(POSTED 19 July, 2004) A couple weeks ago, Irregular Times called upon readers who have served or are currently serving in the military (and the people who love them) to step forward to talk with us and get the conversation up on the web for the record. Respondees were given the option of remaining anonymous if they preferred.
We were contacted by a young veteran who has chosen to remain anonymous. We spoke with him earlier this week. A transcript of that conversation is written below. We encourage you to read on and respond to us with your comments. If you, or someone you know, is a service man or woman and would like an opportunity to be interviewed by Irregular Times, please drop us a line firstname.lastname@example.org
What compelled you to respond to our call for military personnel to talk to us?
Well, I've seen a couple of my friends and co-workers die in Iraq for, what I consider to be, no reason. I think this is the most important presidential election we have seen in a long time. I believe that, in my humble opinion, that George W. Bush is the worst president in my life time - and granted I'm only thirty years old - but that includes Richard Nixon. Honestly, I think that Bush is not only bad for America, he's bad for the world. He scares me. He really does. If he were given four more years - he's already shown himself to be extreme, fanatical, paranoid, meglomaniac - during which he doesn't have to worry about being re-elected, he's only going to be worse.
You have said that you've seen friends and co-workers in the military die in Iraq?
Let me clarify that so I don't get misquoted: There have been way too many funerals from my own unit. I did not actually go over there (to Iraq) because of an injury I sustained before the deployment, so I was not in country. I want to make that clear. Too many caskets coming home. You understand when you go in the military there's a risk that you're going to die for your country, but, I just - the body count has been way too high. There was very poor planning that went into - there was a plan to win, but not (a plan for) what happens next.
I'm going to play devil's advocate here, a little bit: President Bush keeps talking about supporting the troops, and what a great job you're doing, and that you're fighting for our freedom as Americans. In the context of those supportive claims that he's making, what goes through YOUR mind when you hear Bush, or others in his administration, say those things?
Well, thanks for the kind words, but I don't believe you. I don't see how the invasion of Iraq made America safer.
Now, I will say, am I glad to see Saddam Hussein out of power? Absolutely. Was he a bad person? Yes. Did he kill his own people? Yes. Did he use gas against the Kurds? Probably. Is the world better off for (getting rid of Iraq's leadership in) Saddam Hussein? But, what have we done in the alternative (as a result)? There has been no credible link established between Iraq and Al Qaeda, and Al Qaeda is the true threat to the United States. Where were the WMDs that were supposed to be there? Yes, they existed in the past, with the Kurds, as I mentioned, but we've been there for a while. Where are they?
I think that Bush may genuinely really be grateful to the troops, so I'm not trying to doubt his veracity, but it's just - I guess I'm very cynical about politics in general. I believe that politicians are lying only when their lips are moving. I don't know. I just get a very bad feeling from him (Bush). Like I said, he may be very sincere, but I don't trust him. I don't like him. I think this whole thing is a real mess, and there's a lot more going on that we don't know about.
What do you mean by that?
Well, I have not seen Fahrenheit 9/11, and I'm not pushing for it. I'm very critical and suspicious of some things THAT politically motivated. I have no party affiliation whatsoever. I'm an independent. I am politically moderate. But it just seems highly suspicious, if what Michael Moore said in Fahrenheit 9/11 is true: that there really is that connection between the House of Saud and the Bush Administration. That's a conflict of interest. You already know flat out that Dick Cheney and Halliburton have the biggest conflict in Iraq. That's a conflict of interest. That's why I can't put any trust or any faith in anything that is said by this administration. And, mind you, I gave this administration its fair shot at the beginning. I was very optimistic when Bush put both Condolezza Rice and Colin Powell in his cabinet. (They are) two people for whom I have a lot of respect. But then he put John Ashcroft on it - and, mind you, this is a man who lost to a dead guy in an election, okay? I'm all about preserving this country. I love this country. That's why I want George W. Bush out of office, because I think he's bad for it. While I'm not politically affiliated, and I'm not a big fan of the ACLU, I have to agree with them when they're talking about Ashcroft as completely stifling human rights in this country and - I wish I could remember the quote, but, we're talking about the tyranny of the majority - even if one person's voice is dissenting, we don't have the right to suppress that. Again, I see Ashcroft as an extension of Bush. I see Cheney as an extension of Bush. It's like, a bad tree can't produce good fruit, to take a Biblical analogy. The president likes to do that. And it's a bad tree, and the tree needs to be cut down. Or as some people like to say, the Bush needs to be pruned.
I want to get a little more personal here. What made going into the military a good choice for your life?
Well, I have to step back a moment, and give you everything that went into it. I was in graduate school in 1997, and was in school until 1999. And, basically, I ran out of money. I was desperate. I was broke. I joined the military, one: because I panicked. But, two: in a sincere love and respect for this country and wanting to do my part because I didn't want back forty years from now and say, "you know, I really wish I would have done this", or, "I feel bad for not doing that." So, I had both the patriotic aspect of wanting to serve my country, but I was still scared, panicked, broke, and desperate, so I went in when the Army said, "Yeah, we'll pay off your school loans and give you a bonus." And I said, "Hm. Financial security." So, there was a two-faceted aspect to it.
Have they paid back your student loans?
Now, you're married -
And did you meet your - you said that your wife also serves, or served?
Past tense. Yes. I met her in the military, so I can't say that everything was bad about it because that's not true. I will say that I am glad that I did join. I am proud that I served my country because I felt a sense of obligation and I'm very big on that everyone who is able to, should serve in the military. I still believe that firmly. But, did I enjoy it? No, not really. Would I do it again? I don't know.
Tell me more about that: the idea that everybody who is able should serve in the military, but if you had to do it over again, you're not sure that you would.
Well, again, I had a lot of very bad and painful experiences. At the same time, I did learn a lot. And I think I'm a much more mature person for having served. I think it was a very good experience. It was just very emotionally and very spiritually painful for me, very difficult. The reason I say I think people should serve their country - let me preface that by saying, it doesn't have to be in the military, okay? Because there are people who have very strong spiritual beliefs against that, and I consider myself to be very firm in my faith. If someone has a religious objection, no they should not have to serve. I don't necessarily think that reinstating the draft is a good idea either. People should do something of service to their country, be it Americorps, Jobcorps, Teach For America, something like that, that exemplifies what President Kennedy said, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." So, I should clarify that it need not be the military, but if one chooses to live in this country and be a citizen of this country, they should do something for it, and it's up to the individual to choose what that is.
I taught three years in the public school system. Do I qualify?
(Laughter) Sorry, I put you on the spot there... May I ask what you went to graduate school for?
Religious studies. Not theology, mind you -
Religious Studies encompasses, from what I know, different theologies, correct?
I came in originally to be a Comparative Religious Studies major. I switched over to Biblical Studies, but this is through a public university, so it was not a Masters of Theology, Masters of Divinity program. It was a Masters of Arts program.
Tell me about military life.
Okay. What specifically would you like to know?
Well, the military is different. I don't know what it's like. All the men in my family were "the wrong age" when world wars were going on, when Korea, Vietnam was going on. So, I've never had anybody in my family serve. Now, I have a friend who works for the Department of Defense, believe it or not, and she has military in her family. And I have friends who teach at a local community college who have (students) who signed up, according to my friends, because they (they students) wanted an education. So, I hear bits and pieces, stories, but I don't really know what it's like. I see Hollywood movies, but I don't really like war movies, so I've only seen a few. So, I don't - I mean, do you all sleep in the same room? Is the food really bad? Do people yell at you? What's it like?
The movie Full Metal Jacket, the senior drill instructor was a former Marine Corps instructor, but Oliver Stone did glamorize that a bit. Basic training, and all of training status, which I spent two years on, is not "the real army." Did I get yelled at in basic training? Yes. Did it mentally break me? Yes. That's one reason I wasn't really happy about it. And I came in at the age of twenty-five. I wasn't, you know, right out of high school. You know, basic training did have its moments when it actually was fun, and if you could step back and realize it really was a game, it really wasn't that bad. But, definitely not one of my more pleasant memories.
I then went to language school in California which is where I met my wife. That was wonderful. We were in Monterey, California, so you can't really complain about that.
But the thing that I didn't like, as far as the training status, was the mass punishment. They teach you that you have to take care of yourself, and you have to take care of everybody, and teach you responsibility. But then one person messes up and everybody pays for it. To some extent, I can understand the mentality behind that because if you are in a combat situation, one person can cost the lives of many. But, one example I want to use is after the fourth of July 2001, so, before the terrorist attacks, when I was in training in Texas, all of us got what they call "smoked," which is doing PT, or physical training, for an hour or so in the hot West Texas sun for the sins of a few. These are people I didn't even know from Adam had they walked past me. I was with a group of friends of mine who were of age, and I was the designated driver. We were all being responsible, and yet we're paying for the stupidity of somebody else. That's the kind of stuff in the military that really drove me crazy. It's like: Yes, I can see your argument, but I still think you're wrong.
Again, a lot of it, for me, comes from a moral and comes from a personal faith perspective. And that is I very much believe you should treat people the way you want to be treated, and I don't think that happened. When I got to "the real army" after two years, I got (assigned) to a unit where I did not want to be. My opinions are already clouded because they sent me somewhere where I did not want to go, and I did everything I could to not get sent there.
What do you mean?
I was sent to a unit in Louisiana, which was combat arms support. I requested and did everything I could to get myself from getting sent there. Actually, I had been on assignment to go to a strategic unit - you know, like not going to the field - in Georgia, but my orders were changed on me. So, I arrived there with a bad attitude, so I will admit my own faults going into the situation.
What as better about being in Georgia than being in Louisiana?
At the time, my wife was supposed to be assigned there. It was the unit where I would have been doing the job that I was trained for: being in a secure environment, doing intelligence work. Which is what I spent two years' training to do. They sent me to Louisiana where I spent most of my army career in the motor pool.
Yes, working on trucks, or in the field with military equipment... And I was very disillusioned by that because I did not do what I was trained to do.
You were trained in intelligence?
And that was your understanding, that you were going to be - I don't know - cracking codes, or whatever it is you guys do in military intelligence, listening to radio fuzz, or whatever.
I did not get to do that.
Did you ever get to do that?
A day or two.
I'm not kidding. So, what my problem was was look at all the time and money the military spent training me as a linguist, training me as an intelligence analyst, getting me a top secret clearance so I can go work on trucks. That's not intelligent. That's a waste of government resources, a waste of time. Honestly, we called ourselves some of the most over-qualified, over-trained, and over-intelligent mechanics in the army.
So there was more than just you who had this predicament?
This was a military intelligence company of us. So there were a few platoons, several dozen soldiers who were trained as linguists, trained as intelligence professionals. What are we doing? We're not doing our job.
May I ask what languages you learned?
I speak Persian.
... So, you're working on trucks. You're trained to do MI (military intelligence.) Where is it that you are seeing the coffins of your friends come back (from Iraq)?
Again, I need to clarify. Have I personally seen this? Other than, you know, memorial services for soldiers, I haven't. So, by that point they'd have a flag-draped coffin.
We don't get to see any of that except for those pictures that got on the internet somehow.
Right. So, no, I'm not seeing them coming off the plane.
Okay, but you know of people who have died.
Yes. I knew two people who committed suicide because of being over there.
Do you know anything about the circumstances surrounding their suicides?
One, as far as I know, was because his wife was being unfaithful to him, and stealing his money while he was there, and he couldn't go home to deal with the situation, so he killed himself.
And the other person, from what I understand just, basically, snapped. He was extremely stressed-out by the situation. Just couldn't take it anymore, and killed himself. And did so in front of some higher-ranking officers.
Do you know where those two people were stationed?
They were in Iraq. In country at the time.
But you don't know specifically where inside the country?
I believe it was around Baghdad.
Okay... What does it mean to support the troops?
Let me say emphatically that I support the troops. I always will support my fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines. That goes without saying.
Why does that go without saying?
Because I've been there. And I will say that George Bush, Sr., who I do have a lot of respect for, who I believe I voted for, said when he was being interviewed on CNN, "Wars aren't started by soldiers, they're started by leaders." So a lot of these soldiers, they're over there doing the best they can, doing what they believe to be correct. A lot of folks aren't over there because (they said) "Hey, this is great. Let's go do this." They're ordered to be there. They're put in a position where you obey orders. You do what you're told. End of story. And I was lower enlisted, so I was at the bottom of the totem pole. So I definitely have support for my fellow soldiers. Because I didn't deploy with my unit, and I have - if you will - survivor's guilt because of that, you know. I don't feel like I did my job. I feel bad about not being there.
Why weren't you deployed?
Because I injured my knee, and was put out of the military for it.
That's how you got an honorable discharge, right?
Correct. I was medically discharged, honorably.
What happened to your knee?
It's still - they're still trying to figure out what's wrong with it. I've been to military and civilian doctors, so...
Was it from jogging too much (in combat boots)?
Pretty much. It just kind of gave out. Gave out on me in 2002, and didn't really heal.
Can you walk okay?
I walk with some pain, so... As I keep telling people, I do not want sympathy. I don't ask for it, and I don't necessarily deserve it, you know. Even when I went to the Veteran's Affairs hospital to get rated, I was sitting there seeing veterans who were really injured, and I was just sitting there feeling (as though) I did not deserve to be there.
Anyway, I'm digressing. Why do I support the soldiers unconditionally? Well, if you will, misery loves company. When you suffer with somebody, you have a lot more sympathy and empathy with somebody. And, you know, I did what I could to help out folks in my unit in terms of sending them care packages: books, personal hygiene items, and I'm going to continue to do so, for as long as we have troops over there, let them know, hey, I'm proud of them, there are people over here, there are people in this country who are thinking about them and praying about them, and who are concerned for their well-being.
I've never said I was against the troops in this. I'm against the policies that are being passed, and just really making a muck of the whole situation, but I'm not against the soldiers. I...I can't say I'd jump and change places with them, but I sure as heck empathize for them, and definitely want to see all of our troops come home as soon as possible. And come home safe, and alive, and in as good spirits as possible.
I want to talk for a second about people who protest war.
I've been to some peace protests for the Iraq war - I feel like I have to show my cards, so that's why I'm saying this - two of which were in Washington, D.C. You and I are about the same age, and my whole family went, including my then-two-year-old son. We went and did our peaceful demonstration. It's one of the few times I've done a real public protest for war before. It really confused me, why some people were saying that the protesters were anti-American and not supporting the troops. I don't -
But you hear that all the time.
And that, again, is what bothers me about this administration. Why I'm honestly scared to death about the way the Republican party is going because - and, mind you, when I was in high school, I was a young Republican - I loved Ronald Reagan, and it's sad that he's gone. But I agree with what Ronald Reagan, Jr., said about the Republican Party of today is not the Republican party of Ronald Reagan, good, bad, or indifferent. I think it's bad because there's sort of that whole ridiculous mentality that dissent is not acceptable. If you're not with us, you're against us, and that's ridiculous. We have a Constitutional right to assemble and gather peacefully, to demonstrate, and thank God we have those rights. I mean that sincerely.
I am against what is going on in Iraq right now because the policies - again it all comes back to the administration. And I think they're doing a terrible job running the situation. I'm against George Bush. I am against his administration. I am not against the troops. There's nothing wrong with protesting and saying this war is messed up. I'm very much in favor of peace. I believe very firmly - and this comes from a spiritual perspective - that we are destined to live in peace as a world. And why the Republican party, the religious right, concerns me is that its become so monolithic and brainwashed, basically. So bogged down in the quagmire of doctrine and dogma that if you don't believe the way we do, you can't consider yourself a patriot. You can't say that you believe in God. Or, if you don't believe in God the way we do, then you're wrong. And that's ridiculous.
There are also people out there who are agnostic or atheist who, for reasons of philosophy rather than religion - war is something that really bothers them.
Yeah. It bothers me too. And I'm not saying I'm any better of a person because I have a strong faith in God, and I have nothing against agnostics or atheists by any means. In fact, one of the best men at my wedding considers himself to be a devoted atheist.
I'm not one of those people who says "Oh my gosh, if you don't believe in God, you are a horrible person." I'm not anti-atheist and I'm not anti-religion because I do have a religious affiliation, and I do have a father-in-law who is a minister, who I have an amazing amount of respect for. Who considers himself to be a conservative. I have respect for him because he's not - he happens to be ordained southern Baptist - but like me, fears where southern Baptist convention is going, and I think they're dragging the Republican party with them. You are allowed to think for yourself, and you should. I fall pretty much in the middle of it, if you will. I can respect people who are conservative politically and religiously, as long as they keep an open mind. As long as they don't get brainwashed. And I can respect people who are atheist and agnostic. As long as people use their common sense.
You're not seeing a lot of common sense?
I'm not seeing a lot of common sense coming out of the far-left or the far-right. I consider myself to be pretty well in the middle.
Pre-emptive war. Our country has set a precedent for it. Members of congress, including both of my senators in one of the so-called "blue states." You touched on Saddam Hussein at the beginning of our conversation. I haven't heard anyone say - even around my own dining room table - that the world is not a better place with Saddam Hussein out of Iraq, out of power. You, as someone who has been in the military, who has contacts still in the military, what was going through your mind as you were hearing arguments made for going into a pre-emptive war? It is a good thing that Saddam Hussein is out of office, so what goes through your mind about what this means for future people who are ugly leaders, or even current leaders who are ugly to their own people. North Korea, for example, which you probably know more about than I do because you are an insider. I only know what I hear on the news. Do you have any comment on that?
I have mixed feelings because "Is the world better without Saddam?" Absolutely. But, what concerns me is that if folks like Richard Clarke are to be believed, right after September 11, it was planned, "Hmm, let's go into Iraq." And you have to look at the last time there was a Bush in office, we invaded Iraq. "Hmm, coincidence?" Well, no. No. We've all seen pictures of Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Suddam Hussein back in the 1980s or so, when we were supporting Iraq against Iran. It's American self-interest and policy as far as what I think went on with Iraq. I believe that (this war with) Iraq was politically motivated because - well, going into Afghanistan was a great idea. Thank God the Taliban is gone. And thank God Saddam Hussein is gone, but I don't think the United States is being consistent about it. Look at the atrocities that are going on in Sudan. And we're just starting to pay attention to that? North Korea is horrible towards their people. There are a lot of really bad regimes. Not to sound overly simple, but there are a lot of bad people doing a lot of bad things all over this world... Look at throughout history, the killing fields, and things like that. If this compassionate conservativism - and it's not just this administration, mind you - If we, as the United States of America, are really going to impose our will, and say our beliefs are this good, then let's be consistent about it. Let's go into every country that's violating human rights. There are many leaders throughout this world that need to be replaced, need to be changed. And, I guess I see such a hypocrisy: let's go after this one group, but let's ignore what's going on somewhere else.
I don't have all the insight that I should because there is stuff going on that never makes it to the media. If we're going to say, "Hey, we're going to be pre-emptive to stop terrorism," or actually, "be reactive," and stop leaders who are oppressing and killing their own people, we're doing a lousy job of it.
Like I said, I don't have political affiliation with the Democrats or the Republicans because there are good people in both parties, and there are bad people in both parties. There are things that Clinton did that I agree with, and there are things that Clinton did not do that he should have done. I think that the leaders of this country, if we're going to do something in one country, we have to be consistent. Hypocrisy is what really bothers me. I am not without sins, so I shouldn't be casting stones at people. I have made a lot of mistakes, and I have done things that may seem hypocritical. But when someone in this country is elected, they have a responsibility, they have been entrusted by the people to represent them. They have been given a task that they have a moral and ethical responsibility to, not only serve their constituents, but to do the best thing that they can for this country, and not be blinded by party lines and dogma. I think a lot of politicians need to take a step back from being brainwashed by their parties. Doing the right thing is not always doing the popular thing, and vice-versa.
This is a wonderful country, and it's great that we have the Democracy that we do, but my problem, again, is with the hypocrisy of this country, and that's not assigned to one particular political party. If someone is going to claim to be ethical and moral, just be consistent. That's all I ask...
You say you're a moderate. Whoever is going to occupy the oval office come January next year, what would you like to see happen specifically with the Iraq situation (under the leadership in January)? What kind of policy do you want to see continue? What kind of policy would you like to see repealed?
Oh boy... That's a big question. Ideally, I'd like to see the Iraqis running their own affairs, not being told by the United States or anyone else what they need to do. So, I really want to see a free, Democratically-elected Iraq.
Do you think that's possible?
Yes. Is it going to be a mess? Yes. I certainly would like to see my fellow service men and women come home as soon as possible. I think we are occupying the country. Do I have another suggestion on how to do this differently? No. And this is another reason why I'm not involved with politics or policy: I don't know what I would do. I can't say I have a better alternative. I know that something is not right. The body count is too high, both American and Iraqis. The people of Iraq should have an elected government, not one we have appointed. I believe it's possible. I hope and pray it happens soon, with as little blood shed as possible. Again, not being a policy-maker or a politician, I honestly don't know how to do it differently, but I know there has to be a better way than how it's being handled now.
Thank you very much for talking with us today.
If you, or someone you know, is a service man or woman and would like an opportunity to be interviewed by Irregular Times, please drop us a line at email@example.com. Thanks.