WASHINGTON - US veterans and active-duty soldiers on Thursday kicked off an event in Washington to protest the war in Iraq, urging other members of the military to join them in speaking out against the conflict.
"There's an upswell of disgust and disapproval for the Iraq war in the military," intelligence sergeant Selena Coppa told AFP at the launch of the four-day "Winter Soldier" event.
"The difficulty is letting them realize they are legally entitled to speak out about it, other than to service members," added Coppa, who is still on active duty in the US army.
Camilo Mejia, the first conscientious objector to the Iraq war, went a step further.
"I want our servicemen and women to know that standing up to an immoral occupation is not only their right but also their duty to their country and humanity," he told reporters.
"My first mission in Iraq was to run a prisoner of war camp where we used sensory and sleep deprivation techniques prior to interrogation," he recounted at the opening news conference, which was heavy with foreign correspondents but light on US media.
Mejia was court martialled for refusing to redeploy to his unit after two weeks' leave, and spent nine months in a military jail.
Now the chairman of the board of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), which has organized the four-day gathering, Mejia spoke of a groundswell of resistance within the US military to the war in Iraq, which will enter its sixth year later this month.
"Servicemen and women are refusing en masse to participate in this war. I have seen a rapid and inevitable growth of dissent within our ranks," he said.
At the "Winter Soldier" event in Washington, some 200 soldiers like Coppa and Mejia will give eye-witness testimonies about what they lived through during their deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and afterwards.
The event is organized by IVAW, a grouping of around 800 military veterans and active soldiers opposed to the occupation of Iraq.
Vietnam veterans held a "Winter Soldier" event in 1971 at which more than 100 servicemen and 16 civilians described atrocities committed against innocent civilians in South Vietnam.
The name "Winter Soldier" is derived from the "summer soldier" described by American Revolutionary War writer Thomas Paine in "The Crisis:"
"These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman," Paine wrote in the 18th century work.
© 2008 Agence France Presse