute glitches and changes.

Sound system working all right? Lighting functioning properly? Media checking in? Water and microphones in place and name placards ready for panelists? Tables outside the hall assigned to organizations and vendors who had pre registered--and paid--for space? Panelists present? Security assignments filled?

CDs, DVDs, books, flyers, newspapers and pamphlets were unloaded and set out. Programs were passed out. People mingled with old friends and met in the flesh people they’d only known by e-mail messages, a chat room or phone calls. New acquaintances chit chatted and checked out the location of bathrooms before the event, lasting from 1 P.M. until 8 P.M., began.

Seven panels and a spirited Question & Answer session were held. The first panel was “History’s Relevance (VVAW)” composed of Marine VietNam combat vets. Jan Ruhman led it. The other panelists were Mickey Krakowski and Calixto Cabrera.

Ruhman set the context and gave details about the awakening about, and resistance to, that war. Krawkowski and Cabrera focused on the personal awakening and odyssey they made as they tried to get the smoke our of their ears and lives and tried to become civilians when back in “the world.” All reconsidered and recognized the reality their war experiences had on them. Cabrea spoke movingly of his trip through PTSD.

He stressed that different paths and treatments can lead to healing after trauma and PTSD and each person has to find and follow the way that works best for them. But there is—after time and much effort—healed life after war. Because there is no draft and more people “support” the troops than become one, today’s warriors do repeated deployments and have a higher rate of PTSD than Nam vets and a high suicide rate.

Other panels were “Boots on the Ground (IVAW)”, “A Daily Sacrifice (MFSO)”, “Military Tactics in the Occupations” (Marine Iraq vet Jacob “Jake" Diliberto), Activists of Today (VFP)”, and “GI Resistance (IVAW).” Many panelists made very good points.

Ruhman quoted Donald Rumsfeld: “The Geneva Convention does not apply.” “That set the state for torture,” Ruhman said. Marine Iraq war vet Ryan Endicott read from a moving piece he’d written describing combats incidents and flatly stated “I can not mend what I’ve broken.” Diliberto spoke of his “journey of repentance” to Israel’s West Bank and northern Israel and how “my world view of these people [Arabs / Moslems] changed.”

Marine Christopher Gallagher served three Iraq tours. He mentioned not having body armor on one deployment and that “contractors were paid five times what I was.” “U.S. imperialism is wrong” Gallagher told the audience. “You can’t bring democracy through the barrel of a gun.”

On the “Daily Sacrifice” panel, Navy wife Paulina Brooks spoke frankly about the strains of military life, readjusting to a “new” husband every time he returned from a deployment (including eight combat tours in a 26-year career) and the drinking problem she’d developed and conquered. Her Lt. Commander, surgeon husband, David talked about the PTSD he’d developed and the RPG he’d been wounded by. It was fired at such close range it didn’t travel far enough to arm itself and explode but its impact did damage that later caused three heart attacks. That—and PTSD—ended his military career and his ability to do the work he was good at and proud of.

Tina Richards, a member of the same panel, told the stories of her two military sons. One, despite having been wounded in a mortar attack and having reached the end of his enlistment, was stop lossed and scheduled for redeployment. She begged, demanded, demonstrated, lobbied and pleaded with military and congress people. Finally, within days of military and VA personnel actually and seriously evaluating the situation, her son was discharged—with 80 percent disability. She shared accounts of having one-sided phone conversations with her other son. He would listen with the barrel of a gun in his mouth as she talked him out of suicide.

Arturo Cambrom told about his son, the most gentle and caring of his children, who planned to use his enlistment bonus to start a day care center. Home on leave before his second Iraq deployment began he began showing obvious signs of PTSD (including flashbacks).

A soldier with PTSD in a combat zone is a danger to them self, the people in their unit and to the civilians there. Such a person has intermittent diminished capacity. Consequently their actions, triggered or driven by a mind taking in information inaccurately, can be inappropriate. Or, bad judgment may lead to action that worsens PTSD--or gets someone killed.

Dangerous and devastating things can easily happen in any part of this cycle when there is easy or instant access to rifles, machine guns, explosives, helicopter or fixed wing gun ships, artillery and mortar fire, fighter / bomber and drone air strikes.

One Iraq vet testifying at Winter Soldier Southwest said that one night on guard duty a troop manning a heavy machine gun mounted on a vehicle swung the gun around to investigate a sound behind him. A sniper? A suicide bomber?

The weapon went off as he turned. When he looked back he saw that the troop who’d been standing nearby had been cut in half. The gunner knew him. On the spot he took out his sidearm and killed himself with a shot to the head.

Friendly fire is Milspeak for “My bad!” Here’s an example of unfriendly fire, given by the same person. It’s also about night guard duty. Some suspicious shadows with what might have been guns were approaching. Someone fired at the shadows. They turned out to be boys with sticks waving them in greeting at the Americans. There’s a military mantra that goes “When in doubt, take ’em out!”

One of the day’s many highlights was the “Activists of Today” panel VFP conducted. VFP past president Eliot Adams made two significant remarks. Adams gave a quote about war that he attributed to President Dwight Eisenhower, supreme commander of Western allied forces during World War II: “ . . . It’s brutality, stupidity and futility.” Adams said Obama “cannot create the change we need; we must do it. “

That statement made me think of another I’d heard: “We must be the change we need!” If you’re not, you’re just like the zeros in a number, place markers with more weight than significance.

That made me write this down: Don’t just protest! Affirm. Know history. Plan. Build coalitions. Revise and work your plan.

After a dinner break there were two more panels. One was on GI Resistance and was conducted by IVAW members Tracey Harmon and Jabbar McGruder. Practical and effective “resistance” is hard in the military. The organizational structure of the military is a pyramid with a narrow apex. Power and authority live there. Orders, commands and demands flow down to the pyramids broad base. The apex basically answers only to itself and the political figures funding it and directing the targets of its actions. If you want to change the military, change the top and change will trickle down.

The last panel was called “The Ultimate Sacrifice.” It consisted of members of Gold Star Families, parents who’d lost a child to war. Jane and Jim Bright (mother and step father of Evan Ashcroft, KIA in Iraq) talked about their son and the foundation they’d started to aid today’s war vets, honor Evan and keep his spirit alive. Jim Bright said he’s quit being an activist about seven times but always came back. Two other mothers spoke of the pain and loss they’d felt after their sons had been killed. One mother was still agonized by her decision to sign her underage son’s enlistment papers. But, how long would that have kept a young man determined to join the military out of a uniform?

You’d think that a day listening to what most people avoid acknowledging would be hazardous to your weekend. However, the crowd leaving after the Question & Answer session seemed uplifted. Perhaps it was seeing and hearing intelligent, articulate and informed war veterans who’d walked the walk and performed more practical patriotism in harsh conditions than most war hawks and arm chair patriots ever would.

Maybe it was people saying in front of God and every one that they’d drunk some government Kool-Aid, experienced pain, loss and fallen down but gotten up again and were moving on. It could have been the call to abandon partisan politics and unite to forward common goals good for the country.

The colonies that became an expansionist nation and then an empire have morphed into lifestyles and demographics dependent on credit cards and deficit budgets to pay for overreaching ambitions and delusions.

Reality wants its—now.

It will take more than puffing up your chest and chanting “We’re #1!” to change course on this ship of state. There are some battle tested patriots willing to accept the challenge, though.

Still, it all makes you wonder if the U.S. will grow up before it dies or . . . .


Windbender said...

Murphy's Rules of Combat; "Friendly fire, isn't"

On another note...
You wrote, yesterday:

"A soldier with PTSD in a combat zone is a danger to them self, the people in their unit and to the civilians there. Such a person has intermittent diminished capacity. Consequently their actions, triggered or driven by a mind taking in information inaccurately, can be inappropriate. Or, bad judgment may lead to action that worsens PTSD--or gets someone killed."

Today, this news item appeared on the internet re CNN, first thing this morning:

A Stress Unit at Camp the combat zone? Further proof that the government and the military really just don't get it when it comes to PTSD. They think that there is an in the field of battle quik fix...and they sure don't appreciate the danger not only to the trooper with the diagnosis re suicide, but also to their fellow soldiers.
Great piece,very prophetic, it turns out. Thanks Horace.

Johanna said...

Great event. I wish we had more things like this on campus. Thanks for posting this.