Sgt. Kelly Dougherty went to Iraq in 2003, doubting that the war was just.
She returned in 2004, certain it was wrong, and co-founded Iraq Veterans Against the War.
"People say you are a traitor. People say you are unpatriotic," said Dougherty, 27, about her anti-war work. "We are doing this because we feel strongly about America.
Sgt. Kelly Dougherty joined over 3,000 at a Fayetteville, North Carolina rally to mark two years of war and occupation in Iraq, March 19, 2005. (Photo by Jeff Paterson)
"I really appreciate America, but we are capable of doing some very bad things."
Dougherty was stationed near Nazaria in southern Iraq for 10 months with the Colorado National Guard's 220th Military Police Co. She saw action but never fired her weapon.
Dougherty said the thousands of innocent civilians who have been killed and the broken American promises about repairing water, electricity and sewage systems convinced her the troops should come home.
The faces of Iraqi civilians mirrored her growing doubts.
"At first, the Iraqis smiled and waved, but at the end of my 10 months there, they'd turn away or make rude gestures," Dougherty said.
After she came home in February 2004, and left the Guard after eight years with an honorable discharge, Dougherty embarked on a new mission.
She put her life and income on hold to talk to college students, high school classes and community groups across the country.
"The war in Iraq is not about protecting this country. The war is about aggression," said Dougherty, who doesn't receive a salary for her work against the war.
At Regis College in Denver recently with the Wheels of Justice Tour, Dougherty said her unit was often ordered to burn broken-down civilian contractor trucks loaded with supplies rather than allow the impoverished Iraqis to loot them for the water, food, fuel and vehicle parts that could be sold.
"Most of us wanted to help the Iraqi people, but the only good we could do was give kids candy," she told six Regis students who gathered on a warm fall afternoon to listen to her. "That's not what they need. They need clean water and security."
The worst events she experienced involved civilians, including children, hit by contractor convoys that thundered along rural roads under orders to never stop.
"I wasn't protecting America. I was protecting Halliburton trucks going to military bases," she said.
Dougherty said her MP unit provided security for investigators at rural crash scenes, including a fatality where a military convoy killed a boy.
"The family was there. An older relative fell to his knees and collapsed on the ground. There was nothing they could do," she said.
Dougherty said she had hoped that American troops would help rebuild power plants, water systems and schools, but the only construction she saw was at military bases.
"From what I saw, we just created more chaos and violence," she said. "I became less and less convinced that we were there for a good purpose."
The rebuilding effort is the subject of a new report by the special inspector general for Iraq. While noting problems in the $30 billion U.S.-financed effort, the report also cited "steady progress" in parts of the program, despite what was described as "the hazardous security environment, the fluid political situation and the harsh realities of working in a war zone," according to a story in a recent Sunday edition of the New York Times.
Dougherty, whose parents divorced when she was a child, grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Canon City. She was a good student who asked questions.
When she graduated from high school in 1996, she knew two things: that she wanted to go to college and that her parents couldn't afford to send her.
Her stepfather, Army veteran Jim Brenner, suggested she sign up for the National Guard for the college benefits.
Her father, Sean Dougherty, a Vietnam veteran, argued against it.
Nevertheless, Dougherty enlisted, along with her best friend, Elizabeth Spradlin, in the Colorado National Guard in Pueblo.
Her once-a-month service as a medic meshed with her classes at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. A biology major, she wants to work in health services.
She was deployed to Hungary for eight months in 1999 as an MP to escort troops to Bosnia. She was activated again as an MP in January 2003 for duty in Iraq.
"Before I went, I told an officer that I had reservations because Iraq wasn't behind the 9/11 attack," she said. "The officer said he had reservations, too."
That night, however, the officer told the platoon that Iraq was behind the 9/11 attack and that the country needed to strike back, Dougherty said.
"Our leader was misleading us," she said.
Her unit first went to Kuwait, where they huddled in a bunker for two days as alarms signaled incoming Scud missiles fired by the Iraqis.
"We were in full protective gear because we were told the missiles had chemical and biological weapons," Dougherty said.
The soldiers again were misled, she said. The U.S. later said the Iraqis didn't have biological or chemical agents or weapons of mass destruction.
On the anti-war trail
At high schools across the country and especially in Colorado Springs, Colorado's military hub, Dougherty tells students to look at grants and other sources of tuition help rather than the military.
"I tell them to take what the military recruiters say with a grain of salt," she said. "I tell them there are other options."
Dougherty, who wants to get a master's degree in public health, said most of the audiences she's talked to since July 2004 have been small and usually already agree with her stand.
But the Iraq Veterans Against the War itself has grown from Dougherty and her six-cofounders to 300 today. National polls show dwindling support for the war as well.
She's found she's a frequent target of pro-war tirades on blogs. Dougherty said she enjoys her discussions during speaking engagements with Iraq veterans who disagree with her.
"I say that I support them and my experience was different than theirs," she said.
Dougherty said she and her stepfather don't discuss her anti-war activities, but her father has become active in the movement.
At North Presbyterian Church in Denver recently, more than 75 people -- the group's largest audience of the week -- listened to Dougherty and two other Iraq veterans relate their experiences.
"There was a poll in Europe, rating the most dangerous countries. America was rated as the most dangerous," Dougherty told the gathering.
One of the audience members, Matt Walsh, 25, said he hadn't heard about the large civilian losses or the lack of water and food that had turned many of the Iraqi people against the U.S.
"I don't know anyone who's in Iraq," said Walsh, who graduated from college this year. "It could have been me that signed up to go to Iraq."
The audience gave Dougherty and the other vets a standing ovation.
"I came to find out from the ranks what has really gone on in Iraq," said John Addison, an Army veteran who was stationed in Germany during the Vietnam War. "I was impressed with what these soldiers had to say," he said.
Not all agree
During her talk, Dougherty said her few encounters with Iraqis, especially with the women, confirmed her belief that Iraqis are good people.
"It made me wish all the more that I was there in a different capacity than being part of the military," she said.
Jeff Chapman, a deacon at the church who wore an American flag tie and an American flag pin on his jacket lapel, listened, but disagreed.
"I feel more people would die here, in this country, if we didn't fight the Iraqi terrorists there," said Chapman, an Air Force veteran.
"But what these people are doing is great," he said. "I fought for their right to say these things."
Copyright © 2005 Associated Press