Soldier Camilo Mejia, who spent nine months in prison for refusing to return to Iraq combat, appealed for an outpouring of resistance to the Iraq war as it enters its sixth year with no end in sight. Mejia spoke at the concluding session of the four-day “Winter Soldier” hearings, March 13-16, sponsored by Iraq Veterans Against the War. Mejia in IVAW’s national chair.

War resisters in the military have been interrogated by the FBI and imprisoned for their conscientious objection, he told a packed meeting hall at the George Meany Labor Center outside Washington. “We have become a dangerous group of people not because of our military training but because we … dare to follow our conscience.” Mejia called them “a new generation of winter soldiers.”

The hearings were modeled on the 1971 Winter Soldier hearings in Detroit organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, where hundreds of GIs testified about atrocities they participated in or witnessed in Vietnam.

Vietnam veteran Barry Romo, a VVAW leader, told the crowd last week that the first Winter Soldier hearings aroused veterans as well as active duty soldiers to oppose the Vietnam War. VVAW, he said, recruited 5,000 GIs in Vietnam. Like that earlier hearing, Romo said, “This hearing has energized a movement that is going to turn this country around.”

Iraq veteran Kristofer Goldsmith read aloud a letter of commendation he received for his role in helping Iraqi forces “wipe out insurgents.” At one point, he trained his weapon on a child who was waving a stick at him. It was one of many incidents that led him to question the occupation. “The U.S. government put me in that position,” he said. “I could have killed that six-year-old boy.”

He returned from his first tour severely depressed, expecting to be discharged. But he was ordered back for a second tour along with 80,000 other soldiers. In desperation, Goldsmith attempted to take his own life. He was arrested. “I committed a serious offense because I attempted suicide,” he said. After months of ordeal, the military discharged him. But he lost his college and veterans benefits and he continues to battle post-traumatic stress disorder. “My money is disappearing,” he said. “I work as a pizza delivery boy.”

Marine Lars Ekstrom said he suffered an emotional breakdown from brutal “hazing” during his tour in Iraq. It included ordering him to do pushups and then to crawl with his face pressed against the ground causing cuts, a bloody nose, and sand filling his eyelids. “I was more afraid of my own unit than I was of the enemy,” he said. He finally accepted “administrative separation” from his unit.

Marine Matt Howard said the Marine Corps “bases itself on subjugation and abuse” of lower-ranking enlisted personnel. “I was beaten and then I was kicked out of my platoon for being beaten,” he said.

Many of the casualties in Iraq “are from friendly fire,” he said.

Howard was at the front in Kuwait the day the invasion began in March 2003. The first Abrams M-1 tank to cross into Iraq was destroyed by a U.S. helicopter gunship firing rockets armed with depleted uranium, he said. Luckily, the American soldiers escaped. “Why are we using these weapons?” he demanded. “We’re poisoning the soldiers. We’re poisoning Iraq. We’re poisoning the world. Depleted uranium is the Agent Orange of the Iraq war.”

Kevin and Joyce Lucey told the hearing of their son, Jeffrey, coming home from Iraq deeply wounded in spirit. He attempted repeatedly, without success, to get help from the Veterans Administration.

One evening, Jeffrey approached his father in the living room and the two men held each other for a time without words. The next evening when Lucey returned from work, “I held my boy one more time as I lowered his body from the rafters of the basement ceiling and removed the garden hose from his neck.”

“Many say honor and support our troops but rarely mean it,” Lucey said. “We need the administration to stop the talk about how they support the troops and actually do it. It is not right for people to use our loved ones for political gain.” He called on President Bush “to end this war and not begin another one by choice.”

He was followed by Eugene Martin of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, who assailed the Bush administration and Congress for shortchanging the Veterans Administration. Currently, 600,000 disability claims are backlogged because of staffing shortages, he said. “We wave the flag and say we love our veterans but then we treat them this way.”

IVAW Executive Director Kelly Dougherty, a former Army National Guard MP, told the hearing her duty in Iraq was often guarding broken down Kellogg Brown & Root trucks. Crowds would gather around the disabled vehicles and the MPs were sometimes ordered to disperse them with concussion grenades. “I felt so ashamed to be in their country putting their lives and safety at risk for Kellogg Brown & Root,” she said.