Veterans groups offer different views of conflict

Jose Vasquez, an Army reservist who was granted conscientious objector status last year, speaks with reporters in Washington on Thursday about this week’s Iraq Veterans Against the War event.

By LEO SHANE III | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 15, 2008

WASHINGTON — A pair of veterans groups on opposite sides of the country this week are offering drastically different views of the war in Iraq and the future of U.S. troops there.

In Washington on Thursday, Iraq Veterans Against the War launched its four-day Winter Soldier event, which organizers promise will show evidence of systemic war crimes, war profiteering and mismanaged strategy that has cost troops’ lives.

In San Diego on Friday, Vets for Freedom launched a month- long, 22-city tour to highlight stories of heroism from Iraq, and to encourage communities to continue their support of the mission overseas.

Both groups say they hope their efforts will help educate the public about the truth surrounding U.S. operations there.

IVAW, which claims about 800 veterans of operations in Iraq, named its event after the 1971 summit held by Vietnam veterans pushing for an end to that war.

Kelly Dougherty, executive director of the group, called current operations in the Middle East a similar “unjust and illegal occupation” by the United States.

“As we enter the sixth year in Iraq, the voices of veterans and servicemembers must be heard,” said Dougherty, who served as a military police officer in Iraq in 2004. “We represent a legacy of servicemembers speaking out against policies that hurt our country and our military.”

Organizers said that as part of the event they will make public photos, videos and documents of deteriorating conditions in Iraq and possible war crimes committed by U.S. troops under orders. That information has been corroborated through interviews with speakers’ fellow troops and via military documents, they said.

Jason Hurd, an Army medic who served in Iraq in 2005, said his unit was routinely instructed to fire on Iraqi cars, buses and civilians to keep them away from explosive ordnance disposal teams, even if they posed no real threat to the U.S. bomb squads.

“My unit began firing randomly at civilians who were outside our 50-meter bubble,” he said. “They’d come back bragging about how they fired into the grills of cars and watched radiator fluid explode all over the place. And that kind of behavior was encouraged.”

Organizers at Vets for Freedom, which claims 11,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans as members, called the IVAW event full of lies and “propaganda for the enemy.”

They said their tour was planned because too often stories of positive work in Iraq — schools being built, neighborhoods becoming safer — aren’t well-covered.

“This is really something that hasn’t been done yet,” said Pete Hegseth, an Army National Guardsman and executive director of the group. “We want to bring these stories of sacrifice directly to the American people, and emphasize to them that their military is committed to completing the mission.”

The bus tour will feature a handful of Silver and Bronze Star recipients from Iraq operations appearing with local veterans from each city in hometown TV interviews, town hall meetings and debates on college campuses.

Retired Army Lt. Col. Steve Russell, whose battalion captured Saddam Hussein in 2003, said many civilians he speaks with about Iraq are surprised to hear the positive news from his travels and contacts there.

“Ninety-nine percent of our military want to stay and want to succeed in Iraq, but people don’t always hear that,” he said.

“No one cares for the Iraqi and Afghan people like we do, because we’ve served side-by-side with them. And we see that a better future is possible for them.”

Vets for Freedom organizers hope the tour will encourage citizens to push lawmakers away from plans for a rapid drawdown of forces overseas.

IVAW is asking citizens to support an immediate withdrawal of all troops from Iraq and reparations for Iraqi citizens harmed by the U.S. occupation.

Kelly Dougherty, executive director of Iraq Veterans Against the War, and other members of the group speak to reporters in Washington on Thursday. The group is hosting a four-day event in the capital this week which they say will focus on abuse of power by U.S. military officials and mistreatment of Iraqi civilians at the hands of U.S. troops.