Veterans, families and unionists testify to Iraq War's true cost

CHICAGO -- Unionists, elected officials and several hundred assorted spectators gathered in downtown Chicago at the Teamster City Auditorium, recently, to hear testimony from Iraqi war veterans and others directly affected by the war. The hearing, entitled “War's Real Impact: Our Voices”, sought to bring attention to the hardship and suffering incurred on veterans, workers, military families and students.

Testimony was heard from veterans, military family members, student activists and an Iraqi trade unionist. The program was put on by the Workers Rights Board in association with Iraq Veterans Against the War, Military Families Speak Out, Chicago Jobs With Justice, US Labor Against the War, Chicago Labor for Peace, Prosperity and Justice, Committee for New Priorities, and the American Friends Service Committee. Several union locals also provided support, including the Teamsters who provided the facility.

Much of the testimony was quite heart wrenching.

Eugene Cherry joined the army at the age of 19 in the hopes of getting money for college. Despite being a good student, he found his options in his impoverished south side neighborhood limited. “I thought the military would be my ticket out, but I found an organization based on racism, sexism and misogyny” he testified before the assembled audience. Later he spoke of “[a] culture of violence and racism” that the military promotes within its ranks. These pressures proved to be too much for Sherry. He deserted for 16 months after being refused mental health support by the army. “I found myself fighting and oppressing a group of people in the name of the war on terror” concluded his remarks to the gathering.

The plight of women in the armed forces proved to be a recurring theme. Patricia McCann, a National Guardsman deployed in 2003, noted during her testimony that instances of sexual assault and sexual harassment within the armed forces have risen but court-martials for these crimes have declined. Another veteran (and current Chicago police officer), Lisa Zepeda, added that victims of assault have no outside authority they can report assaults to; a victim must go through her immediate superior within her unit.

Equally disturbing was testimony presented by three mothers of Iraqi War veterans and the wars' effect on their families. After being wounded in Iraq, Katy Zatsick's son, Jason, spent a year at Walter Reed Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital recovering with his mother at his side. Unfortunately, the war not only took her son's arm and eye; the stress cost his parents their marriage. While tending to her son at Walter Reed Hospital her and her husband divorced.

Randi Scheurer had two children in the military. Soon after her son was deployed, he called imploring her to purchase a new flack jacket for him. The army had issued him a Vietnam-era jacket that was woefully inadequate for the threats he faced in Iraq. During his second deployment, he again implored his mother to privately purchase equipment that had been stolen from him and that the Army refused to replace. She finally purchased the needed equipment because the Army would not.

Concluding testimony was heard from Samir Adil, a union activist, Baghdad resident and president of the Iraqi Freedom Congress. Recently injured in a bombing and unable to attend in person, his remarks were read aloud. Adil began his statement with a simple but powerful declaration; “The occupation has ruined Iraqi society”. He went on to cite numerous examples including the continued repression of unions and crippling neo-liberal economic policies that have decimated domestic industry. Since 2003, Iraq's unemployment rate has skyrocketed. It is currently at 65 percent despite having the 4th biggest oil reserves in the world.

A laid off Chicago city worker talked about the budget shortfalls the city is facing. Joe Moore, alderman of Chicago's 49th ward, further elaborated on this relationship noting that the war costs Chicago residents $6.9 billion a year, one billion more than the cities budget of $5.9 billion. The city of Chicago has laid off workers and instituted a hiring freeze in response to budget shortfalls.

Others testified about the militarization of schools, the neglect of the VA hospital system, dismal conditions inside Abu Ghraib prison and union busting activities in the United States.

U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky and several Chicago aldermen also took the floor and addressed the audience. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. and Illinois Senator Roland Burris also sent staff members to reaffirm there support of bringing the troops home.

After listening to testimony, the Workers Rights Board circulated a list of demands being sent to Congressional members. Demands included the establishment of universal health care, guarantee of veteran rights/spending, stipulations in the stimulus package affirming union rights, charging members of the Bush administration with war crimes, passing the Employee Free Choice Act and numerous other demands.