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“What Have We Been Doing?”: Decorated Veteran Aaron Hughes to Return War Medals at Anti-NATO Protest

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Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will join thousands of protesters this Sunday at the NATO summit in Chicago. We speak to Iraq Veterans Against the War’s Aaron Hughes, who’s among a number of Afghanistan and Iraq war vets planning to return their medals of honor to visiting NATO generals. “[Veterans] have to live with [the] failed policy [of the global war on terror] on a daily basis,” Hughes says. “A decade-long war, what have we been doing? … There’s a real moral disconnect between the idea that our military can build a democracy and the idea that our military is trained and designed to control, dominate and kill people. … Occupations don’t build democracies, don’t extend individuals’ freedoms. The movements—the Arab uprising, the Arab Spring—that was building democracy. The movements of Gandhi, the movements of the civil rights movements here in the United States, people’s movements, that extends democracy, not military force.” [includes rush transcript]

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StoryMay 27, 2013U.S. Army Vets Join with Afghans for Peace to Lead Antiwar March at Chicago NATO Summit
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: On Sunday, antiwar demonstrators will march to the site of the NATO conference in Chicago, the culmination of a week of protests against the NATO-led war in Afghanistan and economic inequality. Several Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans will attempt to return their medals of honor to visiting NATO generals in a solemn ceremony at the end of the march. The protest is being organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War, or IVAW.

AMY GOODMAN: Joining us now in Chicago is IVAW field organizer Aaron Hughes, who has been helping plan the NATO protest. In 2003, he left the University of Illinois when called to active duty, was deployed to Kuwait and Iraq. This Sunday, he plans to return his two war medals: his “Global War on Terror” medal and his “Army Accommodation” medal.

Aaron Hughes, welcome to Democracy Now! Why do this? Why are you returning your medals?

AARON HUGHES: Because every day in this country 18 veterans are committing suicide. Seventeen percent of the individuals that are in combat in Afghanistan, my brothers and sisters, are on psychotropic medication. Twenty to 50 percent of the individuals that are getting deployed to Afghanistan are already diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, military sexual trauma or a traumatic brain injury. Currently one-third of the women in the military are sexually assaulted.

It’s clear that these policies of the global war on terror has had a profound effect on the military, my brothers and sisters, while simultaneously perpetuating a failed policy. And unfortunately, we have to live with that failed policy on a daily basis, and we don’t want to be a part of that failed policy anymore. And we’d like these NATO generals that we served under to acknowledge us, to acknowledge the wrongs that have occurred, to acknowledge our human rights, our right to healthcare, and the rights of the Afghan people and the rights of all these communities, including the communities back at home that are affected by these wars.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Aaron Hughes, can you say a little—it’s a startling figure: 18 suicides a day among veterans. What are the conditions that veterans come back to in the U.S. after these wars, serving in these wars?

AARON HUGHES: The reality is, there’s a massive disconnect that many servicemembers return to, because our culture and our society is not at war. Less than 1 percent of our country is at war. And unfortunately, we’ve been carrying the burden of that war by ourselves. And we come home to poor and failing resources. Unfortunately, when servicemembers are asking for care, they’re not able to receive that care while they’re in the military. And the VA is highly underfunded, overall.

We currently have been working on a campaign called Operation Recovery, a campaign fighting for servicemembers’ and veterans’ right to heal and a campaign to stop the appointment of traumatized troops. And it’s really appalling that when these brothers and sisters get home and they’re asking for help, that the only type of help that they can get is some type of medication like trazodone, Seroquel, Klonopin, medication that’s practically paralyzing, medication that doesn’t allow them to conduct themselves in any type of regular way. And that’s the standard operating procedures. And yet, those are the same medications that servicemembers are getting redeployed with and redeployed on and conducting military operations on. And this is the same medications that, you know, we are trying to reintegrate into the world with. And it’s—the disconnect between what’s happening in Afghanistan and what’s happened in Iraq with the daily lives of everyone here in the United States is just too vast to overcome.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, Aaron, you not only served in Iraq and Kuwait, you also were in the Illinois National Guard from 2000 to 2006. How did you come around to your feelings today, to this weekend returning two of your war medals? When did you change your mind?

AARON HUGHES: Well, I changed my mind in the midst of what I had seen throughout my deployment. I was deployed for 15 months, and I hauled supplies from the border of Kuwait into Iraq. And when you cross—at the time, when you cross the border into Iraq, there’s a concrete barrier there. And on that concrete barrier, it said, “Beware of children in roadway,” because as soon as you cross the border into Iraq, there would be kids, you know, no less than two-, three-feet tall, willing to jump on a semi truck to get food or water. And when I first crossed that border, I was like, “Hooah. These are the kids I’m going to help. These are the kids I’m here to help build a democracy for. These are the kids I’m here to help provide humanitarian relief for.” And those kids were still on the side of the road six months later, and they were still on the side of the road 12 months later, and they were still on the side of the road 13 months and 14 months and 15 months later.

And on my last convoy out of Iraq, I watched my squad leader, Sergeant Holland, cry. He kept saying, “What have we been doing?” That’s something that haunts me every day. What have we been doing? I ask that to everyone, seriously. What have we been doing? A decade-long war, what have we been doing? And the individuals that have to carry those mistakes on a daily basis are the communities in Afghanistan and the servicemembers, that then return to a society with no—with high unemployment and very little care for them when they return.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Aaron, one of the things—of course, one of the main focuses of the summit is going to be Afghanistan, and the NATO secretary general has written recently that NATO’s role is going to shift from combat to training and mentoring ’til the drawdown of forces at the end of 2014. Could you comment on what you think will happen once NATO and U.S. forces draw down from Afghanistan?

AARON HUGHES: You know, I can’t really say what will happen when NATO forces withdraw. But what I can say is what’s happening on a daily basis, is we have traumatized troops there conducting military operations, resulting in a failure. We’re talking about trying to conduct a COIN, counterinsurgency doctrine, and we’re trying to win the hearts and minds, when that’s something that the military has never been trained to do. When I went through basic training, I never once learned about democracy. You know, when I went to—when I got deployed to Iraq, we got about a 24-hour briefing on the culture of Iraq. You know, people spend years studying democracy, studying political science, studying different cultures, in order to have a better understanding. We spend nine weeks learning how to kill people. And that’s the reality. That’s what you’re asked and that’s what you’re trained to do. And there’s a moral disconnect—there’s a real moral disconnect between the idea that our military can build a democracy and the idea that our military is trained and designed to control, dominate and kill people.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Aaron, what—

AARON HUGHES: That’s what our military is trained to do.

AMY GOODMAN: What exactly are your plans—

AARON HUGHES: And yet, we continue to ask it to do the same—to build democracy, as if we’ve never read history, as if we’ve never looked at any other occupation throughout history, and that occupations don’t build democracies, don’t extend individuals’ freedoms. You know, the movements—the Arab uprising, the Arab Spring—that was building democracy. The movements of Gandhi, the movements of the civil rights movements here in the United States, people’s movements, that extends democracy, not military force.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Aaron Hughes, what exactly are your plans this weekend? Can you explain what the action will be, where you and—how many other soldiers do you expect to return their medals?

AARON HUGHES: You know, I can’t say exactly how many specific number of servicemembers and veterans will be participating, but what I can say is that each of these individuals’ voice is extremely important to hear. And we’re collaborating with Afghans for Peace, and they’re—we’re going to be marching directly with them in the very front of the contingent in military formation. And when we get to the concluding site of the march, there will be a stage. And at the top of that stage, we’ll be lowering an American flag as we play “Taps” and reading off the countries that that flag has flown over during the global war on terror, over the last decade of war. And then each servicemember will be invited to come up and speak their piece about why they’re returning their servicemembers—their service medals. No one will be speaking for anyone else. We’re inviting each servicemember and veteran to speak for themselves.

And then there will be—we’ll be conducting a form of reconciliation and performance of some sorts with the Afghans for Peace, just to highlight the fact that we can see past the socially and politically and—walls that have been promoted, similar how the walls have been written here in Chicago. You know, it’s the demonstrators versus the security. In reality, I’ve been security force. I know what it’s like to stand on those lines. And we’re asking all these individuals that are participating in the security, the Illinois Army National Guard, other individuals that are in the services, stand with their brothers and sisters, stand on this side. Don’t stand with the global 1 percent. Don’t stand with these generals that continuously abuse their own servicemembers and then talk about building democracy and promoting freedom. If they can’t live up to their standards of their own servicemembers, standards and—that they’ve written, then how are they ever going to be able to accomplish any other mission that they’ve talked about?

AMY GOODMAN: Aaron Hughes, we want to thank you very much for being with us, field organizer for IVAW, Iraq Veterans Against the War. He has helped plan the NATO protests and plans to return two of his war medals on Sunday at the antiwar march. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report.

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