Veterans and military familes say: ‘Bring troops home now – and care for them’

ST. LOUIS — “Those in the armed services right now can speak the truth about Iraq because we’ve been there, we’ve seen with our own eyes the disaster we’ve created in Iraq. And we can tell you that the only way to cope with this disaster is to bring the troops home now — and care for them when they return!”

These words from Michael Hoffman, co-founder of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), brought hundreds of delegates to their feet at the United for Peace and Justice National Assembly here last month. Hoffman called on the peace movement to “stay the course.”

“When I got out of the military,” he said, “I knew I was against this war but I didn’t know where to turn. When I got home, there were protests every weekend. There was a group, Veterans for Peace. They welcomed me and asked me to raise my voice.”

Hoffman, from Allentown, Pa., had served as a Marine Corps artilleryman for four years before being deployed to Iraq with the 1st Marine Division in February 2003. He returned home that August with an honorable discharge.

Deeply affected by his experience in Iraq, Hoffman wrote in the London Guardian late last year: “These are the thoughts that keep me up at night: the bodies of children and the burned remains of Iraqi troops that couldn’t get out in time.”

He spoke out publicly against the war for the first time on Veterans Day 2003. IVAW was formally launched in July 2004 during the national convention of Veterans for Peace.

Interviewed during the Assembly, Hoffman spoke of the urgent problems faced by returning Iraq vets. “What really drives me nuts about all this, is that Bush and the rest of the guys standing behind this war are saying, ‘We support the troops,’ but the things they are doing to the troops are absolutely inhuman,” he said. “Above and beyond sending them into this horrible war, when they’re injured — their lives are destroyed — they refuse to help them!”

Casualties in Iraq …

A group of leading public health doctors is demanding an independent investigation of Iraqi civilian deaths from the U.S. war and occupation, calling the Iraqi health ministry’s figure of 3,853 deaths and 15,517 injuries a gross underestimate.

“Monitoring casualties is a humanitarian imperative. Understanding the causes of death is a core public health responsibility, nationally and internationally,” said a statement by 23 leading public health physicians from five countries, published in the March 12 issue of the British Medical Journal. The physicians, from the U.S., Britain, Australia, Canada and Spain, added, “Yet neither the public, nor we as public health professionals, are able to obtain validated, reliable information about the extent of mortality and morbidity since the invasion of Iraq.”

Last October, a group of epidemiologists estimated the real civilian toll in Iraq as at least 100,000 dead. The Bush administration and Britain’s government led by Prime Minister Tony Blair insist they have no legal responsibility under the Geneva Conventions to count civilian casualties.

Over 1,500 U.S. troops have now died in Iraq… and the war at home

At a workshop on the national budget and the impact on local communities, during the UFPJ National Assembly, National Priorities Project Executive Director Greg Speeter put forward a striking comparison: If the Bush administration’s $82 billion supplemental request passes, total spending for the Iraq war will top $200 billion — enough to rebuild every school in the U.S. one and one-half times over.

The enormous disparity between military and social spending was discussed in many contexts throughout the three-day assembly, and led to adoption of a community-based education and direct action project, “Highlighting the Local Costs of the War,” as a priority program for the next 18 months.

The National Priorities Project provides information on the impacts of federal tax and spending policies at the community level. Its latest compilations detail the impact of Iraq war spending on states and local communities. For example, $17.7 billion of New York state’s federal tax money goes to feed the war machine. The share of impoverished Hartford, Conn., is $82.2 million, and tiny Willits, Calif. (population about 5,000), $2.2 million.

NPP has the data to help community organizations determine where federal tax money from their cities and towns is going, and how reorienting national spending priorities could satisfy community needs such as housing, health care, education and transportation. Their web site is www.nationalpriorities.org.

— Marilyn BechtelIraq Veterans Against the War

Hoffman told the story of Jeffrey Lucey, a Marine from Massachusetts, who returned suffering from nightmares, flashbacks, paranoia and alcoholism. His family took Lucey to a Veterans Administration hospital, which discharged him a few days later. Lucey committed suicide soon afterward. The VA later acknowledged to the family that they had found the young man suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and had suicidal thoughts. Lucey’s family is active in Military Families Speak Out.

“One thing that scares me is I’ve seen studies that say twice as many Vietnam vets committed suicide as died in Vietnam,” Hoffman said. “I think we are going for an even larger crisis with our friends who are coming back. Right now we can’t get the help we need from the VA, but they are talking about scaling the VA back even farther.”

Vets with significant physical injuries face big problems, too. Hoffman told of an IVAW member who lost his left arm in Iraq, and whose left leg is “basically useless.” It took six months to replace the soldier’s temporary hook prosthesis — with a prosthesis that turned out to be defective. “It will be at least a year before he can get it fixed,” Hoffman said, “because they don’t have the manpower or the resources.”

“We don’t have the manpower to come up with all the answers” to securing proper care, he said. “But we know the solution isn’t cutting VA funding. Part of the solution that Veterans for Peace talks about is making sure there are no more combat veterans. No matter how a veteran feels about his war, he does not want to wish that on anyone else.”

IVAW welcomes anyone who has served in the military, whether on active duty, in the National Guard or in the reserve, since Sept. 11, 2001. The organization guarantees confidentiality to currently serving military personnel. Contact www.ivaw.net for more information.

Fighting for her daughter, and all soldiers

Denise Thomas, of Atlanta, who was elected to the UFPJ Steering Committee during the Assembly, has taken up another aspect of the cause — fair treatment for medically unfit soldiers. “When I started out, my daughter was in Iraq, where she spent a year,” Thomas said. “She was medically unfit” — suffering from severe scoliosis that had been treated during childhood but had recurred — “and she had serious pain in her spine.” Though Army doctors pronounced her undeployable, Thomas’ daughter was sent to Iraq anyway.

“So I thought that was dangerous for her and dangerous for any other soldiers who might be around her,” Thomas said.

Thomas began her campaign by visiting the offices of local elected officials, and, she said, “I got thrown out of all of them.”

Then, during the 2004 Martin Luther King Day march, she met some members of the Georgia Peace and Justice Coalition. “I’ve been a member ever since,” she said.

Thomas’ web site, www.orgsites.com/ga/save-our-soldiers, tells the story of her campaign. Her daughter’s situation is detailed there, along with the plight of a male soldier with high blood pressure and that of a female soldier who had just had a hysterectomy — both sent to Iraq while obviously unfit for service.

The site, which invites visitors to submit their own accounts, with or without names, also features a success story: that of Brandie Lampin, whose husband, Sgt. Tony Lampin, was sent back to Iraq despite a permanently damaged knee that kept him from running or marching with field gear. The sequence ends with Brandie Lampin’s joyous response to word her husband would return from Iraq.

Thomas is continuing the struggle with support from the Georgia Peace and Justice Coalition, from antiwar activists in other parts of the country who help keep up the web site, and from Rep. Cynthia McKinney of Georgia, who was re-elected to Congress last November.

Guerrero Azteca Project

Another newly elected UFPJ Steering Committee member is Fernando Suarez del Solar, whose 20-year-old son, Marine Lance Cpl. Jesus Alberto Suarez del Solar Navarro, died in Iraq in 2003. An active member of Military Families Speak Out and a founding member of Gold Star Families for Peace, Suarez has become a national and international spokesperson for military families with sons and daughters in Iraq and elsewhere around the globe.

Fernando Suarez del Solar is the founder and director of the Guerrero Azteca Project, which was established in his son’s memory. The project, focused especially in Latino communities where large numbers of “green card” and “poverty draft” youth are entering military service, encourages young people to consider their choices carefully and to understand the full implications of military service.

A key activity is going into high schools and talking with the students. “Going to a school for the first time is a big problem,” Suarez said. “The usual excuse is, the school receives federal money for the No Child Left Behind Act, and some principals say, ‘Mr. Suarez is going to speak against the government — we may have a problem.’ But after the principal listens to my speech, I don’t have any problems going back to that school.”

Suarez said he begins by telling his audience something of his life and his son’s life. He tells them, “I am not here to say, don’t join the military. I came here to say, be careful about the real reason for joining the military. When I explain what happened to my son, they begin to understand better.”

Most students pay close attention, Suarez said, and he has received some 2,000 letters from young people, thanking him and saying things like, “You changed my life, you opened my eyes.” He also receives calls from parents, thanking him for explaining the realities of military service to their sons and daughters.

“When I go into a school, I insist on action from the students,” Suarez said. “I don’t say they have to join my group, but I call on them to form new groups and work against the military.” This has happened at a number of schools, he said, with parents also sometimes joining in.

“In some high schools when recruiters are present, during the lunch period the students will put a table behind the recruiters’ table, with other information,” Suarez said. “When I talk with students I also discuss their rights to speak freely and to organize.”

Proyecto Guerrero Azteca () is linking up with other antiwar efforts in schools, such as those of the National Network Opposing Militarization of Youth (NNOMY) and the American Friends Service Committee.

Suarez said peace and antiwar organizations in various cities invite him and arrange the logistics of his visit. “This is very important,” he said, “because it increases the number of organizations that are involved.”

To date, the San Diego, Calif.-based Suarez has made presentations in about 60 cities throughout the country, from New York to Washington state and Illinois to Texas, and has participated in several international conferences as well.

These leaders, and all who participated in the National Assembly, share a commitment to keep youth from being sent to war, to bring our troops home as quickly as possible, and to build a society that supports its young people with democracy, equality, social and economic justice.

Marilyn Bechtel (mbechtel @ pww.org) is a member of the editoral board of the People’s Weekly World.

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