Iraq and Afghanistan veterans return medals at NATO protest

CHICAGO – U.S. veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars threw their medals towards the site of the NATO Summit May 20 in what was called the most dramatic antiwar action by ex-GIs since Vietnam. One-by-one, more than 40 service members from all branches of the military took to the stage to tell their stories while thousands of anti-NATO protesters listened and cheered.

“I want to tell the folks behind us, in these enclosed walls where they build more policies based on lies and fear, that we no longer stand for them and their unjust wars. Bring our troops home,” said U.S. Marine Iris Feliciano who served in Afghanistan in 2002. Feliciano turned and pitched her medals towards McCormick Place here where the NATO Summit was held May 20-21. (Story continues after slideshow.)

Alongside the veterans on stage were three representatives from Canada-based Afghans For Peace whose speakers condemned the U.S.-NATO war and loss of human life and at the same time expressed solidarity with the U.S. veterans.

Suraia Sahar said she had a message for the NATO representatives meeting in Chicago, “For what you have done to my home country, I’m enraged. For what you have done to my people, I’m disgusted. For what you have done to these veterans, I am heartbroken.”

Unlike the Iraq war, which garnered significant opposition before and after the 2003 invasion, opposition to the war in Afghanistan, now in its 11th year, has been slower to build among Americans. With war fatigue, an economic crisis and draconian budget cuts to vital public programs, recent polls show almost 70 percent of Americans saying the U.S. should not be at war in Afghanistan.

Dressed in fatigues, Iraq Veterans Against the War with a newly formed section, Afghanistan Veterans Against the War, led the anti-NATO protest march, which stretched for several blocks while almost as many police – many in riot gear – lined the streets or waited in buses that flashed “My Kind of Town Chicago Is” signs. Behind the veterans were CANg8 (Coalition against NATO-G8) marshals linked arm-in-arm giving a pre-agreed upon space between the contingents of the two march organizers. The Rev. Jesse Jackson accompanied the veterans.

The veterans addressed numerous issues during their medal ceremony and testimonies. Calls to free Bradley Manning, dedications to Iraqi, Afghan and U.S. children, condemnations of lies, corporate greed and imperialism and pleas for action on veteran suicide rate, widespread post-traumatic stress disorder and the “right to heal” framed the combat vets personal narratives.

Demands to cut military spending and invest in education, jobs and health care were also made. (Watch video here.)

At the same time, respect for all active duty soldiers, veterans and even police was shown. Some veterans spoke about the positive aspects of service.

“In the military is where I learned what integrity meant, and I believe I served with integrity. At this point in my life, if I want to continue to live with integrity, I must get rid of these [medals],” said Air Force veteran Erica Slone.

In a particularly moving moment, IVAW organizer and Illinois Guardsmen Aaron Hughes dedicated his three medals to “Anthony Wagner, who died last year” and to “one-third of the women in the military who are sexually assaulted by their peers; we talk about standing up for our sisters in Afghanistan and we can’t even take care of our sisters here,” he said.

With the final medal, Hughes’ voice began to quiver with emotion. “This medal right here is because I’m sorry. I’m sorry to all of you. I’m …. sorry,” he said.

The veterans came from around the country including Arkansas, Ohio, Wisconsin and New York. When Iraq vet and Occupy Oakland activist Scott Olsen took the stage wearing a helmet the crowd cheered its recognition. Olsen was almost killed last year by Oakland police when they fired a tear gas canister into the crowd and it struck Olsen in the head.

“My name is Scott Olsen,” he said. “These medals once upon a time made me feel good about what I was doing. They made me feel I was doing the right thing. Then I came back to reality, and I don’t want these anymore.” Olsen threw down his Global War on Terror, Operation Iraqi Freedom, National Defense and Good Conduct medals.

At the beginning of the ceremony the veterans presented the American flag to Mary Kirkland, a mother of a soldier who committed suicide after numerous attempts, which were known by the military.

Kirkland said after two attempts, the military deemed her son Derrick to be at “low to moderate risk” for suicide, prescribing medication and drug/alcohol counseling. He made another unsuccessful attempt, she said, and then on his fourth attempt, he hung himself.

On the day Kirkland buried her son in Marion, Ind., she stopped at a gas station and picked up a newspaper and found a surprising statement from the Pentagon.

“The Department of Defense said that my son was killed in action,” she said. They also said the “family declined to comment,” she said.

“They start out with lies and they continue the lies,” she said, adding she felt honored to be a part of the protest.

This is the first time since the Vietnam War – when antiwar veterans threw their medals at the U.S. Capitol in Washington – that such a large number of veterans protested war in such a dramatic way.

Despite the veterans’ call for a peaceful exit from the rally site, a handful of protesters confronted the police, resulting in a show of force and violence by the police with demonstrators getting hurt and numerous arrests made.

Photo: Veterans prepare to throw their medals at the NATO Summit, in Chicago, May 20, 2012. Teresa Albano/PW 



Teresa Albano
Teresa Albano

Teresa Albano was the first woman editor-in-chief of People’s World, 2003-2010, leading the transition from weekly print to daily online publishing and establishing PW’s social media presence. Albano had been a staff writer for People’s World covering political, labor, and social justice issues for more than 25 years. She traveled throughout the U.S. and abroad, including India, Cuba, Angola, Italy, and Paris to cover the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference. An award-winning journalist, Albano has been honored for her writing by the International Labor Communications Association, National Federation of Press Women, and Illinois Woman Press Association.