- Laila Al-Arian
co-author of The Nation article, "The Other War: Military Veterans Speak on the Record About Attacks on Iraqi Civilians." She is a writer with the Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund.
- Sgt. John Bruhns
served in Baghdad and Abu Ghraib with the Third Brigade, First Armored Division, First Battalion, for one year beginning in April 2003.
- Spc. Garett Reppenhagen
cavalry scout and sniper with the 263rd Armored Battalion, First Infantry Division, who was deployed to Baquba for a year in February 2004.
- Staff Sgt. Timothy John Westphal
served on the outskirts of Tikrit for a year-long tour with the 18th Infantry Brigade, First Infantry Division, beginning in February 2004.
- Sgt. Dustin Flatt
served with the 18th Infantry Brigade, First Infantry Division, for one year beginning in February 2004.
The Nation magazine has published a startling new exposé of 50 American combat veterans of the Iraq War who give vivid on-the-record accounts of the U.S. military occupation in Iraq and describe a brutal side of the war rarely seen on television screens or chronicled in newspaper accounts. The investigation marks the first time so many on-the-record, named eyewitnesses from within the U.S. military have been assembled in one place to openly corroborate assertions of indiscriminate killings and other atrocities by the U.S. military in Iraq. We speak with the article’s co-author, journalist Laila Al-Arian, and four Iraq veterans who came forward with their stories of war. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: As debate continues in Congress over the Iraq War, the Pentagon says it is probing new allegations of wrongdoing during the U.S. military assault on Fallujah three years ago. U.S. marines are said to have killed as many as eight unarmed Iraqi prisoners when U.S. forces attacked Fallujah in November of 2004. The Marine unit under investigation is the same involved in the killing of 24 civilians in Haditha in 2005, where after an IED exploded killing a marine, his unit rampaged through several neighboring houses and killed 24 civilians.
This comes as The Nation magazine publishes a startling new exposé that paints a disturbing picture of the effects of the four-year-old occupation on average Iraqi civilians. Over the course of several months, The Nation magazine interviewed 50 American combat veterans of the Iraq War. The soldiers gave vivid on-the-record accounts of the U.S. military occupation and described a brutal side of the war rarely seen on television screens or chronicled in newspaper accounts.
The Nation investigation marks the first time so many on-the-record, named eyewitnesses from within the U.S. military have been assembled in one place to openly corroborate assertions of indiscriminate killings and other atrocities by the U.S. military in Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: The cover story is titled "The Other War: Military Veterans Speak on the Record About Attacks on Iraqi Civilians." In it, journalists Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian write, "The war the vets described is a dark and even depraved enterprise, one that bears a powerful resemblance to other misguided and brutal colonial wars and occupations, from the French occupation of Algeria to the American war on Vietnam and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory."
Today, we spend the hour with Iraq War vets around the country who will tell their stories of war. Sergeant John Bruhns served in Baghdad and Abu Ghraib for one year, beginning in April 2003. Specialist Garett Reppenhagen was a cavalry scout and sniper with the First Infantry Division and was deployed to Baquba for a year in February 2004. They both join us from Washington, D.C. And here in our firehouse studio we’re joined by Laila Al-Arian, co-author of The Nation article, writer with the Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund.
Before we go to the soldiers around the country, Laila, talk about the scope of this investigation. When did you begin it?
LAILA AL-ARIAN: We began this investigation in July of 2006, so about a year ago. And we conducted interviews over the course of seven months, and we spoke with 50 combat vets about their experiences. And we decided because the war is such a vast enterprise, as you mentioned, we decided to really focus on just a few snapshots of the war, the flashpoints of violence. So we looked at convoys, which run throughout the country, checkpoints, which are also all over Iraq. We also looked at home raids and detentions of Iraqis and also the overall perception of Iraqis, the demonization of them in the military.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And how were you able to recruit the soldiers who would talk to you and agree to be interviewed on the record?
LAILA AL-ARIAN: We initially approached veterans organizations. We approached Iraq Veterans Against the War and also Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. And through them, we were put in touch with many veterans who were willing to speak about their experiences. And from then on, it really became word-of-mouth. People would refer us to their friends. And that’s how we went about it. It wasn’t an easy process.
AMY GOODMAN: And how many soldiers did you talk to? How did you document what they said?
LAILA AL-ARIAN: We spoke with 40 soldiers, eight marines and two sailors. We tape-recorded every conversation, every interview we had, and we transcribed them into thousands of pages of transcripts. And from then on, we began the process of writing the piece. But, for us, it was very important to have all of these interviews on the record.
JUAN GONZALEZ: In your article, you mention that there was a recent report by, I think it was, the Army surgeon general talking about the attitudes of — general attitudes that they have found of American soldiers toward Iraqi civilians. Could you talk about that?
LAILA AL-ARIAN: Yes. Interestingly, that report came after we began our own reporting. So, to us, it really confirmed what we saw through our reporting. The report stated that 47 percent of soldiers and 38 percent of marines said that Iraqis should be treated with dignity, and only 55 percent of soldiers and 40 percent of marines said that they would turn in a friend in the military who basically killed or injured an unarmed Iraqi combatant. And that really confirmed what we found in our piece.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go now to Washington, D.C., to speak with two of the soldiers: Sergeant John Bruhns, again, serving in Baghdad and Abu Ghraib with the Third Brigade, First Armored Division, First Battalion, for one year beginning in April of 2003, and Specialist Garett Reppenhagen, with the cavalry, scout and sniper with the 263rd Armor Battalion, First Infantry Division, deployed to Baquba.
Specialist Garett Reppenhagen, let’s begin with you. Tell your story, what you saw, what you experienced, what you participated in.
SPC. GARETT REPPENHAGEN: Well, you know, I was a sniper, and I operated in the Diyala province, which is a pretty active region right now. And the thing about the article is, all those stories are very much true. Those things happened. The situation is that most soldiers, most marines are professional soldiers, they’re professional marines, and they’re going to do their job to the best of their ability. And, unfortunately, Iraq is a very complex, untraditional battlefield, and it’s very difficult to operate in that terrain and not have civilian casualties and not have these, you know, these incidents occur, because we’ve developed very brutal techniques to be able to operate safely and conduct our missions in that theater, and ultimately the soldiers are going to stick together. We feel very much like we’re out there and all we have to look for, you know, to protect ourselves is each other. And the bottom line is, you know, we want to come home alive, we want to come home safe, and we’re going to conduct ourselves as the best of our ability to do that, and sometimes that means that, you know, innocent civilians, Iraqi people, are going to get in the way, and they’re going to get hurt.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Specialist Reppenhagen, in reading the article and the accounts, what most struck me was the massive number of searches that were being conducted of individual homes in the middle of the night and the enormous psychological impact this had on those people, who, when a group of soldiers burst into their home in the middle of the night, were not — had nothing to do with the insurgency, obviously, and the impact on them. Could you talk about that and the impact on you being involved in those kinds of raids?
SPC. GARETT REPPENHAGEN: The house raids were a very difficult piece of my experience in Iraq. We conducted a lot of house searches. And, you know, we felt we had to. We didn’t have the initiative in Iraq. The U.S. military, nine times out of 10, are on the defensive. We’re being attacked, and combat is usually initiated by the enemy. So a lot of times we’re just — we’re searching homes. We’re going on whims, hoping that we can catch the Iraqis, the ones who are trying to do the U.S. forces harm. And, you know, we search a lot of houses. We kick in the doors, and we separate the people.
And, you know, we had a checklist where we went through — did they have contraband? Yes/no. If they did, we apprehended them, and we would put a bag over their head and marked it with an "A." You know, did they have an identification card? If they didn’t, we’d mark them with a "B," we take them. If they didn’t belong in that house, if they didn’t live in that house, we’d mark them with a "C," and we’d take them. So we take a lot of these people out of their homes. And a lot of these people, we push out through the chain of command, and they get interrogated, and they get pushed up further. And a lot of these people never make it home the following day or ever again.
So it’s very difficult. It’s hard to see the people, to go into their homes, especially when you know that most of the time you have bad intelligence and you’re raiding a house that usually the people inside are innocent and have nothing to do with the insurgency or any harm to U.S. soldiers.
JUAN GONZALEZ: About how many houses do you estimate, roughly, that you participated in raids of during your tour there?
SPC. GARETT REPPENHAGEN: Well, I can only guess. I’m thinking about 30 — probably around 30 houses are ones that I raided personally. I was involved in cordons on the outer edges of a lot of these raids, where I didn’t actually go into any of the houses, I just pulled security on the outside. A lot of my sniper missions, I did overwatch and just stayed in a heightened position and gave intelligence to the people on the ground. So, you know, I saw a lot of them, but I was only actually entered probably about 30 houses myself.
AMY GOODMAN: And the response of the families whose homes you raided? Were they able to understand what you were saying? And your feelings when you would go into someone’s home?
SPC. GARETT REPPENHAGEN: Most of the time we didn’t have interpreters with us, so, no, there was a huge miscommunication, really problems with the language barrier. A lot of times we found that once we started these raids, we would get to the second or third house, and the family would be awake, the lights would be on, the men and women would already be separated. The men would have their shoes on. They would be dressed and ready to go and be taken by the U.S. military. So they got almost accustomed to it. And it was constantly — you could see the frustration on their faces, the anger, the sadness, the worry, the fear. You know, it was very hard to see the faces of the Iraqi people when you took their family members away.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, and we’re going to come back to this discussion and also speak with Sergeant John Bruhns, who was at Abu Ghraib and in Baghdad beginning in April of 2003.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest in studio in New York is Laila Al-Arian, who together with Chris Hedges wrote the cover story of The Nation magazine this week, interviewing scores of Army war veterans from Iraq talking about their experiences. We are joined in Washington, D.C., by Specialist Garett Reppenhagen, as well as John Bruhns, Sergeant John Bruhns, who served in Baghdad and Abu Ghraib with the Third Brigade, First Armored Division, First Battalion, beginning in April of 2003.
Sergeant Bruhns, talk about your experience. You participated in how many raids?
SGT. JOHN BRUHNS: Well, Amy, thank you very much for having me on. I just want to make one small correction. I invaded Iraq on day one, March 19th of 2003, so I just want to, you know, make sure I put that in the record. So, having —
AMY GOODMAN: What was that first day like?
SGT. JOHN BRUHNS: It was very confusing. You know, we were — in my unit, along with 150,000 other soldiers, were massed on the border of Kuwait and Iraq. And finally, our commander said, "OK, go," and we went into Iraq. And we went into the southern Iraqi desert, and it took days to find civilization.
And at that point in time I had a lot of reservations, because I was looking around, and I saw 150,000 troops making their way to Baghdad in the open desert, and here’s President Bush, and he’s accusing Saddam Hussein of having a massive stockpile of weapons of mass destruction, possibly a nuclear weapon, saying that he’s a homicidal dictator addicted to these weapons and we have to stop him now. And I was thinking to myself, I said, you know, what would be a better time for Saddam Hussein to use these weapons? He has 150,000 troops in the southern Iraqi desert, and he could launch these weapons on us directly and kill nobody but us.
So it was very frightening, especially because our military commanders were telling us that he has these weapons, this is his last stand, we’re coming to kill him, to take over his government, and he will use these weapons. And we were anticipating at least 50,000 casualties that day. That’s what we were being told. So it was very frightening.
But once I started to make it into populated areas and the weapons were not used at a time that was ripe for Saddam Hussein to use them, I just — I totally came to the — I was completely convinced that President Bush either made a complete and total incompetent decision to go to war or he deliberately misled us into war.
AMY GOODMAN: The number of raids you were involved with?
SGT. JOHN BRUHNS: The number of raids I was involved with, I estimate probably about a thousand. What we would do — how these raids would occur and why we would go on the raids is this: Let’s say there’s a roadside bomb, an IED goes off in our sector one day, and then the next day there’s an RPG attack, and then the day after there are some sporadic gunfire at U.S. troops. Well, a battalion commander reasonably would call a mission, and he would say, "You know, let’s go into the sector. We’ll quarantine it, and we won’t let anybody in or out. And we’ll send the infantry in, and we’ll do cordons and searches," which are raids, "and we’ll go house to house, and we’ll look for weapons, we’ll look for bomb-making material, we’ll look for anti-U.S. propaganda, any intelligence at all that would lead to the insurgency."
So you go there in the middle of the night, and you want to catch them — you want to catch the Iraqis off guard. So you enter the house fast and furious. You kick down the door, and you run upstairs, and you get the man of the house and you get him out of bed, and his wife is laying next to him. It’s Baghdad, it’s July, it’s August. His wife sometimes may be exposed, because of her night garments in the middle of the night, which is humiliating for that woman and for that man and for that family. And you separate the man from his wife, and if he has children, you put his family in a room, and, you know, you put two soldiers on the door, outside the door, to make sure that his family stays in that room. And then you get — we had interpreters, so we would take interpreters with us throughout the house. And we would have the man of the house, and we would interrogate him over and over again. "Who are the insurgents? Do you know who they are? Are you with them?" And, you know, basically we would tear his house apart. We would, you know, take his bed, turn that upside down, dump his closets, his drawers, if he had them. I mean, just anything.
And I would say eight out of 10 times we never really found any intelligence at all within these homes that would lead us to believe that these people were members of the insurgency. What they were was just Iraqis in their own communities. And we came in there, and we came in uninvited. And I believe — and I don’t blame this on the U.S. military at all. I don’t. I blame this on George Bush. But when you’re involved in a military operation like that, you enter these homes as if you’re going after the enemy, as if you’re going after bin Laden himself, when, for the most part, they’re just families living in their homes, trying to get a night’s rest before they get up and go to work in the morning, if there is work for them. And it’s just — I believe that this created a lot of resentment among the Iraqi people, causing them to join a resistance movement against U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And the impact on you and your fellow soldiers of having to conduct these constant raids and realizing that many of the people that you were dealing with were perfectly innocent? Did you — in your times when you were off duty, did you talk about it among yourselves? And what kind of conversations? And the impact that it had on you psychologically?
SGT. JOHN BRUHNS: Well, it had a tremendous psychological impact on me, because, you know, a lot of these raids and a lot of these cordon and searches did not — you know, they were not very productive. Now, there were times when we did catch people that we would, you know, label so-called terrorists. But like I said, for the most part they were just Iraqis, Iraqi people, Iraqi families in their communities, you know, carrying on their daily activities, their lives. And we would go in there and disrupt their lives and make life difficult for them in our hunt for an unidentifiable enemy. That’s the problem.
When you’re in Iraq, you do not know who the enemy is. They know who you are. If you’re on a patrol in a market and somebody opens fire on you and the U.S. military, I mean, if we respond — if we return fire in that direction with overwhelming firepower and, let’s say, a 13-year-old girl gets killed, you’re just going to have to assume right then and there that her father and her brother and her uncles — they’re not going to say, you know, Saddam was a bad guy and thank the United States for coming in here and liberating us. They’re going to say, "If the United States never came here, my daughter would still be alive." And that’s going to cause them to join the resistance. And when they do join the resistance, President Bush says, "They’re al-Qaeda. They’re al-Qaeda." But they’re not. They’re just regular Iraqi people who feel occupied, and they’re reacting to an occupation.
AMY GOODMAN: Sergeant Bruhns, talk about the day you were sent into a house that you believed there were Syrian terrorists or insurgents inside?
SGT. JOHN BRUHNS: Yes, ma’am. Well, we were — my squad leader called a meeting and said that he had gotten word from the company commander that there was a Syrian resistance movement within a home in our sector and that there were Syrian terrorist fighters in the house and that what we were going to do was that our squad was going to, you know, basically kick in the front door and go in and apprehend these Syrians, who supposedly were in there with weapons waiting to shoot at us. And that just didn’t sound right to me.
And it was getting very close to the time that I was supposed to be leaving Iraq. So I said to my — I was the — see, when you have an infantry squad, you’ll have your squad leader, then you’ll have Alpha Team, and you’ll have Bravo Team. I was Alpha Team leader, and my job was to go in the front door, arrest the Syrians, while Bravo Team conducted the cordon outside. So I said to my squad leader, I said, "Hey, you know what?" I said, "If you’re so sure and if our commander is so sure that there is a Syrian resistance movement in this home, I’m going to go in there, and I’m — I mean, if you’re just going to send me through the front door two or three weeks before I’m going to go home, I’m going to shoot everybody in there. I mean, if you’re going to put me in that situation, they’re not — they’re probably not likely to — they’re probably unlikely to be willing to turn themselves in." And they’re like, "No, they’re in there, and we have to get them." So I sarcastically said, "Well, you know what? You might as well just pull a Bradley up to the front of the house and fire a TOW missile through the front window, if you’re that sure." Like I said, I said that sarcastically.
And when the raid went down — and I actually was selected to stay outside that night, because my squad leader could tell that I really wasn’t too happy about the intelligence report that we received — they sent in a different team. And when they went inside, it was just a family. There was an old man inside, a few children and a woman. There were no Syrians.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Garett, a final comment from you. I’d like to ask you, this whole issue of an occupation force — you have a situation where United States soldiers obviously, from a religious standpoint, racially, linguistically, have nothing in common with the Iraqis that they are there supposedly to protect. Could you talk about that sense of being totally a fish out of water in Iraq?
SPC. GARETT REPPENHAGEN: Well, I mean, it was obvious, you know, that the majority of U.S. soldiers do not fit in. I mean, the military, U.S. military, is made up of a lot of different people, and there are Iraqi Americans in the U.S. military, there’s Lebanese Americans, there’s a lot of Middle Eastern Americans in the military, so some people do fit in. But the majority of us, yeah, you know, we don’t speak the language. You know, most of us are not Muslim. Most of us, you know, do not look Arabic.
So the contrast is very real, and the division, once you’re there and you’re being told to give these people democracy and they’re shooting at you and trying to kill you, it creates a lot of tension, and the American soldiers begin to hate the Iraqi people. The Iraqi people hate the American soldiers. And the bottom line is, we’re not seen as peacekeepers. U.S. forces in Iraq are no longer seen as peacekeepers by the Iraqi people and most of the Muslim world. We’re seen as occupiers and invaders, and that undermines our ability to keep the peace there, it undermines our ability to do our jobs, and it undermines our national security here at home. So right now it’s a very complex situation, and the animosity is growing. And there’s no cure other than removing ourselves from Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: Final question to Sergeant John Bruhns: You were at the news conference yesterday with Senator Harry Reid. What do you want to happen right now? What do you want the U.S. government to do, the Bush administration, Congress?
SGT. JOHN BRUHNS: I would like Congress to draft binding bipartisan legislation that requires President Bush to bring our troops out of Iraq. This is a man that does not understand the meaning of the word "bipartisanship." We have to fight fire with fire when it comes to President Bush. He’s stubborn. He refuses to acknowledge his mistakes. And he’s in his own little world when it comes to Iraq.
So now, Congress, as a co-equal branch of government, has to do — they have to do their job. They have to carry out the will of the American people. Over 70 percent of the American people want an end to this war. So my message to Congress is: You can stand with Bush, or you can stand with the American people. Bring our troops home.
AMY GOODMAN: On that note, I want to thank you both very much for being with us. We’re going to be heading to Denver next to speak with some soldiers. Sergeant John Bruhns served in Baghdad with the Third Brigade, First Armored Division, First Battalion; Specialist Garett Reppenhagen, cavalry scout and sniper with the 263rd Armored Battalion in Iraq. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report.
One of the soldiers quoted in The Nation article is Sergeant Camilo Mejia, a National Guardsmen from Miami who served in Iraq for six months, beginning, yeah, April 2003. While on a two-week leave in the U.S., Mejia refused to redeploy to Iraq. He was the first U.S. soldier court-martialed for desertion, was ultimately sentenced to a year in jail. We interviewed him in March of 2005. Here, he describes a typical U.S. military raid on an Iraqi household.
CAMILO MEJIA: Well, you would get information on people setting up improvised explosive devices, known as IEDs, and people mortaring Army bases. And based on this intelligence, you would set up — you would come up with a plan and, depending on the size of the target, you know, it could be down to a squad level all the way up to a battalion level, and you would pretty much surround the whole place and go in there, you know, set up a security element, a casualty collection point, and then go in there with your squad, depending on whatever mission you had, and just raid the home. You go in there 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, put everybody from the household in one room and then take the owner of the house, who is usually a man, you know, all through the house into every room, open every closet and everything and look for weapons and look for, you know, literature against the coalition. And then get your detainees and move out.
AMY GOODMAN: Could you read the literature?
CAMILO MEJIA: No. Because it was in Arabic. So it’s really hard. And the intel was really bad, too. Sometimes they would tell us, you’re looking for a man, you know, who’s 5’7", dark skin, has a beard, which is like about 90 percent of men in Iraq.
AMY GOODMAN: Sergeant Mejia also described the treatment of Iraqi prisoners by the U.S. military.
CAMILO MEJIA: […] areas made by concertina wire, which is worse than barbed wire, and they had military police units bringing in detainees. And then you had what we call "spooks" in the military, which are people that no one knows who they are or where they come from. They wear no unit patch or anything. And they pretty much made an initial assessment, and they decided who was or who wasn’t an enemy combatant, and then we separated these people into groups. And those who were deemed enemy combatants were kept on sleep deprivation. And the way we did that was, when we arrived there, we relieved another unit, and then they told us the easiest way to do that is just by, you know, yelling at these people, telling them to get up and to get down — they were hooded prisoners — yell at them, tell them to get up and get down, let them sleep for five seconds so they’ll get up disoriented, bang a sledgehammer on a wall to make it sound like an explosion, scare them, and if all of that fails then, you know, cock a 9mm gun next to their ear, so as to make them believe that they’re going to be executed. And then they will do anything you want them to do. And in that manner, keep them up for periods of 48 to 72 hours, in order to soften them up for interrogation. And these were the kind of things that, you know, they were asking the infantrymen to do.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Another soldier quoted in The Nation article is Army Reserve Specialist Aidan Delgado. He served in Iraq from April 2003 to April 2004, where he was deployed in Nasiriyah and Abu Ghraib. Soon after his arrival in Iraq, he sought conscientious objector status and turned in his weapon. We interviewed him in December 2004. He described witnessing U.S. soldiers abusing in killing Iraqi detainees.
AIDAN DELGADO: I found some things that were just really disturbing, like I discovered that the majority of prisoners at Abu Ghraib weren’t even insurgents. They weren’t even there for crimes against the coalition. They were there for petty crimes: theft, public drunkenness. And they were here in this horrible, extremely dangerous prison. That’s when I began to feel, oh, my God, I can’t believe, you know, I’m participating in this. And then there was sort of a series of demonstrations or prisoner protests against the conditions, against the cold, against the lack of food and the type of food. And the military’s response to these demonstrations was, I felt, extremely heavy-handed. I’m not going to say it was illegal. I don’t have the background to bring a legalistic challenge, but I will say that it was immoral, the amount of force they responded with. I mean, I think I shared some images of prisoners beaten to within an inch of their life, or dead, by the guards. And five prisoners that I know of were shot dead during a demonstration for what amounted to throwing stones.
AMY GOODMAN: Aidan Delgado did get conscientious objector status. Camilo Mejia served almost a year in jail. Before we go to break, Laila Al-Arian, co-author of this almost full magazine piece in The Nation, "The Other War: Iraq Vets Bear Witness," your quick comment?
LAILA AL-ARIAN: Following up on what Sergeant Mejia said about the poor intelligence on which these raids were based, several of the veterans told us that, in fact, on a number of occasions raids were based on Iraqis trying to settle family feuds with each other. They would approach the U.S. soldiers and tell them that family members or their neighbors were insurgents, and that would simply be enough to raid a home. And in one case, a son told the soldiers that his father was an insurgent, and they raided the middle-aged man’s home, and only to find out that the son actually just wanted the father’s money that was buried in the farm.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And you also — some of the soldiers indicated that the Army was paying for information — right? — so that there was also the monetary incentive for people to give tips that may or may not be accurate.
LAILA AL-ARIAN: Definitely. That was something that also troubled some of the soldiers.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to Denver after break to speak with two more soldiers. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to two other soldiers, two other vets of the Iraq war quoted in The Nation article. Staff Sergeant Timothy John Westphal served on the outskirts of Tikrit for a yearlong tour in Iraq. Sergeant Dustin Flatt served with the 18th Infantry Brigade in Iraq also for a year. They both served from February 2004 to February 2005, joining us from Rocky Mountain PBS in Denver, Colorado. Juan?
JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes. I’d like to begin with Sergeant Dustin Flatt. We’ve been discussing a lot of the house raids that occurred by U.S. soldiers, but also many violent incidents occurred around convoys with civilians. And in your interview, you talked about some very chilling situations that you were involved in: deaths of innocent civilians as a result of them coming into contact with U.S. convoys. Could you talk about that?
SGT. DUSTIN FLATT: Yes. The innocent deaths happened at different times, different places and different occasions. Convoys were commonplace. The only incident I have firsthand knowledge of was a convoy that was actually not our convoy. It was a convoy had just driven by us. And an Iraqi vehicle with a mother, three daughters and an older teenage son who was driving the car were following a convoy too close. It got too close, and they shot into the car. It was a warning shot, and it ended up killing the mother. And they actually pulled the car over, or the son pulled the car over right next to us, and we just happened to be near a hospital in Mosul at the time. And the mother was obviously dead, and the children were just crying and asking if they could actually get into the hospital.
AMY GOODMAN: So the mother was dead. The three little girls, what happened?
SGT. DUSTIN FLATT: Right. The three little girls, we just — we took them and just — the last time I saw them they were on the side of the road just crying. They had no idea what had just happened. And it was funny — it was with another unit — it was a unit actually that we were attached to in Mosul, and on the back of their last Humvee in the convoy, they had a sign that read, "Stay back 100 meters." And after that, we took our interpreter, our Iraqi interpreter, up to the sign to see how far away he could read it, and he had to be within about 30 or 40 feet before he could read it.
JUAN GONZALEZ: You also mentioned, I think, a checkpoint situation, where an elderly couple was killed at a checkpoint, and then their bodies were just left for several days, that you would drive back and forth and you’d still see them there?
SGT. DUSTIN FLATT: Yes, depending on — that happened in different cities, too. Again, up in Mosul, there was an instance where one of our platoons — I think an elderly couple just stumbled upon one of our — an area where some of our guys were, and they had gotten too close and were driving, you know, just a little too fast, and that’s it.
You know, our rules of engagement — we’ve got, you know, set rules that you follow, you know, verbal commands, using signals, shooting warning shots, and all of that happens very quickly when somebody’s coming at you at 50 miles an hour, which I can see happening.
In any of these circumstances, I don’t necessarily fault the soldiers who did it. I don’t think it’s — they’ve been put in a place where they have to make these split-second decisions on whether someone is a threat or not. And in a place where you don’t understand anything and can’t tell the difference between an enemy and just a regular civilian, I can see where soldiers are making these decisions.
AMY GOODMAN: In both cases, Sergeant Dustin Flatt, in the case of the mother being killed with her three little daughters in the car and the case of this elderly couple, what was your response and the conversations you were having with the other soldiers? How did this affect you?
SGT. DUSTIN FLATT: I believe — well, actually, we were part of a very — TJ and I were part of a very disciplined unit, or at least we believe so. Our chain of command was fantastic. We very much admired them. We talked about different things all the time and about our rules of engagement and that sort of thing. And it got to a point — at this instance, actually, up in Mosul when we were attached to a different unit that a different mentality, it was —- we didn’t come to blows, but there were many times when it came close, when we were actually screaming at each other, telling them to knock it off, that they were just shooting indiscriminately at people. You know, I think that -—
AMY GOODMAN: Like when?
SGT. DUSTIN FLATT: There were times when you were just driving down the road, and another car — just like we would in America — would come at an intersection, and they wouldn’t see you coming. You’d be in a convoy of four Humvees. And, of course, everywhere you went you went at, you know, at a pretty good clip. All of the sudden, a car would come up on an intersection, and they would fire on a car just because they approached the intersection. They would literally directly fire into the vehicle.
There were times when we had to — there was one specific time when the Humvee in front of me from the other unit fired into this car, continued to drive past it. We stopped right in front of it, jumped out to see if the people inside were OK, because they were obviously of no threat. We jumped out, looked. Windows were shattered by bullets. I grabbed the guys inside, and I grabbed our interpreter, and I’m screaming at him, going, "Ask them if they’re OK!" Somehow they lived through it. But the fact that they just shot the car and continued to drive on was pretty much a daily occurrence.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And when these accidents occur, and civilians are shot or killed, what were the rules or the orders that you had, as to what the responsibilities were of the soldiers who were involved with these people who were shot or killed?
SGT. DUSTIN FLATT: I think with our specific company, we’d do whatever it took to help the people in the first place. If there was any way that we could evac them to a point to get medical attention, we would. It depended on the circumstances at the time, too. If we had been in the middle of battles or firefights at the time, I think it was a completely different situation. You know, mission first, and then take care of the, you know, collateral damage, I guess you could say, at that point. We did our best to take care of the innocents. I don’t know about other units. I had a completely different feeling about the unit we were attached to in Mosul. Our other times in Tikrit or Samara or any other place was usually with our unit, and our unit was very disciplined when it came to that sort of thing.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Staff Sergeant Timothy John Westphal, TJ Westphal, who served on the outskirts of Tikrit for a year-long tour with the 18th Infantry Brigade, First Infantry Division, beginning in February of 2004. Talk about that summer night in 2004, the farmhouse you raided.
STAFF SGT. TIMOTHY JOHN WESTPHAL: That summer night will stand out in my mind for the rest of my life. That was really the turning point for me, when I realized that our involvement in Iraq was something that I wasn’t proud to be a part of. You know, you understand that as an American soldier, we’re all volunteers. We love our jobs, we love our country. We grew up watching John Wayne storm the beaches of Iwo Jima and idolizing World War II heroes, and so forth. So there’s a tremendous amount of pride that we all felt and that we all had in our jobs. And for me, that eroded that summer night in Iraq.
I was the patrol group leader in charge of a raid, which we conducted on an Iraqi farm. And it was the middle of the summer, very hot outside, definitely over 100 degrees, had about 40 or so guys. My particular squad, our job was to jump the wall — every Iraqi home has a wall — my job was to take our guys over the wall, infiltrate the compound. And there were several houses within the farm compound. And we were told that there were insurgents, bomb makers, living at this residence.
So my men and I jumped over the wall. There were 15 or so other guys outside pulling a cordon, or perimeter security. We went inside and found a big — basically a big cluster of people laying outside. And in Iraq during the summer, many Iraqis sleep outside, because it’s just too hot to sleep inside. We weren’t sure what to expect. We just saw a big clump of bodies. It’s dark. There’s no exterior lighting in the compound. So I told my guys to get their flashlights ready. All of our flashlights are mounted on our weapons, so anywhere your flashlight is pointed your weapon is pointed also. I had my guys surround the clump of people who were sleeping outside and told them basically, "On the count of three, we’re going to light them up and see what we have under here. Be prepared for anything. These guys could be armed. So just be on the lookout."
So I counted to three. I basically just kicked the clump of people there to wake them up, turned on my flashlight, and all my guys did the same thing. And my light happened to shine right on the face of an old man in his mid-sixties. I found out later he was the patriarch of that family. And as we scanned the cluster of people laying there, we saw two younger military age men, probably in their early twenties. Everybody else — I’d say there were about eight to 10 other individuals — were women and children. We come to find out this was just a family. They were sleeping outside.
The terror that I saw on the patriarch’s face, like I said, that really was the turning point for me. I imagined in my mind what he must have been thinking, understanding that he had lived under Saddam’s brutal regime for many years, worried about — you know, hearing stories about Iraqis being carried away in the middle of the night by the Iraqi secret service and so forth, to see all those lights, all those soldiers with guns, all the uniform things that we wear, as far as the helmet, the night vision goggles, very intimidating, very terrifying for the man. He screamed a very guttural cry that I can still hear it every day. You know, it was just the most awful, horrible sound I’ve ever heard in my life. He was so terrified and so afraid for his family. And I thought of my family at that time, and I thought to myself, boy, if I was the patriarch of a family, if soldiers came from another country, came in and did this to my family, I would be an insurgent, too.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And you say that that was a turning point for you. In what way?
STAFF SGT. TIMOTHY JOHN WESTPHAL: It was a turning point for me in the sense that — you know, prior to going into Iraq, both Dustin and myself, we talked about this many times in the days leading up to the war. We came into Iraq after the initial invasion, so we had a chance to see a little bit of the buildup to the war, as well as the actual invasion piece. And several of us, including Dustin and myself, were very much opposed to the Iraq War. However, we chose to go, number one, out of a sense of loyalty to each other and our unit; second, because we were hoping as leaders, as combat leaders, leaders of soldiers, we would be able to influence those young men to make good decisions and not do things like kill indiscriminately or let their emotions get into their decision-making abilities. So that’s why we chose to go. And again, because this is our profession, we were very proud of what we were doing, even though we opposed the mission itself, are proud to serve with our brothers and to be a part of something like that.
However, that night — and that was about halfway through my yearlong tour — that night I really admitted to myself — and it was a very hard thing to do, but I admitted to myself that America is not the good guy in this thing. And, you know, if you factor in that you have these young men who most of them are high-school-educated — some have a bit of college, some do have college degrees — but the education level, for the most part, is high school graduates only.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Sergeant Westphal, we only have about 30 seconds left. I’d like to ask you: You went in in February 2004. Did you ever expect that we’d be in this situation now, more than three years later?
STAFF SGT. TIMOTHY JOHN WESTPHAL: I never imagined that America would ever get to this point. I never imagined that the American public would be so apathetic as they have been, in my estimation. A lot of them don’t listen to the stories we tell. There’s a reason that all these guys got together for this article, because they have a commitment to the truth, and we definitely want the truth to be out there, that America has brought terror to the country of Iraq, and that’s something that we have to deal with.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think the U.S. soldiers should be brought home now?
STAFF SGT. TIMOTHY JOHN WESTPHAL: Absolutely. You know, I support the United States military. I’m a soldier. I always will be. I’m tremendously proud of the men I served with. However, yes, I do believe that we need to bring our troops home right now, because all we’re doing is making more terrorists and more people who hate America.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Staff Sergeant Timothy John Westphal, TJ Westphal, and Sergeant Dustin Flatt, speaking to us from Rocky Mountain PBS in Denver Colorado. And that does it for our broadcast. Also special thanks to Laila Al-Arian, who’s the co-author with Chris Hedges of this magazine-long piece, "The Other War: Iraq Vets Bear Witness" in The Nation magazine. Thank you for joining us.