SAINT LOUIS - Members of a leading Iraq war veterans' organization voted this weekend to launch a campaign encouraging U.S. troops to refuse to fight.
"Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) decided to make support of war resisters a major part of what we do," said Garrett Rappenhagen, a former U.S. Army sniper who served in Iraq from February 2004 to February 2005.
"There's a misconception that they're cowards," Rappenhagen said. "Most war resisters have already gone on a tour in Iraq. They've seen the war firsthand and have come to the conclusion that it's morally wrong. This is something we all should support. So to break that timidness of how we view war resisters in America, IVAW decided to embrace them."
To underscore that point, the veterans group elected Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia chair of its board of directors. In the winter of 2003, Mejia was the first soldier to refuse to return to fight in Iraq after an initial tour in the war zone.
When Mejia came home on leave after six months in Iraq, he went AWOL rather than return. Ultimately, he served nine months in prison after the military denied his demand to be discharged as a conscientious objector.
"There's a sort of revolution taking place in the streets," Mejia said. "It's not being reported by the mainstream media, but we in the antiwar movement know what's going on. There is a rebellion going on in the ranks of the military that is not being reported."
Mejia noted more than 10,000 soldiers have deserted since the Iraq war began four years ago. According to the Army, the number of deserters has increased every year of the war. 3,196 active-duty soldiers deserted the Army last year, compared to 2,543 the year before.
Soldiers are also speaking up in other ways. Last October, antiwar soldiers launched a legal petition to Congress called an Appeal for Redress, which has garnered more than 2,000 signatures.
"As a patriotic American proud to serve the nation in uniform, I respectfully urge my political leaders in Congress to support the prompt withdrawal of all American military forces and bases from Iraq," the Appeal says. "Staying in Iraq will not work and is not worth the price. It is time for U.S. troops to come home."
Iraq Veterans Against the War has also begun organizing among active duty soldiers on military bases. Veterans have toured the country in busses holding barbeques outside the base gates.
In Watertown, near Fort Drum, New York and close to the Canadian border, veterans worked with the group Citizen Soldier to found a soldiers' rights coffeehouse. The coffeehouse, called A Different Drummer, has become a hub of antiwar organizing.
Twenty Fort Drum soldiers are now members of Iraq Veterans Against the War
Historian David Cortright, who protested the Vietnam war from inside the U.S. military and later authored the book "Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War," told OneWorld that a chapter of 20 antiwar soldiers at a U.S. Army base is significant.
"They are the ones who are courageous enough to speak out but behind them are many others who sympathize and agree," he said. "They might support a petition and help out in some way but because of family matters don't want to put themselves at risk. There's tremendous pressure from the command to conform, to obey, to keep your mouth shut. So the fact that there are a couple dozen who are willing to speak out signifies that there is a base of sympathy and support and opposition to this war."
Iraq Veterans Against the War also plans to step up efforts to undermine military recruiting efforts in the coming year.
In September, the organization plans to launch a "truth in recruiting" campaign. The campaign will include antiwar outreach into high schools and community colleges, protests at recruiting stations, and efforts to "make friends with a recruiter," whereby a person who is not interested in military service contacts a recruiter in order to waste his time and prevent him from encouraging others to join the ranks.
At least 3,707 U.S. soldiers have died since the Iraq war began four years ago. Some 20 percent of soldiers have suffered brain trauma, spinal injuries or amputations; another 20 percent have suffered other major injuries such as blindness, partial blindness or deafness, and serious burns.
Hundreds of thousands have already submitted disability claims with the United States Veterans Administration.
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