Last weekend, in the lead-up to the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, a remarkable gathering occurred just outside Washington, D.C., called Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan, Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations. Hundreds of veterans of these two wars, along with active-duty soldiers, came together to offer testimony about the horrors of war, including atrocities they witnessed or committed themselves.
The name, Winter Soldier, comes from a similar event in 1971, when hundreds of Vietnam veterans gathered in Detroit, and is derived from the opening line of Thomas Paine's pamphlet, "The Crisis," published in 1776:
"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 their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman."
This Winter Soldier was organized by the group Iraq Veterans Against the War. Kelly Dougherty, an Iraq veteran from the Colorado Army National Guard and IVAW's executive director, opened the proceedings, saying: "The voices of veterans and service members, as well as civilians on the ground, need to be heard by the American people, and by the people of the world, and also by other people in the military and other veterans so they can find their voice to tell their story, because each of our individual stories is crucially important and needs to be heard if people are to understand the reality and the true human cost of war and occupation."
What followed were four days of gripping testimony, ranging from firsthand accounts of the murder of Iraqi civilians, the dehumanization of Iraqis and Afghanis that undergirds the violence of the occupations, to the toll that violence takes on the soldiers themselves and the inadequate care they receive upon returning home.
Jon Michael Turner, who fought with the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, tore his medals off his chest. He said: "On April 18, 2006, I had my first confirmed kill. This man was innocent. I don't know his name. I called him 'the fat man.' He was walking back to his house, and I shot him in front of his friend and his father. The first round didn't kill him, after I had hit him up here in his neck area. And afterward he started screaming and looked right into my eyes. So I looked at my friend, who I was on post with, and I said, 'Well, I can't let that happen.' So I took another shot and took him out. He was then carried away by the rest of his family. It took seven people to carry his body away.
"We were all congratulated after we had our first kills, and that happened to have been mine. My company commander personally congratulated me, as he did everyone else in our company. This is the same individual who had stated that whoever gets their first kill by stabbing them to death will get a four-day pass when we return from Iraq."
Hart Viges was with the 82nd Airborne, part of the invasion in March 2003. He described a house raid where they arrested the wrong men: "We never went on a raid where we got the right house, much less the right person. Not once. I looked at my sergeant, and I was like, 'Sergeant, these aren't the men that we're looking for.' And he told me, 'Don't worry. I'm sure they would have done something anyways.' And this mother, all the while, is crying in my face, trying to kiss my feet. And, you know, I can't speak Arabic. I can speak human. She was saying, 'Please, why are you taking my sons? They have done nothing wrong.' And that made me feel very powerless. You know, 82nd Airborne Division, Infantry, with Apache helicopters, Bradley fighting vehicles and armor and my M4-I was powerless. I was powerless to help her."
Former Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia also spoke. After serving in Iraq, he refused to return there. He was court-martialed and spent almost a year in prison. Mejia is now the chairman of IVAW. After he finished the testimony of his experience in Iraq, he laid out the group's demands:
"We have over a million Iraqi dead. We have over 5 million Iraqis displaced. We have close to 4,000 dead [Americans]. We have close to 60,000 injured. That's not even counting the post-traumatic stress disorder and all the other psychological and emotional scars that our generation is bringing home with them. War is dehumanizing a whole new generation of this country and destroying the people in the country of Iraq. In order for us to reclaim our humanity as a military and as a country, we demand the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all troops from Iraq, care and benefits for all veterans, and reparations for the Iraqi people so they can rebuild their country on their terms."
As we enter the sixth year of the war in Iraq, more time than the U.S. was involved in World War II, we should honor the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, by listening to them.
Amy Goodman is the host of "Democracy Now!," a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on 650 stations in North America.
© 2008 Amy Goodman