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Interview With a Soldier Just Back From Iraq


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Interview by Daniel Redwood

Because members of the military are limited in their ability to speak out publicly, the soldier interviewed here must remain anonymous. A military medic who served in the Gulf War in the early 1990s, he is a member of the Reserves who was called up to serve in the current war in Iraq. His primary role is to deliver medical care to U.S. military personnel as well as Iraqis.

Profoundly patriotic and committed to protecting his country, he is deeply concerned that the U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, which has resulted in the deaths of over 500 American soldiers and uncounted thousands of Iraqis, may now be edging toward disaster. He believes that the troops have done their job and should be brought home.

In this interview, he notes that the troop rotations currently underway (between now and June) will place into the Iraq combat zone a significantly higher percentage of Reserves than has been deployed in any previous war. Because Reserves receive far less extensive training than active duty forces, he warns that the summer of 2004 may be a particularly dangerous time for U.S. forces in Iraq.

Stationed in the area of the Baghdad Airport at the time of President Bush’s Thanksgiving 2003 visit to the troops there, he also recounts that on the day before the president’s visit, the troops were given a questionnaire that asked them whether they “supported the president.” Those who did not declare their support with sufficient enthusiasm were not permitted to take part in the Thanksgiving meal, and had to make do with MREs (meals ready to eat, referred to by the soldiers as “meals refused by Ethiopians”) in their quarters.

This interview offers a rare, unfiltered report from a first-hand participant in the invasion and ongoing occupation of Iraq.

Why did you decide to join the U.S. military?

It’s one of the things my family does. I was taught by my parents that there were two things we had to do: go to college and serve in the military. We believe in this country wholeheartedly and being in the military is very important to me. It’s part of my life.

Do you think the American public is well-informed about what is happening in Iraq?

No, I really don’t. I see young people on my medical table all the time, people who have lost their legs or arms or had other terrible injuries. No one back home sees any of that. I’ve been home for a month and I haven’t seen a casualty yet on television. I’m still waiting. Where are the casualties? It’s as if it doesn’t exist, as if it doesn’t happen.

What about Iraqi deaths and injuries?

We don’t care about Iraqi deaths. It’s something that does not even count. The hospital was told not to keep count. The Iraqi infrastructure does not keep an account of the deaths anymore.


The American government told them not to. We do always keep a list of the Americans injured and the number that die. But here in America you don’t see anything about these soldiers coming back. You don’t read anything about the funeral. It’s like it’s a secret, like these people didn’t exist.

Was it like this in previous wars?


What brought about the change?

From what I gather, it used to be that the president would go out to the area to meet the [deceased] soldiers coming in. They would drape the caskets and they would actually watch and give a moment of silence as the coffin came by. The Bush Administration felt that was too much for Americans to handle, so they secured that part of the ceremony so that no one knows when that fallen soldier comes home. It’s an injustice to the military, because you gave your life to the country and the country should give something back to you. Even just a moment of silence. Every day that someone dies, the flag should be lowered to half staff. Not just because a politician died.

Those guys are good people. They work hard. They do anything and everything that is asked of them. And they gave the ultimate sacrifice. It should not be that you have to go to a website to find out who died.

What’s it like being a medical corpsman?

I’m thinking about a 19-year-old who was on my table. This guy could have been your next door neighbor. Smart kid, excited kid. But his life as he knew it was basically over. His legs were gone. It’s hard for these soldiers to believe. I’ve seen lots of people with severe, permanent injuries. They’re going to need a lot of help when they get back home, because their lives are going to change forever. And to have the guy [President Bush] cutting billions from the VA [Veterans Administration] budget, at a time when you’ve got all those guys coming back from overseas with major injuries, that’s disgusting! That hurts every person who ever served this country. I don’t understand how someone can stand up and say, “I’m pro-military,” when you want to cut $16 billion from the VA and close VA hospitals.

We’re going to need those hospitals. The veterans are going to need medical help and psychological training. They’re not going to be able to walk out of that environment and just go back to their normal jobs. They’re going to need therapy, they’re going to need help. And where do you go to get that help? You go to the VA. If there’s no VA, where do you go? We don’t have insurance. The military doesn’t provide health insurance for you after you leave the military. So they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.

What do they do? How are they going to get the medical attention they need if the VA hospital is closed down? Some of these guys may be traveling 100 to 200 miles to get to the nearest VA. They’re going to have a real rough life when they get back.

How do the people currently serving in Iraq feel about this?

Most of them don’t think about it. They think about the here and now. They’ll worry about that when they get home. Their major goal right now is to stay alive and see their families again. It won’t hit them until they get back and get settled, and they notice they don’t have anything around to support them.

Can you describe the people you work with?

Hard working, dedicated, wanting to bring everybody back. They will do anything and everything to make sure everybody comes back safe.

What’s it like when one of them is shot?

Wounded I can handle. Killed is a different story. You remember faces. You think about the life this person could have had. Being older, you know that 19-year-olds are not supposed to die for something like that. We have wars; they’re gory and there’s blood and they’re nasty. But a 19-year-old should have more of his life to enjoy before he makes the ultimate sacrifice.

I went to one funeral where I cried the whole time. I don’t normally cry for anything. It takes a lot to make me cry. I was crying because I knew this guy. I talked to him all the time. We used to joke together. He was a Marine. To see him lifeless and know that I would never see him again, that is hard to handle. There’s no need for us to be dying like this. Yes, we love the military and we will do anything for this country. But don’t kill us just to be killing us. These men are good people. They work hard, they have jobs and loved ones. They have kids. You talk about people having families. How hard is it to have a family when the father is not there? It breaks your heart to know that someone is going to grow up without a father, and never know their dad.

Are the men and women in the U.S. military in Iraq sufficiently trained before going over there?

No. I am extremely concerned about the major shift that is taking place right now, between now and June, where there’s going to be a much higher percentage of the troops being Reserves rather than full-time, active duty military. The difference is that the active duty go through far more training than Reserves. Up to now, we’ve had a mix of about 20 percent Reserves and 80 percent active duty. With the change going on now, they are rotating out tens of thousands of active duty troops and replacing a lot of them with Reserves. We’ve heard that could be 80 percent Reserves and 20 percent active duty. Some sources say it could be 50/50. But the main point is, nothing like that has ever been tried before, and these Reserves are being sent into a war zone. Many of them are people who would be fine driving a truck or working on a base in some support capacity, but they’re going to be out there on the streets with M-16 rifles. It took me a long time to become skilled with my M-16. You have to learn about dope and windage. It takes time to get it right.

What are dope and windage?

Windage is about taking into account the effect that the wind will have on the course of the bullet. Dope is about the way you elevate your sight to lock in on a target.

What else is lacking in terms of training?

The type of training that you need for guerilla warfare. Some units get it and some don’t. Urban training is real tough. You’ve got to pick the enemy out before he picks you out, and you’ve got to know what spot to look for. OJT is not going to work.

What’s OJT?

On-the-job training. It’s not going to work. And that’s what we’re going through now. It’s completely OJT. These guys are learning as we go along.

To what extent do you feel that U.S. soldiers in Iraq have the proper equipment for what they face there?

We were supposed to have bulletproof vests, where we actually put the plates inside our flak jackets. We never got those. The money had been paid for those things, but we never got them. My brother had to send me a flak jacket. There’s all sorts of stuff that we had to buy on our own before we left. The types of canteens you need, water pouches that go on your back.

These were not provided, or not sufficiently?

Right. We were given canteens that you hold on your side, but the kind that hold a lot of water, you need them, too. It can get unbelievably hot over there and you need to drink a lot of water. Also, the pack doesn’t work.

What’s wrong with it?

It’s top-heavy. All the weight sits above head level. It doesn’t work. The weight should be set in the middle of your back, not above your neck. So you had to go out and buy another pack.

Why on earth didn’t someone figure this out beforehand?

The military buys stuff from the cheapest dealer. We had to go out and buy boots. Not that the military boots are that bad, but they’re not the greatest boots in the world for what you’re going to be doing. And when you’re going to spend hours and hours and hours in a pair of boots, you want something that’s comfortable. So you have to go out and buy your own boots. To buy all of these things, of course, assumes that you or your family can afford to buy them, and a lot of recruits come from poor families.

How is the overall morale of the troops in Iraq?

It depends on the day. When somebody dies, it’s really tough. It’s tough on everybody, because everybody knows it could have been them. Some days we have a good time. We’re Americans; we’re always going to find a way to have fun. We tried to play football one time, which is crazy in a war zone.

We’ve also had a lot of visitors come over and entertain us. Those days are great. But you never lose that thought in your mind that, hey, we’ve got to take care of business in a few hours.

What did you think about President Bush’s Thanksgiving visit to Iraq?

I was there when President Bush came to the [baghdad] airport. The day before, you had to fill out a questionnaire and answer questions, that would determine whether they would allow you in the room with the President.

What was on the questionnaire?

“Do you support the president?”



Members of the military were asked whether they support the president politically?

Yes. And if the answer was not a gung-ho, A-1, 100 percent yes, then you were not allowed into the cafeteria. You were not allowed to eat the Thanksgiving meal that day. You had an MRE.

What’s an MRE?

Meals ready to eat. We also call them “meals refused by Ethiopians.”

About this questionnaire, it raises a serious question about whether military personnel, or civil servants for that matter, should ever be asked questions by their supervisors about their political beliefs. It also raises the whole question of freedom of speech. In particular, the circumstances under which members of the military have freedom of speech.

There is none.

Is a soldier free, for example, to speak to the media if it is in support of the president and his policies, but not free to do so if in opposition or if raising uncomfortable questions?

If you are spouting good things about the president, you are allowed to speak. If you are saying anything negative, you are not allowed to speak.

Is it your sense that official visitors, such as Administration figures, members of Congress, and the like, are shown what’s really happening in Iraq? Or are they shown a sanitized version of what’s happening?

It’s cleaned up before they get there. It’s really cleaned up before they get there. We are not going to take them on local runs in the local village.


Because they may end up dead. And you know how that would look back in the States, to have a member of Congress or a Senator killed in Iraq.

So there’s a sense that you’re in constant danger?

You’re on guard 24/7. I know a guy that got killed at a Coke machine, just buying a Coke.

Does the military, and particularly those members who have served in combat zones, have a higher than average rate of suicide?


Have you seen any of these?

Yes. They’re normally the younger ones. The older guys who have been around, like myself, we know that life is too short to end like that. But the younger guys are the ones you have to worry about. There are signs – major depression, they want to get killed, they want to get shot – you can tell.

If, as a medical corpsman, you see a soldier exhibiting those characteristics, how do you handle it?

I grab him. I talk to him. I spend a lot of time talking to people. I’m kind of like the chaplain, too. I’m the one that people tell their problems to. If they can’t go to the CO [commanding officer] or the XO [executive officer] or the sergeant, they come to “doc.” Doc’s not going to tell anybody their secrets.

It’s not just suicides. We also have a 70 percent divorce rate in my unit. People change when they’re on deployment.

Is that more true for younger people, who haven’t been married as long?

It’s true for both. My first sergeant hung himself at Fort Lejeune. His wife divorced him. The crazy thing about it was that he stepped off a chair, and if he had just put his legs down he wouldn’t have killed himself. But when we walked into the room, his legs were still pulled up. So he really wanted to kill himself. This was when we got back from Iraq. There were four suicides since we got back.

Four suicides in a group of how many?

About 600. Suicide is wild. You make it back safe, without a scratch. And then you kill yourself.

For those who survive, return, and try to carry on with their lives, is it difficult to blend back into civilian life?

It’s very difficult to adjust to the change. Most really need counseling. This is my second rodeo, second time around, so I feel that I’m handling it better. But counseling is really important. Also, family members should know that when someone is just back from the war zone, it can take a while to adjust to the idea that your life is not constantly in danger. If you wake someone up quickly, you may get struck.

In what other ways are people changed by being in a war?

Many people who fight in wars come back and complain about them the most. Because you never want to put another person in that situation if you can possibly prevent it. You never forget when you go into a building and everyone there is dead. Like the information building [iraq Ministry of Information]. All the people there were dead. Bodies bloated, stuff like that.

Do you feel that you have been hardened by experiences like these?

Video games did that already. The average American sees death how many times per day on TV and video games? I don’t play video games anymore.

Do you think it matters that so many of the top people in the Bush Administration never served in combat?

Yes. It’s quite a list. Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, Rove, Rice, and many more. I’m still trying to figure out how Cheney managed to get five draft deferments. They say there is not one person in Congress today that has a son or daughter in combat. Neither house of Congress.

What do you think about that?

I think they would make different decisions if their sons and daughters had to go or if they had been there themselves. I really do. If Barbara and Jenna [bush] had to put on a pack and go to war, I think Daddy would make different decisions. But there’s never going to be a draft because rich people don’t want it. You know, most of the kids in the military are not rich kids. As a matter of fact, most of them are poor. The reason they joined the military was to try to get ahead. So you have the lower class and middle class kids fighting, while the upper class kids, I don’t know what they’re doing. Hanging out at the beach, something like that.

How did you feel when you saw President Bush arrive in a flight suit on the aircraft carrier off the coast of San Diego, with the banner “Mission Accomplished”?

We laughed.


We have a saying about people who dress up in military uniforms, like Idi Amin or Mussolini. People like that have something to hide. The reason they wear the uniform is to make themselves feel big, feel proud.

How did you feel when the President said to the Iraqis, to the insurgents, “Bring it on!”

Being a medical person, I take an oath to try to protect my troops at all times. Anything that puts them in danger, alarms me. And that was unnecessary.

Did the soldiers in Iraq think they were going to find weapons of mass destruction?


How come they didn’t find them?

My feeling is that they were never there. As Wolfowitz said, if you don’t tell the American people that there are weapons of mass destruction, they won’t go along with the idea that [going to war is justified because] Saddam was a bad guy. That’s not enough. After 9/11, you’ve got to tell the American people that they’ve got weapons and they can hit the United States any time they want to.

Whether or not it’s true?

Truth is in the eye of the beholder.

What’s it like to be serving in Iraq, on a typical day?

There’s lots of waiting. Lots of time to wait around and think about things. It depends on what your job is. If you’re on patrol, of course, there’s real danger. You don’t know who’s the enemy and who’s your friend. They don’t wear uniforms and we don’t speak the language. I could be treating an Iraqi family on my medical table during the day, and who knows, maybe one of them is going to be trying to kill me or someone in my unit that night.

Do you have enough Arabic interpreters?

No way. Not even close. We didn’t have enough when we came in and we don’t have enough now. It’s unbelievable. And they don’t even encourage us to learn the language. Without being able to speak the same language, we’re worlds apart from the Iraqis.

So you don’t know any words in Arabic?

They teach us a few words and phrases.

Such as?

Stop. Get down. Kneel. Shut up.

No friendly words?

Not that I can remember.

President Bush said on Meet the Press, “We are welcome in Iraq” because “they realize what a free Iraq will be.” What have you concluded about the feelings of Iraqis toward the Americans?

They think we did a good job getting rid of Saddam. Now they want us to get out so they can run their country. It’s not so different from our war with England. We were glad the French helped out, but the French didn’t come in and say, “Okay, now we’re going to occupy you for the next 20 or 30 years.” They want to do their own thing like we did our own thing. That’s one thing that we haven’t figured out  they don’t want us there! They feel that they can solve their own problems, just like we solved ours.

Do the troops currently serving in Iraq have a sense of how long the U.S. military is likely to remain there?

Yes. We know it’s going to be a minimum of ten years.

Based on what?

Based on our government telling us that. A minimum of ten years.

So even if there is an Iraqi government of some sort formed …

We will still be there, to make sure the government thrives. If you know anything about the British occupation of Iraq, the British people after a few years pulled their soldiers out. They said, “We’re tired of this, we don’t want to do this any more.” The British government set up an Iraqi government. In a very short time, that government was dead, and the Baath Party came into being.

So are you, therefore, not terribly optimistic about peace, freedom, and democracy taking root in Iraq very soon?

As soon as the Ayatollah [Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani] says go to war, the people will go to war. When he tells them to go home, they go home. When he tells them to get up, they get up. And he’s going to be our worst nightmare because he controls over 60 percent of the people [the Shi’a] in that country.

There was an attempt on this Ayatollah’s life recently.

And I wouldn’t be surprised if it was us who tried it.


Yes. Because he will mess up our plans. We don’t want to turn Iraq into another Iran.

By another Iran, you mean a radical Islamic state?

[Run by] ayatollahs. We dropped leaflets promising them that you will have elections, you will have a democracy, you will be able to choose your own leaders. Sistani is going to hold us to it. They will have elections. One man, one vote.

But the United States is currently…

Balking at that idea.

Saying that for one reason or another, direct elections with one man, one vote are not possible, or not yet.

Correct. Because if they allow one man, one vote, he will win in a landslide.

He being Ayatollah Sistani, or candidates that he designates?


And these caucuses that have been proposed by the American occupation authorities and the Iraqi Governing Council they appointed?

They’re not going to fly.

Because there would be American control over them?


Which is what people like Ayatollah Sistani are questioning.

Dead against. He thinks the Governing Council they have now is phony. They will not survive if an election happens. Many of those people are from Virginia, New York, and London. They spent the last 20 years in the United States and England.

Do you feel the Bush Administration has honestly and fully explained why they went into Iraq and why the U.S. military is still there?

No, and I don’t think they ever will. There’s no one to hold them accountable. Congress is a joke. We laugh at Congress. They come over and want to get their pictures taken. That’s nice. But what are they doing? They’re not helping us. They gave this man [President Bush] carte blanche to do whatever he wanted, and he’s doing exactly what he wants.

Is it true that the American invasion of Iraq acted as a magnet, to bring in foreign fighters who weren’t there before?

Yes, because they don’t want Iraq to become a haven for the United States. They want it to be an Arab country. You’ve got to remember, what we’re installing is actually against the way of life they’ve always known. It would be like somebody coming into this country and installing a dictatorship. We would fight that with everything we had. See, freedom for one person is not freedom for another person. If you’re going to take over their religion, take away their culture.

In what way is the American occupation taking away their religion or their culture?

Because they don’t control their own country. It’s an Arab country being run by, as they call us, heathens.

Do you feel that the Iraqi insurgency can be defeated militarily?

It would take a long time, because we are breeding more of them every day, because of the way we are treating the people.

How are they being treated?

We kick in their door, take the children and the women and put them in another place. Then we take the men out of the home.

And do what with them?

We interrogate the men about participation in the insurrection against the United States.

What’s that like?

I don’t do that.

My understanding is that Americans are also doing things to try to rebuild Iraq. How is that going?

There are efforts, but it’s not easy. One example I’m familiar with is that we’ve built a lot of playgrounds. They don’t last long. It would be great in a stable community, but in Iraq people tear them all down for the scrap metal.

What’s the current situation with electrical power?

It’s basically horrible by American standards. We have electricity on the base at times when they don’t have it in the town. It’s going to take a long time to get to the point where electricity is working well. I’ll tell you, I don’t think we should be paying for that.

What else is happening in the military that we should know?

One thing that’s really important, and that makes no sense, is that they are cutting 10,000 people in the Navy from active duty right now.

Why? To save money?

Yeah, and during a war. It said in the Navy Times that from October 1, 2003 to October 1, 2004, something like 10,000 sailors are going to go. They’re going to try to run some of the ships with far fewer people than they’ve always used.

How is that going to work?

It looks like they are going to try to cut the Navy down to the size of the Marine Corps and have people doing more jobs. Just wait until the first time they have a real “general quarters” on a ship, an actual emergency. Because you need everybody on board to work as a team, to handle a crisis aboard ship. It’s not like you can walk back to shore. So I’m waiting for the first crisis that occurs when they don’t have enough people. And it will come. It’s astonishing that they’re letting those 10,000 people go in wartime. If you get hurt, they’ll let you go. If your “fit rep” is not as high as they want it to be, they’ll let you go.

But wait, at the same time, in certain parts of the military, they’re ordering Reservists to stay on for much longer than they expected.

The Reserves are different.


Because Reservists are not paid yearly. Reservists don’t make as much money as active duty people do. They don’t require housing; you don’t have to move the entire family to the base in order to ship them out. The whole idea is to get more people on as Reservists, so that they can use them to replace active duty. It’s great for them [the government], they’re saving money.

Without meaning disrespect to anyone who is serving in the Reserves, it occurs to me that this is like a corporation getting rid of full-time, experienced workers, and bringing in temps. It’s great for the bottom line, and potentially very destructive in a whole host of other ways.


How long must Reservists stay in?

It depends. They’re already staying for much longer than any of them expected. If you are in what is defined as a “critical billet,” it could potentially be for many years. If it was decided that my position was in a critical billet, then theoretically I could be kept on almost indefinitely, in my case until about the year 2030. If they decide to extend it to 2030, I will accept that.

So it’s a real sense of commitment and honor that you have about this.

It is.

What do you think of the United States remaining in Iraq now that Saddam Hussein has been overthrown and there are apparently no weapons of mass destruction?

We need to come home. We did our job.

So this whole notion of staying for the extra 10 years or whatever . . .

Why? What’s the purpose? There is no military purpose there. We’re not the police. We have pressing needs in our country. We are spending money like it’s going out of style over there. Companies like Halliburton are gouging the American people over there. We protect them also. Part of our job now is actually to protect Halliburton employees. So, if we really want to cut off the spigot, we need to come home.

You’re not too impressed with the corporate military contractors.

No. You know, they actually come up to you and offer you jobs. They say, “Once you get out [of the military], go to this company to apply and you can come back over. We can use people like you.” I don’t think it’s worth any amount of money to be in a combat zone. You know, over 100,000 soldiers were offered $10,000 to re-enlist. Hardly anyone took it. I do not want to go back. I will do it if those are my orders, but I do not want to go back. It’s not a winning situation for us. You’re going to lose more people this summer than you did last year, I guarantee it.


For one thing, people going over there with inadequate training, like I said before. Heat, for another. It’s unbelievably hot there in the summer. When it gets hot, people get upset. When April, May, June, and July roll around, watch how it spikes up again.

What do you expect to happen with the large numbers of soldiers coming back from Iraq?

Mass exit from the military. Mass!

Do you feel it is possible for American citizens to support the troops without supporting the policies under which the troops are acting?

Yes. Most definitely.

Any parting words?

We did our job. We need to come home.

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Just finished watching a show with host Rick Merser from "this hour has 22 minutes" in America questioning the Americans - I never laughed so hard in my life - - but this post is reality and i am in total disgust with the American Polititians( i would give up my car just to see one of them go into duty) who send hard working people into the face of death - unbelievable what a person would do just to attend college and serve in the forces to pay of the student loan - THINK - you are gonna graduate next year - but wait a minute you go to Iraq and get your legs blown off - So much for a prosperous future(one with deinite change anyways) THAT would totally suck shit - you will be graduating in a wheel chair for fuck sakes and they wont even sevre silence for the dead ones - - fukin pisses me off totally - I AM so glad to be a Canadian and live in an awesome country - Lets hope terrorism doesn't evolve into urban warfare hear in North America - just my opinion.

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