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Winter Soldier Europe, part Two

April 5, 2009

It has taken a while to gather my thoughts, review my notes, check various websites, and finally get all this down.  But here it is, the long awaited part 2:

Saturday, I walked from my hostel at one end of town, to Café Velo, near the train station (Hauptbahnhof) at the other (passing two farmers’ markets on the way) for Winter Soldier Europe.  Having been to two Winter Soldier Testimonials in Seattle and Portland (you can check out the posters I designed at the bottom of the Portland page), I knew I was in for an intense day.  When I arrived, however, the atmosphere was still cheerful and people were ordering coffee and pastries, talking, and getting their headphones for the simultaneous translation.  There were over 100 people there, with seating for 80 or so, with speakers outside broadcasting the proceedings in English and German, which meant that the vets could chain smoke all day without missing a thing.

Before I proceed with a rundown of the day, I’ll note that you can watch the entire testimonial, or any portion thereof, on the Winter Soldier Europe YouTube channel.  You can also read bios of all of the speakers here.

The event was introduced by Rose Kazma, a clinical psychologist with an American accent who spoke about PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).  I thought this was an awesome choice on the part of the organizer because it really gave some context to the statistical suffering of American veterans of these wars and how it is affecting the veteran community as a whole.  She explained the complexity of a soldiers role as both aggressor and victim – aggressor in their role in the war and victim of the psychological toll that comes with convincing yourself that these people are worth killing.  The most important statistic she sited was the fact that 24 soldiers committed suicide in January 2009 – the highest monthly total since the military started keeping track in 1980.  And to provide some context: only 19 Army soldiers were killed in battle in January.

And this all comes after 2008, when 128 soldiers committed suicide (not including 15 other cases still under investigation).  Last year marked the first time in the 30 years the Pentagon has been tracking suicides that the Army suicide rate was higher than the national rate (there is good information about this in an article from the LA Times).  And that’s just the Army.

After Kazma’s round of helpful yet chilling statistics, the first round of testimonials began.  André Sheperd, a US Army Specialist who worked as an Apache helicopter mechanic, was the first to explain his experience.  He described an unstable living situation and unhappiness with his low-paying jobs that made him open to the idea of military service when a recruiter approached him.  “It’s not every day someone asks you to save the world.”  But he, like almost every recruit these days, joined the military not out of any sense of duty or patriotism or desire to save his country, but to have a better life.  So many of the other veterans echoed his sentiment, saying they joined the military to get money for college.  Sheperd said that this phenomenon has created a “mercenary army of the poor.”

When he started researching the causes and motivations of the Iraq War and then on the Global War on Terror generally during his deployment near Tikrit and afterward, he began to question what exactly he was fighting for.  This led him to wonder how many people were killed by the helicopters that he repaired, and therefore, how many deaths he was indirectly responsible for.  He talked to pilots, researched military statistics to try and find some information, but he was unsuccessful.  So, in an oh-so-common turn of events, he started drinking.  He was threatened with dismissal, but was still concerned with making his family proud, so he stayed.  He became an office worker, so his chances of another deployment dropped drastically.  However, on April 1, 2007, he was informed that he would go back to Iraq, and two weeks later, he went AWOL (Away With Out Leave).  He said it was the hardest decision he has ever made, but he justifies it, saying that about one million people have been killed in these wars and he no longer wants to be responsible for those statistics.  In November of last year, citing the Nuremberg Trials as historical context for his actions, he became the first veteran of the current wars to apply for asylum from the German government, and is now in the midst of lengthy proceedings in hopes that the German government will define their opposition to the war in Iraq by granting him asylum.

 Martin Webster followed André.  He served in the British military for 11 and a half years.  In 2004, when he head reached the rank of Corporal, he filmed British soldiers beating an Iraqi man.  Two years later, the media got a hold of the film and ran with it, tormenting Martin and his family, and demonizing the soldiers shown in the video.  Martin was arrested because of this media frenzy, and though he was never charged, he left the Army soon afterward.  Now, he and his friend from the Army Lee Kamara (also a testifier, see below) have started a group in England for anti-war veterans called Voices of War.  It was founded to help vets combat PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) through artistic means, and they have all sorts of political art and musical projects in the works.  His pastel drawings hung on the wall behind him (you can see some of them at the link above) as he spoke about PTSD, describing it as a “purging of demons” and saying that veterans should be proud to go through that process.

The last veteran of the morning panel was Christian Neumann, an active duty member of the German armed forces (headphones on for simultaneous translation).  He has been in the military for ten years now, but could legally participate in Winter Soldier because of Germany’s military laws, allowing soldiers to run for office and exercise free expression.  Christian explained the German military service, which, it turns out, is drastically different from the American system.  All males are required to “serve” for nine months, but can refuse military service in favor of some other civil service (and the “other” option seems pretty broad: I later talked to a guy who had a paid internship at a left-wing magazine that qualified as his ‘honorary service’).  So if you want to go into the military, you have to choose it over a whole host of other options.  Then, once you are in the military, you have to request to participate in foreign, active service missions.  Then they give you deployment options and you can choose as you please.  This sure served as a stark contrast to the military with which I am familiar (of course, the German military is much smaller than that of the US and the number of German troops in Afghanistan – they aren’t involved in the Iraq War – is also minimal.  But still).

His description also gave me and I’m sure some other Americans in the room a good idea of the differences, but more importantly, it made me understand how important an event like Winter Soldier is here in Germany.  I have heard about rifts between the German peace movement and American soldiers and veterans before, but I understand it better.  The US military has such a huge presence here, but if Germans are familiar with this local “über-volunteer” service, then no wonder they would associate the US “volunteer” service with their own.  They could logically think all of the American soldiers deploying to the Middle East are crazy for “choosing” to serve in this way.  My suspicion of this event’s importance was confirmed later in conversations with German audience members, that they had never heard anything like this and it really gave them a better idea of how the American military works (and more specifically, how it doesn’t).

Now, Christian devotes energy to Darmstädter Signal, a discussion group of German officers and NCOs (non-commissioned officers – and no I didn’t have to look that up, I knew what it stood for.  Thanks Dad) who call for adherence to national and international law, civil conflict resolution over military action, and more democracy for citizens soldiers in the Bundeswehr (service).  The group has about 300 members at this point and they hold forums and educational events and discussions in an effort to further educate themselves and their fellow soldiers about the war (website, in German, here).

During the lunch break, I talked to some of the people I knew there (there were like two) and met Chris, the organizer with whom I had been in contact (his testimony is below).  The room was full of people ordering coffee and food, talking in English or German over the hiss of the espresso machine, or adjusting one of the five video cameras documenting the event.  I will take this opportunity to note with quite a bit of confidence that I think this is the only Winter Soldier that has been held under the glitter of a disco ball.  It was by far the most casual atmosphere I have experienced at a Winter Soldier event.  Usually the break is an opportunity for people to mill around in relative silence, giving each other pained looks and not knowing what to say. Lee Kamara of Voices of War assisted this feeling of relative liveliness by singing some original compositions and playing keyboard.  I thought this worked well and broke up the proceedings a bit.  But of course, we were only at half time, so maybe everyone would somber up by the end.

Christopher Arendt started of round two.  He spoke at Portland Winter Soldier and helped start the IVAW chapter there, so I had met him before and worked with him and IVAW a bit through PDX Peace.  He joined the Michigan National Guard in 2001 to get money to go to college (just like everyone else) and was deployed to Guantanamo Bay, where he served as a prison guard.  He opened his testimony with his psychological report from before he left for Cuba, which documented acute opposition to the war, excessive drug use, family problems, a lack of respect for authority, and descriptions of several suicide attempts.  He ended by saying, “If that doesn’t get you out of the military, I don’t know what does.”

He went on to speak mostly about the detainees that were imprisoned at Guantanamo.  He asked the audience to celebrate the fact that they could walk 25 feet in any direction if they chose, an action detainees were restricted from doing for years at a time.  He explained that the 500 people that have been released from Guantanamo with no charges have had those years “ripped away from them” by the US military/government.  “We’ve collectively wasted hundreds of years of people’s lives.  How are we supposed to apologize for that?”  But he continued that of course we have not “done the human thing” and apologized, “because what we have done is inhuman.”  He said that when he was in Guantanamo, he thought often of his grandfather, who had fought against the Nazis in World War Two, and wondered what difference there was between a Nazi prison guard and himself.  He wrapped up by talking a bit about PTSD and his aversion to the label.  He wanted to emphasize that he and all veterans are more complex than all of the psychological names for what they were going through.

After Chris, a tape recording was played of Dave Cortelyou’s testimony to Courage to Resist (an organization that helps soldiers that go AWOL).  He described grotesque scenes from his deployment to Iraq with incredible detail.  He repeated a mantra again and again, saying that the choice soldiers have in a combat situation is to “laugh about it, cry about it, or say nothing and go insane.”  His fellow soldiers chose to laugh about it: when an Iraqi blew himself up trying to set an IED (Improved Explosive Device), when the body of an Iraqi policeman who happened to be especially overweight almost fell off a truck full of bodies of Iraqi policemen, or when they shot at dogs for fun.  They could laugh about it, cry about it, or say nothing and go insane.  They had laughed, but it became increasingly clear, that Dave had said nothing.

  Dave sat on the panel while his tape played, first with a somber look on his face, then with his head in his hands.  In the middle, he got up and left the room, immediately followed by some other IVAW members.  His tape continued, describing the psychological numbness he felt upon returning to Germany from Iraq that led him to countless suicide attempts.  “I’m lucky to be alive,” he said.  I found the placement of this statement tragically ironic, that after a year of active duty service in Iraq, where there is a war going on, he feels lucky for surviving self-destruction.  He met with a psychological assessor a number of times, but she only offered medication.  He had swallowed so many pills in an effort to kill himself, that he felt uncomfortable taking them, which he told the assessor, but she offered no other solution.  He turned to the Chaplain, but was still only offered medication to dull the pain: “Pills are the answer for everything in the military.”  Eventually, he started injuring himself, “in order to remind myself that I was still alive.”  He was eventually caught with blisters covering the palms of his hands where he had burned them and was not offered help or asked about why he had done it, but instead was told he could “get in trouble for damaging government property.”

Comments like this one, as part of a larger understanding that the military did not regard him as a human and that he no longer felt human because of it, are the reasons he went AWOL.  After 29 days, he returned to his German base and, instead of getting court-martialed, he was placed in a new unit that expected to deploy.  So he went AWOL again, this time for more than 40 days, and upon his eventual return, was dismissed from the military.  He said, near the end of the tape (which was recorded in 2007), “I’m 21 but I feel like I’m 40 years old.”  Now Dave lives in Germany with his wife and is the President of IVAW Europe.  He told me later that this means he does “no work, I just go to stuff and smile and shake hands with people, just like any President.”

Lee Kamara, another British veteran, followed Dave’s testimony.  He was part of the insurgency in Basra, when they took over the second-largest building in the city, the library.  During the insurgency, they were still wearing green fatigues.  He used these examples of occupying cultural institutions and being prepared for jungle warfare to illustrate the surrealism of their situation and why they were understandably “not well received” by the community.  He echoed a sentiment André had described about occasionally providing humanitarian aid.  Lee described giving food packages to children as “one of the most amazing things I’ve ever done,” but, like André, he couldn’t help but consider that that child wouldn’t need that food package if the military hadn’t been in the country in the first place.

            Upon his return from Iraq, he started drinking heavily, and was kicked out of the service, “for being an absolute nightmare.”  Since then, he has been making music about the experience of being a soldier and a veteran and is working with Martin on Voices of War.

            The next speaker was Eddie Falcon, who is a member of IVAW Berkeley, but is studying Spanish in Spain on his GI Bill, so jetted over for the weekend to participate.  He served in the Air Force for four years and four deployments.  He worked on cargo planes (C-130s he described as “trashcans with wings”) that were used to transport cargo, troops, senators, vehicles, and detainees between Kyrgystan and Afghanistan, between Qatar (where he was forward deployed straight from Kyrgystan) and Iraq, and in Kuwait and Iraq, where he shuttled detainees between Baghdad and Basra Prison.

He noted the irony of using cargo straps that could hold 5000 lbs in these planes to strap down frightened, blindfolded people.  The soldiers shined laser pointers into the covered eyes of the detainees so they would think they were focusing rifle sights on their face, and they tazed them (an almost beautiful moment occurred when someone snuck up to the stage and interrupted him to ask if he would explain what a taser was because people in the audience had never heard of such a weapon.  This made some of the Americans laugh… But I’ll discuss this more when we have our conversation about German cops).  These people weren’t insurgents or Iraqi military; most were picked up by a patrol or “just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”  Proof of this was that they took just as many people back to Baghdad as they had taken to Basra.

He said he was really politicized by these men he was transporting.  When he took off their shackles and their blindfolds, the look they gave him, “really did something to me.”  It was at this point that he started realizing the lengths to which the military goes to teach soldiers to dehumanize the enemy.  “If you don’t see your enemy as human, then it’s a lot easier to raid houses, take prisoners, and kill people.”  After realizing what he and his fellow soldiers and the military as a whole were doing to people, he started to identify with the detainees as humans and he became anti-war, anti-government, and anti-authoritarian.  He explained that Iraq and Afghanistan are the same war: “I’ve been to both and was deployed from one straight to the other” (forward deployment) “and in both we are occupying someone’s country – despite what Obama says.”  He was told throughout this military service that they were stopping terrorism but he came to realize that they were “just uprooting more resistance against them.”

When he finally got back to the US, he was stationed in the South (I don’t remember where exactly).  Hurricane Katrina happened, and once it became a disaster area, he was excited at the opportunity to finally do some good by transporting supplies and getting people out of the area.  But he saw the same thing happen that had happened in the Middle East: more racism.  He said that foreign countries delivered supplies to the base where he was stationed every day and they would just sit there for five days, not being delivered to the people that so desperately needed them.  When they finally went to Louisiana and landed at New Orleans Airport, he said it looked just like Baghdad International.  Inside, he said, it reminded him of a war zone with people lying on every surface, clothes and debris everywhere, and a horrible smell.  He didn’t see one white person waiting in the airport.  He and the other soldiers filled a plane with people from the airport and were instructed to take them to Kentucky.  He described that in the course of flight, he realized he was once again the enemy because he was taking all of these people to a place that was unfamiliar to them, where they didn’t know anyone and had no place to go.  It was more displacement, just like he saw in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The regional coordinator of IVAW Europe, with whom I had had extensive email and phone communication in an effort to get myself to Freiburg, spoke next.  Chris Capps-Schubert gave a shorter testimony (probably because, as the organizer, he sensed they were short on time).  He enlisted in the Army in 2004 and was deployed to Iraq in late 2005.  His experience was unique in that he served at Camp Victory, in the Green Zone.  He discussed the use of all of Sadaam Hussein’s old palaces in the area as headquarters for high officials.  He also spoke about the ridiculousness of the camp: There was a Baskin-Robbins in the cafeteria (actually, there is a great photo of him on facebook in uniform, in Iraq, with big black arrows and text he has added pointing to his “M-16A2 Assault Rifle” and “M-203 Grenade Launcher” in his left hand and a “Baskin Robbins Oreo Ice Cream With Cherries on Top” in his right), there was Pizza Hut and Subway, and on Fridays, they served steak and lobster.  He heard an unconfirmed statistic that for every meal each soldier eats there, US taxpayers pay $26.  And their job?  They were guards for Iraqis, who filled sandbags, and were employed by the contracting company KBR, formerly Kellogg Brown & Root, a former subsidiary of Halliburton.  John Cusack made a movie called War, Inc. that didn’t get into that many theaters, but it’s like a Dr. Strangelove for the current wars, and I’m beginning to think that its outlandish illustration of the green zone is hardly a parody at all.

And lastly, Zack Baddorf, who joined the military on September 13, 2001, described his time as a Navy journalist throughout the Persian Gulf and Asia.  He discussed at great length the role the media play within the military, from the television stations (CNN, Fox News, etc) to the reading materials, to the journalism he produced as part of the system.  He describes his job for the Navy as a salesman, not a journalist.  He called himself a “propogandist.”  He explained that since World War Two, military propoganda has expanded from the “We Want You!” recruitment posters to a radio, TV, print system releasing internal and external reports.  That is why current news stations are sometimes accused of not telling the whole story or hiding the truth of war: because they are writing articles off of newswires directly from the military.  He emphasized that the military media doesn’t lie, but quoted a fellow military journalist, saying “we don’t bend the truth, we just have tunnel vision.”

  He says he served well and proudly, but now questions his role.  He also had doubts about the relationship between the military and war while he was serving, wondering, “Is this [war] the job of the military?  Do the the Iraqis want us there?”  He started freelancing for other publications and for Pacifica Radio (the producers of Democracy Now!) under a psudonym.  He convinced himself while he was serving that he was not part of the fighting, so he was not part of the war.  But now he has gotten involved with IVAW because he realized that he contributed in a major way to garnering internal and external support for the war.

Overall, I thought the whole event went really well, and was really pleased to have gone.  Hearing the stories of these veterans, who come from different backgrounds, join for different reasons, go into the military with different political views, have incredibly different experiences in different corners of the world, but come out of the military wanting to change the way the military or the world works so that no one will have to experience what they experienced reaffirms one’s disagreement with the wars the US is waging.  To meet these vets in Europe and share this experience with a different audience was a really neat opportunity.  The veterans of IVAW Europe and other groups in England and Germany that I met are a really good group and I look forward to working with them and supporting them in the future.

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