Veterans’ Voices Rise in Protest

SAN FRANCISCO, Oct 25 (IPS) – With the news that members of a U.S. Army reserve platoon have been arrested in Iraq for refusing a ”suicide mission,” dissent among veterans of the U.S.-led campaign in that country continues to grow.

The recent incident mirrors other stories of troops being sent on missions without proper equipment, and again raises the spectre of plummeting troop morale as the security situation in Iraq deteriorates and elections scheduled for January approach.

Even as late as six months after the March 2003 U.S.-led attack, as many as 51,000 U.S. soldiers and civilian administrators in Iraq had still not been properly equipped with body armour and other protective gear, according to the ‘Washington Post’.

Alerted to the situation, family members bought expensive flak jackets and other security gear and used international couriers to send it to the front lines.

Speaking of the low rates of readiness of his ground forces due to inadequate combat and protective equipment, the senior U.S. commander on the ground in Iraq from mid-2003 to mid-2004 said, ”I cannot continue to support sustained combat operations with rates this low.”

Lieutenant-General Ricardo Sanchez added that army units were, ”struggling just to maintain à relatively low readiness rates” for key combat systems, reported the Post’.

The mother of Amber McClenny, who serves in the platoon that in mid-October refused orders to transport fuel through an area north of Baghdad where ambushes are known to occur, told the Associated Press her daughter called and told her, ”We had broken-down trucks, non-armoured vehicles and à we were carrying contaminated fuel. They are holding us against our will. We are now prisoners.”

While a senior U.S. military official has said the unit had been ordered to carry out what is known as a maintenance stand-down and its soldiers are not under arrest, many Iraq veterans in the United States feel the incident is indicative of poor troop morale, which stems from the growing belief among soldiers that the war in Iraq is unjustified.

Army National Guard member Sergeant Kelly Dougherty served for 10 months in Iraq at Tallil Air Base, near Nasiriya. ”The people in Iraq didn’t have money or jobs and their cities were destitute,” said Dougherty, who worked escorting convoys and patrols.

”I wondered how these people were functioning after they’d been through so much. They hadn’t even rebuilt from the first Gulf War (in 1991).”

During a phone interview Dougherty said her unit did not even have translators for the first nine months of the occupation and were thus unable to communicate with Iraqis while conducting security patrols.

”I think it was definitely wrong to go into Iraq,” she added. ”I thought that before we went in and the intelligence is proving this now.”

Like other soldiers who are beginning to speak out against the Bush administration, Dougherty has strong words about how the war was waged. ”People say the president didn’t lie — but it’s hard for me to believe that they truly thought the reasons they went in were true,” she said.

”I think we were intentionally lied to in order to get the U.S. into Iraq, and the Bush administration seized this opportunity.” The president, she added, was also being dishonest about the dangers that soldiers would face when he did not provide them with the necessary armour and supplies.

Another veteran of the war in Iraq is Corporal Alex Ryabov, who participated in the invasion of Iraq until May 9. ”What I realise after having been there is that it (the war) is such a huge waste of life on both sides,” he said in an interview.

Ryabov also commented on U.S. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld’s statement in September that the 1,000 U.S. soldiers who have died in Iraq are just some of the victims of the ”war on terrorism.”

”The reality is that Bush and Rumsfeld don’t have family in the military, and they have never served. Each U.S. death in Iraq — each of those people has family and friends, and you can’t tell them that this is a small number.”

Ryabov, who served as the ammunition chief for his Marine Corps unit, believes the administration should be held to account for the horrendous situation in Iraq. ”They should be impeached. They should be put on trial.”

He also believes the administration is not doing enough to support Iraq war veterans.

”When troops come home we need to have benefits and VA (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) support. There are a lot of people having problems with this and no support. My friends are coming back angry and screwed up and not getting any help.”

According to the U.S. military, more than 7,500 soldiers have been injured in Iraq through Sep. 27. Of those, more than one-half did not return to action after 72 hours. But veterans’ advocates say the Pentagon is not counting nearly 16,000 more soldiers evacuated from Iraq and Afghanistan for ”non-combat causes,” according to United Press International (UPI).

Another veteran who has served in the Middle East is Senior Airman Tim Goodrich. While serving two deployments at Prince Sultan Air Base for Operation Southern Watch, where he patrolled no-fly zones in southern Iraq during the build-up to the current war, ”that is when it first hit me that this was the wrong idea,” said Goodrich.

”I was watching troop movements for Iraq going through our base between August and October of 2002 à army troop movements preparing to go to war with Iraq six months before the war,” he told IPS.

Goodrich too is angry. ”I feel absolutely betrayed by this administration. I was brought up believing it was the most honourable thing to do to serve in the military. Now I’ve learned that it is not a glorious undertaking à and that our country isn’t living up to the standards I believed it was — that our foreign policy has been flawed for decades.”

Goodrich feels so strongly about the horrendous situation in Iraq that he has joined a group called Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). The organisation, which started two and a half years ago with only nine members, has now grown to over 60, including active duty service personnel in Iraq.

In order to accommodate the growing numbers of Iraq veterans joining the group, IVAW is trying to obtain office space and find a part-time employee to assist in its mission of ending the occupation and seeing service members return to the United States.

The group will also be sending members on speaking tours until the end of November, according to its website.

Goodrich believes the situation in Iraq is the reason why the military has failed to meet its recruiting goals recently. And he applauded the platoon in Iraq for refusing to follow orders.

”I think it’s about time that someone stood up and did something. They are working with sub-par equipment that is putting peoples’ lives at risk,” he said. ”There are not enough armoured vehicles and not enough supplies for the soldiers. One hundred fifty billion dollars (has been spent) to fund these guys and the money isn’t getting to where it needs to be.”

When asked what he would do if he were called up to serve in Iraq again, Goodrich replied, ”No comment.”