SEATTLE - Dozens of veterans from the U.S. occupation of Iraq converged in this west coast city over the weekend to share stories of atrocities being committed daily in Iraq, in a continuation of the "Winter Soldier" hearings held in Silver Spring, Maryland in March.
At the Seattle Town Hall, some 800 people gathered to hear the testimonies of veterans from Iraq. The event was sponsored by the Northwest Regional Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), and endorsed by dozens of local and regional anti-war groups like Veterans for Peace and Students for a Democratic Society.
"I watched Iraqi Police bring in someone to interrogate," Seth Manzel, a vehicle commander and machine gunner in the U.S. Army, told the audience. "There were four men on the prisoner...one was pummeling his kidneys with his fists, another was inserting a bottle up his rectum. It looked like a frat house gang-rape."
Manzel joined the army after 9/11 for economic reasons -- he'd just been laid off, and his wife had just had a baby. Manzel told another story of military medics he was with in Tal Afar who refused to treat an elderly man in their detention centre. Manzel described the old man as being jaundiced and lying on the ground, writhing in pain.
"The medics said the old man was just being lazy and they were not authorised to treat detainees," Manzel said.
Jan Critchfield worked as an army journalist while attached to the 1st Cavalry in Baghdad during 2004. "I was with a unit that shot at a man and wife near a checkpoint," Critchfield said, "She had been shot through her shinbone, and that was the first story I covered in Iraq."
Critchfield told the audience that his unspoken job in Iraq was to "counter the liberal media bias" about the occupation.
"Our target audience was in the U.S., and the emphasis was reporting on humanitarian aid missions the military conducted," Critchfield said. "I don't know how many stories I reported on chicken drops (distributing frozen chickens in a community). I don't know what else you can call that, other than propaganda. I would find the highest ranking person I could get, and quote them verbatim without fact checking anything they said."
Other veterans told of lax rules of engagement that led to the slaughter of innocent civilians in Iraq.
"We were told we'd be deploying to Iraq and that we needed to get ready to have little kids and women shoot at us," Sergio Kochergin, a former Marine who served two deployments in Iraq, told the audience. "It was an attempt to portray Iraqis as animals. We were supposed to do humanitarian work, but all we did was harass people, drive like crazy on the streets, pretending it was our city and we could do whatever we wanted to do."
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As the other veterans on the panel nodded in agreement, Kochergin continued, "We were constantly told everybody there wants to kill you, everybody wants to get you. In the military, we had racism within every rank and it was ridiculous. It seemed like a joke, but that joke turned into destroying peoples' lives in Iraq."
"I was in Husaiba with a sniper platoon right on the Syrian border and we would basically go out on the town and search for people to shoot," Kochergin said. "The rules of engagement (ROE) got more lenient the longer we were there. So if anyone had a bag and a shovel, we were to shoot them. We were allowed to take our shots at anything that looked suspicious. And at that point in time, everything looked suspicious."
Kochergin added, "Later on, we had no ROE at all. If you see something that doesn't seem right, take them out." He concluded by saying, "Enough is enough, it's time to get out of there."
Doug Connor was a first lieutenant in the army and worked as a surgical nurse in Iraq. While there he worked as part of a combat support unit, and said most of the patients he treated were Iraqi civilians.
"There were so many people that needed treatment we couldn't take all of them," he said. "When a bombing happened and 45 patients were brought to us, it was always Americans treated first, then Kurds, then the Arabs."
Connor added quietly, "It got to the point where we started calling the Iraqi patients 'range balls' because, just like on the driving range (in golf), you don't care about losing them."
Channan Suarez Diaz was a navy hospital corpsman who returned from Iraq with a purple heart, among other medals. He served in Ramadi from September 2004 to February 2005 with a weapons company. He is now the Seattle Chapter president of IVAW.
"Our commanding officer wanted us to go through a route that another platoon did and was completely wiped out in an ambush," Diaz explained. "We refused. They canceled that mission and we didn't go. I don't think these are isolated incidents. I think this is happening every day in Iraq. The military doesn't want you to know about this, because it's kind of like lighting a fire in a prairie."
The first Winter Soldier event was organised in 1971 by Vietnam Veterans Against the War in response to a growing list of human rights violations occurring in Vietnam.
From Mar. 13-16, 2008, IVAW held a national conference titled "Winter Solider: Iraq and Afghanistan" outside Washington, DC. The four-day event brought together veterans from across the country to testify about their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.
© 2008 Inter Press Service