The new Winter Soldier

Iraq veterans speak out

The following speeches are from a panel, Winter Soldiers Speak Out, sponsored by the Campus Antiwar Network (CAN). It was part of CAN’s East Coast Regional Conference, “Their War, Our World: Building the Student Resistance,” held in New York City on April 4–6, 2008. This panel is one of many other local Winter Soldier events that have been organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and its allies since the historic, Winter Soldier Iraq and Afghanistan, held outside Washington, D.C., in March. The ISR reprints these speeches with permission.

Eli Wright

MY NAME is Eli Wright of the Fort Drum chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War. I’m currently serving as an active duty service member pending a medical discharge from the army. I enlisted in the army in December 2001 shortly after 9/11 and ended up deploying to Iraq with the First Infantry Division in September 2003, shortly after the invasion. At the time I did almost believe that I would be providing humanitarian assistance. That illusion was quickly shattered when I got to Iraq and wasn’t able to provide much assistance at all to the Iraqi people. So I started turning against the war around that time.

One of the things I want to discuss is the health-care crisis in the military. I sustained a back and a neck injury in Iraq in a vehicle accident. I was ejected from a Humvee and shortly after that I also suffered a dislocated shoulder and a cartilage tear. It took over two years for the army to operate on the shoulder and actually fix it. That happened after I came back from Iraq and was transferred to Walter Reed. I was working there for a while with patients from OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom) and OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom).

Walter Reed is the army’s flagship hospital both for active-duty army medicine and retirees dating back all the way to World War II. So treating patients, veterans of all generations of America’s wars, I started seeing a bigger health-care crisis involving more than just Iraq and Afghanistan vets. The VA and the military health-care system have been underfunded dating a long time back. We’re now seeing World War II, Vietnam, and Korea vets, and Desert Storm vets even, being pushed further and further down the priority levels because there’s such a huge influx of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

I was working with a lot of really young Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in in-patient wards like the neurosurgery ward with badly wounded patients suffering massive traumatic brain injuries, paralysis, amputees. Later I was transferred to the emergency room where I was working primarily with older retirees suffering from a lot of the same injuries.

We received a lot of our patients from the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Washington, D.C. This is the nation’s only retirement home for enlisted members of the military, for veterans, who have nowhere else to go for old-age care. It’s operated under the jurisdiction of the Department of Defense and it’s funded entirely by enlisted service members by a 50-cent per paycheck deduction from our pay. Between March 2004 and March 2007 their budget had been cut from $76 million dollars to $54.7 million and their staffing had been cut from 730 persons to 447 personnel.

This is a good example of how this war is stripping away all veterans’ health-care needs. We would routinely receive patients who hadn’t been bathed in days, who had infected wounds, bedsores in multiple stages of healing, which indicates an ongoing problem and that they’re not being treated. If the Armed Forces Retirement Home is what enlisted service members, veterans like us, have to look forward to in old age—it’s probably the only place we’ll be able to retire—that doesn’t give me much hope. We only have one home because the other one, down in Gulfport, Mississippi, was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina. So the majority of their patients were sent up to Washington, D.C., thereby overloading the D.C. campus now with more retirees than they can handle.

That’s one of the main things that really started getting me angry when I was working at Walter Reed. So I joined IVAW in D.C. I started speaking out a little bit. But it was when I got up to Fort Drum and met with Phil Aliff and some of the other guys in the Fort Drum chapter that we really started building.

Fort Drum has the most deployed units in the army. The soldiers are serving multiple deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan. The PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] rates, domestic violence, suicide, alcohol, and drug abuse are skyrocketing at Fort Drum and elsewhere across the army. So we are starting to see another ugly pattern of health-care crisis, especially mental health care, at Fort Drum. Fort Drum is one of the few military bases that do not have their own hospitals. They have a privatized contract with local hospitals. Obviously there’s going to be a lack of care.

Finally one other thing I’d like to bring up is the personality disorder discharges. One of our Colorado IVAW members, Jeff Peskoff, and [journalist] Bob Woodruff blew the whistle on this issue with an extensive report. The military is routinely discharging combat veterans with so-called personality disorders or adjustment disorders after they’ve come home from Iraq. It’s classified as a pre-existing condition even though they went through an extensive screening process prior to joining the military and were perfectly healthy.

They come home, the military gives them a personality disorder discharge, gets them out, and they lose their benefits—no VA health care, no GI bill, no education. They basically are stripped of everything they earned in their service. There had been over 28,000 soldiers discharged from the army on personality disorders since the Iraq War started. After we blew the whistle on this in January, the military put a halt on all personality disorder discharges and ordered all twenty-some thousand prior discharges to be placed under review and the Department of Defense is now mandated to provide justification for every single one of those discharges.

That’s just an example of the kind of work that we have been doing in fighting for our second point of unity, which is full health care and benefits for all veterans. This is one example of where we’re actually making progress. We’ve gotten media coverage and lots of help from other organizations like the Campus Antiwar Network, our local allies in the region, and veterans’ service organizations like Veterans for America. So I want to thank you all as well as our other allies.

Rafay Siddiqui

GOOD MORNING, everyone. My name is Rafay Siddiqui. I was born in Pakistan where I lived for nine years. I immigrated to the U.S. in 1994. I joined the Marine Corps in 2002. I scored really highly on the military’s IQ test, so they assigned me to work with colonels and generals.

Today I want to talk about racism because it’s prevalent in today’s society and to some degree more so in the Marine Corps. I personally wasn’t a victim of direct racism. However, my roommates—one was a Black guy from South Carolina, the other one was a Mexican from L.A.—had such experiences and through them I got information on some pretty gruesome stuff that happens.

An example of racism is what happened to my Black roommate. I think it was a few months before the initial invasion of Iraq, my roommate was talking about his new car that he bought. He was talking about how he was going to pay for it and stuff. This—I’ll just say Staff Sergeant C—overheard him. We were getting ready to deploy ourselves, too, though we didn’t know exactly who was going. They were only to take, I think, a handful of marines from our unit because we were so important to commanding troops. He decided to talk to this marine about deploying. What I mean by “talk” is what we in the military call “voluntold”—he kind of forced him to go. There’s not a problem with telling a marine to deploy, but in the context of things we look at, he was Black, and there were other marines who were white or lighter skinned who weren’t told to deploy—they weren’t “voluntold.”

On top of that I have concrete evidence of racism when they came back in the distribution of awards. People get awards. It’s a regular thing. Now these awards can make or break a military career and also they look really good when you get out into the civilian world. So a lot of these white marines got Navy and Marine Corps achievement medals, which is a pretty good award, and some of them got Navy and Marine Corps commendation medals, which means much more than an achievement medal.

All the white marines, all the light-skinned marines got awards and none of the dark-skinned marines got anything, not even a certificate of commendation. Finally, a few years later, my roommate received a commendation. But he did the exact same work that any other marine did. Maybe I’m stretching but, I think in their view, if you’re non-white, you’re closer to Iraqis than you are to your own servicemen. The certification of commendation that my friend got means about as much as a loose, sweaty-palm handshake.

Now I want to talk about racism in general. In the Marine Corps it’s alive and thriving, and prevalent in our actions and our conduct in Iraq. It starts in the subculture of the Marine Corps and then it transcends that and goes into how we treat our prisoners, how we treat Iraqis. This unwritten policy is spread from the highest of levels. This one captain who just returned from Afghanistan was talking to my colonel about some of the firefights and stuff that happened. And Colonel Goldsmith—I kind of respect him—but he responded to the captain with, “And how many bloody turbans did you bring back?” Marines say a lot of stupid shit. We say a lot of fucked-up stuff, but from a colonel who is supposed to represent the whole unit, it didn’t seem right to me.

These racist policies are governing our conduct in our mission to “civilize the uncivilized.” Rudyard Kipling summed it up when he said, “It’s the white man’s burden.” In my view that’s exactly what’s going on. Thanks for having me. Conferences like this do affect what’s going to happen and it will help eventually bring an end to these illegal wars, not only Iraq and Afghanistan, but all other places affected by imperialism.

Jen Hogg

MY NAME is Jen Hogg and I’m a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War. I’m the treasurer of the New York chapter. I served in the Army/National Guard out of Buffalo, New York, from 2000 to 2005. My family is a blue-collar, factory-working type of family. I saw enlisting in the Guard as a stepping-stone out of the conditions that most of my family has been in. 

I was on a panel at Winter Soldier called “Divide to Conquer: Gender and Sexuality in the Military.” It was about the way that sexism is used within the military. There was a Colonel who wrote a book. His name is Col. David Hackworth and his book is about his view of the war in Vietnam when he served there. He said, “How you train is how you will act in war.” That’s something definitely to talk about when you talk about the racism and sexism.

When the military is in Iraq, they dehumanize Iraqi civilians. They train you to treat them as the “other,” someone other than you, so they’re not seen as human. In the same way, you’re trained from day one in the military to view women as weaker, to view women as the “other.” In basic training there are these things called Jody cadences. It comes from the idea that there is someone called Jody who is at home with your girlfriend, sleeping with her, stealing your money and in your bed while you’re here doing this great thing being in the military. They’re all pieces of shit, and you should hate your girlfriend.

Everyone is told that someone is going to get a “Dear John” letter, which says, “I am sleeping with someone, your best friend probably. I am stealing your money and am leaving you and taking the kids.” It becomes a form of bonding for men in these very extreme conditions of basic training. This bonding comes at the expense of their other relationships. That’s what produces the domestic violence, rapes, and divorces that have been skyrocketing.

My own personal experience in basic training was in 2000 right when the Supreme Court gave Bush the election. I was a mechanic, and my teacher came out in the morning and said, “Thank God Bush was elected. Now we can get rid of all these fags in the military.” Being a lesbian in the military, you don’t go and report that. The response would be “Why the hell are you reporting that? Why do you care?” That threat works to silence gay people. And if gay people aren’t the ones that are going to say something then it leaves people who are not gay to say something. Some of them don’t care, some of them are doing it, and others are scared to be seen as gay.

For many on this panel and in IVAW and in the military in general, when 9/11 happened, they felt this need to join the military to protect the country. For me it was a little bit opposite, I was already in the military. When I saw the planes hit on the TV, I was like damn it we’re getting activated; and of course, at one o’clock that afternoon we got the call. The day we were called up, everyone was getting their stuff together to drive down to New York City. Our families were coming to say goodbye to us at our armory. Everyone’s kissing their girlfriends, their husbands, and wives goodbye, except for the gay people in the unit.

In the armory, which is the actual office that I enlisted, there is a mirror that reads “Remember why you serve—to defend freedom.” And you’re supposed to look in that and look at yourself. So, I was looking at that and saying, “Bullshit!” And that’s what I wanted to write on it, but there were too many people. For me that was a real turning point. I began questioning the policies.

A lot of people say that sexism is something that happens outside of the military. So, of course, it’s going to happen inside the military. No shit. But civilians don’t carry guns. It’s more intense in the military. I liken it to a magnifying glass. The sun is out all the time, but when you focus it with a magnifying glass to it, it becomes concentrated and has a different effect. The military is a type of magnifying glass.

The rates of sexual assault are skyrocketing with the war in Iraq, and that’s not just for American service members but for Iraqi women as well. Iraqi women are becoming prostitutes at unheard of levels compared to pre-invasion. A lot of people want to support the invasion by saying that women in Iraq are getting all these rights. But then you have the women in Iraq saying, “What are you talking about? You don’t bring ‘rights’ on a bomb.” It really angers me to see generally conservative women in the U.S. go on Fox News and say that we’re giving these Iraqi women so many rights. Yet these women didn’t even take the time to read one ounce of history about Iraqi women and how hard that they fought in the sixties and seventies for their own rights against the regime that the U.S. was supporting.

So, it’s important not only for the Iraqi women but also for women in the military for people to not just assume they know what is the situation and take the time to listen to them. You can do so with women in IVAW, and there’s another organization I’m a member of called SWAN, Service Women’s Action Network. There’s These groups are trying to raise the issues of women in the military.

So, I want to thank all of you for being here and definitely go to the IVAW Web site and watch the Winter Soldier testimony and tell everyone you know about it, so, it’s not just something that happened, but it’s something that needs to continue to happen.

Adrienne Kinne

I  SERVED in the U.S. Army and Army Reserves from 1994 to 2004 as an Arabic linguist in military intelligence. After 9/11, I was activated and stationed stateside at Fort Gordon, Georgia, as a voice intercepter collecting satellite phone communications from the Middle East. During the course of my active-duty tour, I saw a lot of changes, especially after 9/11, but much more so in the build-up to the invasion of Iraq. It was just totally different than what I had done in military intelligence before.

When I was active duty from 1994 to 1998, we concentrated on military radio transmissions that seemed very relevant to what we would want to do in military intelligence. During that time, we very much protected and safeguarded constitutional rights for Americans. There is United States Signals Intelligence Directive (USSID) 18, which states that military intelligence cannot collect on, in any way, shape, or form, American citizens. At that point in time, we took that incredibly seriously.

After 9/11, I was assigned to a brand-new mission. When intercepting satellite phone communications, I saw a lot of our queue fill up with names not of terrorist organizations or military-affiliated groups in the Middle East but NGOs, humanitarian aid organizations, journalists, including Doctors Without Borders, the International Red Cross/Red Crescent, and journalists that were staying at the Palestine Hotel.

During the course of my two years, there were many things I had major problems with. At one point in time, I intercepted an American aid worker speaking to a British aid worker. The British aid worker basically said to the American to be careful what you say because the Americans are listening. The American replied that they can’t listen to me because I’m protected under USSID 18. When he said that, it really made me think about what we were doing in our mission. I actually drew that transmission to the attention of my officer in charge and some senior analysts in our mission. I told them that we weren’t supposed to be collecting on these people, and I am not sure why we are collecting on humanitarian organizations.

When I told them that and they heard the reference to USSID 18, they actually were livid—rather than being stunned that maybe we were violating the law—that an American would reference USSID 18 and his guarantee of protection against being spied upon to a British citizen. As if the American had committed an act of treason by sharing this “secret” right that Americans have with someone who is not an American.

Shortly thereafter, we were given a verbal waiver that we could listen to anybody in an entire area—Iraq, Afghanistan, and a huge swath of the surrounding area. They gave us two justifications for listening to these aid organizations and to include Americans. They said that these were people on the ground, and it could be that one day they might stumble upon weapons of mass destruction and pass their location, so we needed to be listening to them just in case they ever referenced the location of WMDs. And the other justification was that they could lose their satellite phone, and a terrorist organization could find it and start using it, so we had to maintain vigilance over all phone numbers just in case either of those two things happened.

I also remember listening to journalists who were staying at the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, and they were calling their family members in the U.S. and elsewhere talking about whether or not they were safe during the build-up to Shock and Awe that launched the U.S. war on Iraq. I immediately went to my officer-in-charge and said that there are journalists staying in that hotel, and they think they are safe. So we either need to tell the journalists that they aren’t safe, or we need to tell the military that there are journalists staying there and maybe they should rethink targeting that hotel. My officer-in-charge basically blew me off. He said that the people in charge know what they are doing, it’s not your position to make these determinations or judgments; it’s your job to collect.

After I got out of the military, I didn’t necessarily see my connection with the war anymore. I went back to school, I started working at the VA, and it was through working at the VA and seeing so many people come back with traumatic brain injury (TBI) and PTSD. It was over the course of that time that I really started to think that this is an ongoing war, that these wars are affecting real people, and they are real people that as a veteran and a soldier I identified with incredibly strongly.

For a while, I worked trying to get the Democrats elected to Congress, thinking that they would make a difference. But after the election of November 2006 in which the Democrats won control of Congress, the escalation was announced, and the Democrats went along with it. That was an epiphany moment when I realized that the Democrats and Republicans are no different, and that it’s not going to be Congress or the government that ends the war, but people speaking out and taking a stance against the war that’s going to end it.

I joined IVAW shortly thereafter and started meeting people from all over, and I’m very happy that I did. Thank you very much for coming out and listening to us.

Phil Aliff

MY NAME is Phil Aliff, I served with the U.S. Army from 2004 to 2008 in the Tenth Mountain Division. I was stationed at Fort Drum, New York. In February 2006 my platoon was driving down a road amid farmlands near Fallujah. This was one of the most dangerous roads in our area. I was in the second Humvee of the patrol, on the gun. The first Humvee was struck by a roadside bomb.

When the roadside bomb went off, our rules of engagement dictated for us to fire in every direction to draw out the trigger-man so that we could shoot him down. As soon as the bomb went off, my squad leader, who was in the front of the vehicle, was on the radio talking to our company headquarters. This sergeant in the back seat looks up at me and says, “Shoot that house right there on the right.” Without even thinking about it I shot about three hundred rounds into the door of the house.

After I finished shooting into the house, a white vehicle drove up at a high rate of speed. We engaged that vehicle, and killed a young man who happened to be the sheik’s son from the village we were operating in. We followed all the procedures that we were told to follow in that situation. We did not do anything wrong, according to our chain of command. And I want to make that clear, that this was something that we didn’t decide one day that this is how we are going to operate. This was directly coming from our chain of command, from the Department of Defense, and from the administration about rules of engagement.

The administration itself and the Department of Defense—they have their voice. But we didn’t have our voice as veterans for a long time, or as Iraqi people, or people in Afghanistan. But I think what we learned, and what we hoped people could take away from Winter Soldier, was that we have found our voice, the world is watching, and we will not be silent any longer.

I think it’s really exciting to come to the Campus Antiwar Network conference, since I’m going to be a student myself. I actually joined the military for college money. In IVAW, we’re veterans, we’re combat veterans, we’re veterans of the military, but everyone, especially students, are veterans of this “war on terror,” because we’re all affected. Students are seeing a rise in their tuition rates. A lot of students have dropped out of school and joined the military to pay off student loans. And a lot of veterans are going back to school on the GI bill. Not only are we affected by our direct involvement in the war, but everyone else is negatively affected in some way. The people of this country, especially working-class people, do not benefit from this war in any way.

There’s been a debate that’s sprung up in this conference about the draft, and I’d like to address it in my own way, as a veteran. I hear a lot of people say that if we only had a draft, we could end the war because that would really get people out in the streets. I think that there’s a couple of points against that idea. First of all, like I said before, we’re already in a draft, we’re in a poverty draft, an economic draft. Working-class people right now join the military just to pay their bills, to pay off debt, to get college money. Immigrants that are moving to this country are being forced into the military to fight for a country that dares to say that they are illegal, just to get citizenship rights in this country. That’s despicable.

Second, if any of you have read David Cortright’s book, Soldiers in Revolt, he shows that a lot of the resistance in the military during the Vietnam War came from volunteer soldiers. It wasn’t all draftees; it was working-class soldiers who had voluntarily joined the military who sparked the resistance.

Instead of looking for a quick fix—a draft that will spark resistance—we have to have a perspective that we’re in a long-term struggle. Unless there’s some miracle, I don’t think the war’s going to end this year. That’s not something that should demoralize us. We should just be aware of what a big fight we are in. We must build organizations for a grass-roots movement. That’s what we’re doing today, and that’s what Iraq Veterans Against the War has been doing building our chapters in cities and on military bases. That’s the way to organize and win the victories Eli described.

I think that’s a really important point especially in an election year. The Democrats are saying a lot of things about ending the war. But I think we should have an honest debate about the relationship of our movement to the Democrats. We should accept that different people have different views about the Democrats. That’s fine. As a social movement, we can embrace people who want to vote for the Democrats. But we should be autonomous from the Democrats; we should be autonomous from the voting process.

What’s most important is what we can do now to make the politicians deliver. We, the people, are going to put pressure on this government, on the military, to force the U.S. out of Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s the way we should be looking at it as a movement. As Iraq Veterans Against the War we call for three things: We call for immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all troops and contractors from Iraq; we call for reparations for the Iraqi people; and we call for full and adequate benefits for veterans. Those are things that we all agree on, but there should be an open debate from there about how to get to those things. But we have to stay autonomous as a movement.

I want to finish up by saying, like I said before, we can win the struggle, but we have to have a long-term perspective. It’s not about IVAW or CAN, one or the other. We’re part of a movement together. We’re playing our role in GI resistance, you’re playing your role in organizing students, but we’re all in the struggle together. Together, we have to end this war, we have to bring the troops home now, we have to end the war in Afghanistan, we have to get adequate benefits, and we have to get money for jobs and education, not for war and occupation.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Issue contents

Top story