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On Veterans Day, Vets of Iraq and Afghanistan and their supporters Face Trial for Antiwar Protest

StoryNovember 11, 2008
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Today, on Veterans Day, we turn to the voices of veterans who are speaking out about the crimes they committed and the impact of the war on their lives. Ten antiwar veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and five civilians pleaded not guilty Monday to charges of disorderly conduct at a protest last month outside the final presidential debate. We speak to IVAW member Sgt. Matthis Chiroux, who refused an Iraq deployment after fighting in Afghanistan; and Aaron Glantz, an independent journalist who reported extensively from Iraq and has been covering the stories of American military veterans since his return. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s Veterans Day. Fifteen antiwar veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and their supporters pled not guilty on Monday to charges of disorderly conduct. The Hempstead 15, as they’re now known, were arrested last month at an Iraq Veterans Against the War demonstration outside the final presidential debate at Hofstra University here in New York. When they attempted to cross the police line to enter the university and ask the candidates a question about war, the police charged the crowd with horses. Fifteen veterans were arrested. One of them, Nick Morgan, was trampled and brought to the local hospital with a broken cheekbone.

Nick Morgan addressed a crowd of supporters outside the Nassau County courthouse after their arraignment on Monday.

    NICK MORGAN: I just want to thank everyone for coming out, first of all, in support of myself and my fellow Iraq Veterans Against the War and the very brave civilian supporters that we had out there with us today.

    You know, I hope that a lot of you, especially from this area, are as appalled as I am at actions of the Nassau County Police Department and the gross violations to the Constitution that all of us veterans swore to protect and uphold against all enemies, foreign and domestic. And, you know, it’s kind of sad when a veteran, who was discharged honorably after serving a tour in Iraq in Baghdad, you know, can’t come here and peaceably assemble, redress our grievances.

    And, you know, in turn, we abided by police orders. We were on the sidewalk. And, you know, as far as I’m concerned, we were brutally attacked. I was, at any rate.

    So, you know, we just need to keep putting pressure on these people, and, you know, hopefully justice will be served. Thanks a lot, everybody.

    SGT. MATTHIS CHIROUX: Nassau County has added insult to injury, but I am grateful and I am thankful and I am overwhelmingly happy to report that every single member of the Hempstead 15 pled “not guilty” today. And we are going to fight this thing out. This is unacceptable. We cannot be brutalized and silenced and told that we don’t have the right to oppose those who are taking away our rights and literally trampling everything that is to be American.

AMY GOODMAN: Matthis Chiroux and Nick Morgan, both Iraq Veterans Against the War, speaking to a crowd after their arraignment on Monday.

Today, on this Veterans Day, we turn to the voices of today’s veterans who are speaking out about the crimes they say they committed and the impact of the war on their lives. In March of this year, hundreds of veterans and active-duty soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan gave eyewitness accounts of atrocities committed by US troops. We played portions of the testimony for three days. This is an excerpt of those hearings called “Winter Soldier 2008.”

    JASON WASHBURN: We were allowed to shoot whatever we wanted. It was deemed to be a free-fire zone. So we would roll through the town, and anything that we saw, everything that was saw, we engaged it and opened fire on everything.

    GEOFF MILLARD: In less than a minute, put 200 rounds from his .50-caliber machinegun into that vehicle. That day, he killed a mother, a father and two children. The boy was age four, and the daughter was age three.

    MIKE TOTTEN: General Petraeus, you may not remember me, but you once led me. You’re no longer a leader of men. You’ve exploited your troops for your own gain and have become just another cheerleader for this occupation policy that is destroying America. General Petraeus, you pinned this on me in Babylon in 2003 following the October 16th incident. I will no longer be a puppet for your personal gain and for your political career.

    JON MICHAEL TURNER: I just want to say that I am sorry for the hate and destruction that I have inflicted on innocent people, and I’m sorry for the hate and destruction that others have inflicted on innocent people. At one point, it was OK. But reality has shown that it’s not and that this is happening and that until people hear about what is going on with this war, it will continue to happen and people will continue to die. I am sorry for the things that I did. I am no longer the monster that I once was. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from the Winter Soldier hearings that took place this past March.

I’m joined now by Matthis Chiroux here in New York. He is a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War. He did serve in Afghanistan, but when he was called to deploy to Iraq, he said no.

Welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: Your thoughts on this Veterans Day, Matthis, coming yesterday from, well, being charged with disorderly conduct for the protest outside the last presidential debate?

SGT. MATTHIS CHIROUX: Right. Well, I mean, certainly my heart is heavy today, anyway, you know, as it is Veterans Day, for the sacrifices of veterans throughout the history of this country. I think the total number of people who’ve died in uniform since the beginning is around 1.3 million, and that’s a staggering number. It’s beyond something that I can even imagine.

And my heart is further heavier by the injustice dealt to Americans’ veterans yesterday in Nassau County. You know, after peacefully assembling to have our redress —- or our grievances redressed, to have our issues heard by the candidates, we were brutalized, we were wrongfully arrested, we were imprisoned, we were harassed. And afterwards, we’ve been made to fight tooth and nail to ensure that the entirely false narrative that the Nassau County Police Department would have the world believe is overturned and that people are exposed to the shocking video of Nick being trampled and that they do understand that right now Nassau County couldn’t be further away from supporting the troops than George Bush.

And certainly, my heart was heavy yesterday when they decided to go ahead and charge each and every last one of us with the exact same crime and exact same narrative, despite the fact that half of us were pulled off of the sidewalk. And -—

AMY GOODMAN: Horses were used against you on that night of the presidential debate? It seemed so tame inside.

SGT. MATTHIS CHIROUX: It was the furthest thing from tame outside. It was nothing short of combat, except in this situation we couldn’t reengage. All our supporters could do was take it. There was violence, rampant violence, 100 percent of it from the Nassau County Police Department.

AMY GOODMAN: What was the message you were trying to bring to the debaters, to John McCain and Barack Obama?

SGT. MATTHIS CHIROUX: Right. Well, as I know I don’t have to tell you, Amy, veterans’ issues and even the war in Iraq was definitely missing from this campaign this season, especially as the economy crumbled over the past few months. And this comes at a time while we’re still actively engaged in two wars. I mean, this war isn’t even over, and this country is moving towards forgetting its veterans and forgetting its troops. And we went out there to try and do something about that.

That is a dire situation, and a lot of people’s lives depend on VA funding and troops being taken care of. And so, it was an emergency. It was our last chance to put pressure on these candidates to do the right thing.

And we were responded to, as I said, by police brutality and then being charged yesterday with disorderly conduct on the Marine Corps birthday and then having to, you know, deal with that today on Veterans Day. Rather than coming together and being veterans and considering our sacrifices and our experiences, we are fighting the Nassau County Police Department, who would make people in this country believe that veterans are criminals for exercising their constitutional rights to be heard.

AMY GOODMAN: Yet I’m sure many of them are veterans, and I bet a number of the vets who have come home want to be police or are police. You served in the military for five years. You went to Afghanistan, said no to Iraq. You refused to deploy. You were not facing court-martial charges until this protest?

SGT. MATTHIS CHIROUX: Well, I was actually sent a letter about a week afterwards from the military, a week after this protest, which announced their intentions to prosecute me for misconduct. I had forty-five days from when I received the letter to respond to the military. I’ll be responding to them probably next week with an official demand for a hearing, which I will demand a court-martial.

Last May, when I promised not to go to Iraq, I also promised not to leave the country, and I promised to fight any charges that the Army brought. And that promise is as good today as it was last May. And I will be demanding court-martial. I will be moving forward to try and prove that a soldier refusing to deploy to Iraq is not misconduct; it’s in fact very much in keeping with not just the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Constitution, but human conscience and even, you know, combat dignity. What’s going on right now is so far outside the traditional heroic narrative of war, anyway, that we’re just having soldiers kept in situations where they’re having to engage with an insurgency and doing this — literally, I witnessed soldiers training to fire at civilian-clothed military personnel holding weapons.

And Winter Soldier is something that you were playing a little bit earlier here, and that, Winter Soldier, maybe changed my life.


SGT. MATTHIS CHIROUX: When I met Iraq Veterans Against the War, I was suffering from my call-up orders. I was set to deploy to Iraq just several months after I joined IVAW, and I told them when I first joined. And furthermore, I said, “I’m totally against this war. I believe it’s illegal. But I feel like I have a responsibility to go anyway.” And I think that’s a sentiment that a majority of soldiers share who are over there: I don’t agree with this, I don’t believe it’s legal, but I feel I have a responsibility to go.

And after being questioned so many times, well, if you believe the war is illegal, don’t you have a responsibility not to involve yourself? And I said, “Yes, but” — you know, I could shake that off and say like, you know, “Well, I’m just doing this out of the most honorable of intentions.”

And then I watched Winter Soldier, and I realized that that story is what leads people to Iraq and then leads them back home to participate in the antiwar movement, you know, partly in remorse for what they did and what they experienced.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go right now to Aaron Glantz. Matthis Chiroux, again, said no to war in Iraq, after serving in Afghanistan. And Aaron Glantz is an independent journalist, who has reported extensively from Iraq, from the invasion to 2005, has been now covering the stories of American military vets since his return. He co-authored with Iraq Veterans Against the War the book Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan: Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations. And his forthcoming book is called The War Comes Home: Washington’s Battle Against America’s Veterans. His latest article is up on The Nation's website, called “On Veterans Day, Don’t Forget About the War.”

Your numbers, your figures, your statistics, Aaron, are quite remarkable. As you talk about the lack of the coverage of war in the headlines and the pain that veterans are suffering when they come home, like suicide, can you go through those figures?

AARON GLANTZ: Thank you, Amy. First of all, it’s important to think about the fact and the irony that while Matthis Chiroux and Nick Morgan and the other members of IVAW were being beaten by the police outside of the presidential debate, inside the presidential debate John McCain and Barack Obama didn’t even use the word “Iraq” or the word “Afghanistan.” It was like they were forbidden by the FCC. In the closing days of the campaign, only two percent of all news coverage was about the war. And yet, we have a tremendous crisis with veterans coming home from these wars. We have eighteen veterans committing suicide every day in this country. We have 200,000 veterans sleeping homeless on the street every night.

AMY GOODMAN: I have to stop you there. I want to just stop you there: eighteen veterans a day? Where are these figures coming from?

AARON GLANTZ: The government, the Department of Veterans Affairs. And, in fact, the government tried to cover this up. CBS News was doing an investigation, and there was an internal memo sent by the head of mental health from the VA, and the headline of it was “Shh! Don’t tell CBS News that eighteen veterans kill themselves every day in this country.”

AMY GOODMAN: Keep going on with those figures.

AARON GLANTZ: Well, we have 300,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who have post-traumatic stress disorder, flashbacks, mental wounds from the wars. We have 320,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who are suffering from traumatic brain injuries, which is physical brain damage caused by roadside bombs, because, as you know, Amy, we have excellent body armor in this war, but there’s nothing that can be done to prevent somebody flying out of their Humvee and into a wall after a roadside bomb explosion. And so, people come home, and they have lost their short-term memory. They have lost some of their hand-eye coordination, and they don’t understand why. And all too often, this is because of a traumatic brain injury, which both traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, the RAND Corporation estimates that only half of the veterans suffering from these two signature injuries of the Iraq war are getting treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs or the Pentagon.

AMY GOODMAN: Aaron Glantz, your subtitle of your forthcoming book, War Comes Home, Washington's Battle Against America’s Veterans. What do you think is most important right now to take place on this Veterans Day, your message? Then I’ll ask Matthis.

AARON GLANTZ: Well, if you read the article that I wrote in The Nation today — it’s “On Veterans Day, Don’t Forget About the War” — we’re in a moment in this country where people deeply want to move on. They want to embrace the change that Barack Obama is trying to bring us. They don’t want to think about the words that the veterans said at Winter Soldier. They don’t want to think about these terrible war crimes. They don’t want to think about the fact that 300,000 veterans have come home and filed disability claims with the government. They don’t want to think about the fact that perhaps one million Iraqis are dead. These are all uncomfortable for us to think about.

But if we don’t think about them and we don’t engage with this question, then we will have a repeat of the disgrace that followed the Vietnam War. And now we have so many Vietnam veterans sleeping homeless on the street, we have so many Vietnam veterans committing suicide, we have so many Vietnam veterans still tortured by their wartime experiences. Now is the time that we can prevent this from happening all over again, if we only pay attention and act.

AMY GOODMAN: Aaron Glantz, I want to thank you for being with us, and Matthis Chiroux, as well. That does it for our broadcast. The War Comes Home and Winter Soldier are their books.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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