This Veterans Day: Take the Time to Listen

By Clare Bayard
Nov 10, 2010

By Clare Bayard and Maryam Roberts
Photos thanks to Civilian Soldier Alliance/Iraq Veterans Against the War

There was an eerie silence at the center of the recent U.S. elections. No one mentioned the fact that the country is at war.

Writer and commentator Charles Grodin did notice. He appeared on the NBC Today Show three days after Election Day and said, “What was missing from the dialogue in the elections was the discussion of the two wars. The war in Iraq and Afghanistan drained the economy, and that’s a major reason why we’re in this trouble. We’ve spent a fortune on these wars.” Candidates, campaigns, and the media intentionally kept the wars off the table. No one wanted to touch them.

This Veterans Day, the country needs to take the time to listen to the people who know the most about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: the soldiers and veterans who fought them.
Veterans are facing physical and psychological trauma, joblessness, homelessness, and the highest rates of suicide in decades. In response, Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW)  has begun Operation Recovery. Launched on October 7, 2010, the 9th anniversary of the Afghanistan War, Operation Recovery challenges the military's common practice of deploying soldiers who are unfit for combat, both voluntarily and against their will. The campaign focuses on three specific injuries: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and Military Sexual Trauma (MST). IVAW challenges the military on the grounds that injured service members have the right to heal.

Declining popular support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has affected recruitment, despite the military's reductions in their standards for new recruits. Between 2004 and 2008, budgets for recruitment and retention more than doubled, but recruitment continued to fall. This trend has reversed somewhat in the last two years, as the country’s economic disaster has seen a return of the “poverty draft.” Still, the U.S. military has been fighting two wars and occupying two countries with insufficient personnel for almost a decade.

As these occupations drag on, more than a third of our troops have served multiple combat tours and ten percent have served three or more tours. Such multiple deployments significantly increase a soldier’s likelihood of experiencing PTSD. Almost 30 percent of troops on their third tour suffer from serious mental health conditions. Mental and physical health issues are deeply complicated when compounded by TBI – the so-called 'signature wound' of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars – which may account for almost a quarter of combat injuries.

Joyce Wagner wears an Operation Recovery TshirtFifteen percent of female service members serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have reported sexual assault or harassment. Men who experience MST are even less likely than women to report attacks. The actual number of attacks may well be much higher, given the obstacles involved in reporting these crimes. A soldier who reports a sexual attack risks retaliation, particularly when the perpetrator ranks higher in the chain of command.  Soldiers observe the repercussions their peers face when they expose misconduct and assault by superior officers and so are less likely to report it when it happens to them.

The case of Suzanne Swift is one example. Army Specialist Swift reported sexual assault by superiors while in Iraq, for which no action was taken. Suffering from PTSD, she went AWOL rather than be redeployed under the same command. She was stripped of her rank and court-martialed. She spent time in military jail, while the officers who assaulted her experienced no repercussions.

Deployment and re-deployment of traumatized service members moves beyond insult, past injury, into increasing danger to themselves, their fellow soldiers, and the civilians they encounter. Service members who struggle with serious mental health conditions may not be fit to protect themselves or each other. IVAW hopes to limit the damage to people for whom the war zones are their homes, by seeking to end the deployment of unstable troops.

Danger and Healing on the Home Front

Veterans' Day is an opportunity to listen to the voices of veterans, their families, and loved ones about the critical need to heal the wounds of militarism in our society as well as in the countries U.S. militarism has ravaged. Operation Recovery intends to uncover and reverse the ways that service members and veterans internalize military violence and turn it against themselves and others.

Two thousand soldiers attempted suicide last year within the Army alone. Two hundred thirty-nine of them succeeded. Recently, Fort Hood in Texas saw four decorated combat veterans commit suicide in a single week. An estimated 20 to 50 percent of all service members deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan struggle with PTSD. This comes to somewhere between 350,000 and 900,000 troops. Soldiers repeatedly report inadequate access to treatment, domestically as well as while deployed. Mental health screening is often cursory and anonymous, providing no real assessment of a unit's fitness, even between deployments. Some soldiers intentionally conceal untreated mental health diagnoses, for fear that they'll be deployed without treatment but denied their firearms. A third of troops currently serving in Afghanistan and Iraq say they can't see a mental health professional when they need to. (Data from "IVAW Operation Recovery: 10 Reasons Traumatized Troops Need a Right to Heal" fact sheet. Download it here.)

Operation Recovery is a campaign growing from a community with deep awareness of the cyclical nature of trauma, abuse and violence. Like any community whose members are so often in crisis they are also developing powerful solutions. Veteran and service member organizing combines forceful demands with deep care and support for individual soldiers and vets, offering them the time and attention they need to survive and heal.

G.I. Resistance: Game-Changer

The Operation Recovery campaign also has the potential to combine with other social justice movements in this country, to create a broad and comprehensive vision of a nation that is not based on a permanent war economy.

IVAW's organizing framework, drawing heavily on lessons from the civil rights movement, includes a base-building orientation. They seek to develop the leadership and strength of members both as organizers and as human beings who deserve the right and the resources to heal. The campaign integrates a tactical focus on a core political demand with a longer-term goal of instituting a new set of values for the nation. The central framework, the “right to heal,” has a game-changing premise: that our society needs to shift its money, resources, and focus from militarism towards health and the real security that comes when people have their needs met. IVAW demands the “right to heal” for their members, while simultaneously calling for healing for Iraq and Afghanistan, in the form of end to the occupations and reparations. Combining calls for healing at home and in the war zones creates a visionary intersection with new priorities at its center.

The Kansas Chapter: A Model for Success

Operation Recovery has seen some exciting developments in the Midwest region, an area not typically highlighted for its veteran activity. Will Stewart-Starks, the IVAW Plains Regional Coordinator and Army veteran, is heading up White Flag Warriors, a speaking tour highlighting Operation Recovery. So far, the tour has passed through Wichita State University, University of Kansas, and Kansas State University, reaching students, veterans and local residents. “We’ve had some great success building a network in our area and are looking forward to scheduling future events soon in Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Missouri. We want to be a model of what other communities can do with this campaign. If we can be successful here in Kansas, success can happen anywhere,” Stewart-Starks said.

“Vets are concerned about getting their benefits and healthcare in general,” he continued. “On the base, we encountered many vets afraid of retribution for reaching out for services that might deem them unfit for duty. I also get a sense that vets are fatigued. We need support. We need to be facilitating a safe environment for vets to speak out.”

The IVAW Kansas chapter is an inspiring example of veterans reaching out to veterans and community members to raise awareness, call for action, and support vets who need it most.

Be the Solution: What You Can Do This Veterans Day

Building leadership and veteran voices to speak out against war and for the right to heal is in itself a powerful solution. “Being against the war is often misinterpreted as being anti-soldier. With Operation Recovery we are demonstrating that we support the troops because we are the troops,” said IVAW Western Regional Field Organizer and Marine veteran, Joe Callan. “What we are fighting for is what every active duty troop or vet has had to fight for on some level everyday, the right to heal.” There are many things you can do this Veterans Day to honor the vets in your community.

  • Sign the pledge to support Operation Recovery. Click here.
  • Reach out to veterans in your community and learn about their needs, how to support their healing, and share Operation Recovery.

And perhaps most importantly, take the time to listen. Listen to a veteran about their experience in the military; listen to a military family member, a partner or ex-partner of a veteran; listen to each other. Pay attention to what’s important to them, what matters, what they are dealing with and facing. Everyone is affected by the wars, whether or not the wars reach the national debates on the major networks. On Veterans Day, and everyday, make sure that all veterans and their families are heard. It is an important step towards ending wars, and building solutions together.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

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