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Iraq Veterans Against the War: Decade-Old Group Grapples with New War, PTSD Epidemic, VA Failures

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Image Credit: Jonathan McIntosh

Ten years ago, six members of the U.S. military came together to break their silence over what they had witnessed during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. They banded together and formed the organization Iraq Veterans Against the War, or IVAW. Over time, they gathered like-minded veterans across the United States to form a contemporary GI resistance movement. Celebrated its tenth anniversary, IVAW members say it is a bittersweet moment as the United States has resumed bombing in Iraq. Today, IVAW chapters are in 48 states and numerous bases overseas. The group has called for reparations for the people of Iraq and Afghanistan — for both human and infrastructural damages caused by the U.S.-led invasion. They have also called for adequate healthcare to be provided at VA facilities, including mental healthcare, for all returning veterans. We host a roundtable with three IVAW members: co-founder Kelly Dougherty, who was deployed to Kuwait and Iraq from 2003-2004; Brock McIntosh, who served in Afghanistan and applied for conscientious objector status; and Scott Olsen, a former marine who served two tours in Iraq and was critically wounded after being shot in the head by a police projectile at an Occupy Oakland protest.

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StoryMay 27, 2013Scott Olsen, U.S. Vet Who Nearly Lost Life at Occupy Protest, Brings Antiwar Message to NATO Summit
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Ten years ago, six members of the U.S. military came together to break their silence over what they had witnessed during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. They banded together and formed the organization Iraq Veterans Against the War. Over time, they gathered like-minded veterans across the United States to form a contemporary GI resistance movement. Each of the members has a personal story about why they joined the military, what they witnessed when deployed, and how they came to oppose the U.S.-led invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is Jose Vasquez, executive director of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

JOSE VASQUEZ: I grew up in a pretty tough situation in California. As a high school student, I felt like I didn’t have a lot of options. The only person that was really actively reaching out to me was the Army recruiters. I had some experience with the military, because my dad was drafted for Vietnam, and my uncle served in the Gulf War. So, for me, it seemed like this is something that the men in the family did.

I was against the Iraq War from the beginning. I think in 2004 that was really a turning point for me, when the Abu Ghraib scandal broke. One of my close friends, who I served in the Reserve with, was deploying to Abu Ghraib, and so it really made it personal for me. It kind of brought the war home. For a while I thought I was the only soldier that was opposed to the war, but I started doing research online, and I stumbled across Iraq Veterans Against the War. It was the only place where I heard the voices of soldiers and veterans who were speaking out against it.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Jose Vasquez, executive director of Iraq Veterans Against the War, or IVAW. The group just celebrated its 10th anniversary. They say it’s a bittersweet moment, as a decade later the United States is back in Iraq. Today, IVAW members are in 48 states and numerous bases overseas. The group has called for reparations for the people of Iraq, for both human and infrastructural damages caused by the U.S.-led invasion. They’ve also called for adequate healthcare, including mental healthcare, for all returning servicemen and women.

Well, for more, we’re joined by three of the members of Iraq Veterans Against the War. Kelly Dougherty is the group’s co-founder. She deployed to Kuwait and Iraq from 2003 to ’04. Brock McIntosh is an IVAW member who served in Afghanistan from November 2008 to August 2009. He applied for conscientious objector status and was discharged in May 2014. And Scott Olsen joins us, former marine who served two tours in the Iraq War and was critically wounded—not in Iraq, but after being shot in the head by a police projectile at Occupy Oakland, where he was protesting. He was hospitalized in critical condition with a fractured skull, a broken neck vertebrae and brain swelling. He, too, is a member of IVAW.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! I should say “all back to Democracy Now!” since at one point or other we have had each of you on. Kelly, you’re gathered here in New York for this 10th anniversary?

KELLY DOUGHERTY: Yes, last night we had a 10th anniversary gala fundraiser, and it was a time for us to reflect on the work of the past 10 years. And as you said, it’s bittersweet, because we’ve been building this community to counter war, to counter militarism, and yet now here we are again bombing Iraq. So, you know, we’re celebrating our victories and also recognizing the losses, both with war and militarism and then losses within our community, of our friend Jacob George, recently passed away.

AMY GOODMAN: And I want to talk about Jacob in a moment, but, Brock McIntosh, what are your thoughts on the current bombing of Iraq and Syria?

BROCK McINTOSH: Well, you know, I think the media has often portrayed ISIS as being some organization that just suddenly emerged over the last year or so, but this is the same exact organization that many of my allies in IVAW were fighting when they were in Iraq. And, you know, nearly 10 years of going to war with ISIS, with several hundred thousand American soldiers on the ground, wasn’t able to eliminate ISIS. So, it’s strange to think that some limited airstrikes over the next few years will be able to destroy ISIS. And reports from the FBI have shown that recruitment for ISIS has actually grown since we’ve started bombing them.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott Olsen, how did you come to fight in Iraq?

SCOTT OLSEN: Well, I joined the Marine Corps right after I joined—graduated high school. You know, our country was at war. I felt like it was the right thing to do, to step up and to defend our freedoms and democracy, right?

AMY GOODMAN: Where did you grow up?

SCOTT OLSEN: In Wisconsin. And right after I joined, I went to Iraq within about a year, after I joined the Marine Corps. And that was in 2006. And I was in al-Anbar province, where it’s a majority Sunni population, which is where the Islamic State is making huge recruitment gains, and it’s the population that they are recruiting.

AMY GOODMAN: And your thoughts right now on this renewed war in Iraq?

SCOTT OLSEN: I mean, yeah, it’s a renewed war, but it’s really the same war. Just because we left, just because our military left, does not mean the war was over. You know, it’s the same conflicts and the same tensions that we played a big part in stoking. And, you know, these are the consequences of war. You know, 10 years later, it’s the same thing.

AMY GOODMAN: The most senior U.S. military officer has said U.S. ground troops may be needed in Iraq as part of the Obama administration’s offensive against the Islamic State. General Martin Dempsey, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee last month.

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY: As I said in my statement, however, this—my view at this point is that this coalition is the appropriate way forward. I believe that will prove true. But if it fails to be true and if there are threats to the United States, then I of course would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of U.S. military ground forces.

AMY GOODMAN: Kelly Dougherty, your response to that?

KELLY DOUGHERTY: Well, I find it just a little ironic that it seemed, over the course of the Bush administration, the country really turned against the occupation of Iraq and wanted the troops to come home, and then last year, when we saw a proposal to bomb Syria, there was great opposition, but now, with all the fear mongering that’s been going on, it seems like just kind of overnight now a majority of people support bombing Iraq, bombing Syria, and even the idea of sending more troops back into Iraq, which just seems like a recipe for just continued long-term destruction and catastrophe, both for the U.S. soldiers involved and then for the people of Iraq who have been living generationally in war and conflict. I mean, so many of these fighters in ISIS now are people who were kids when I was in Iraq, you know, living in a constant state of disorder, violence and conflict and occupation.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. Our guests are Kelly Dougherty, co-founder of Iraq Veterans Against the War, or IVAW, deployed to Kuwait and Iraq in 2003 and '04; Brock McIntosh, served in Afghanistan; Scott Olsen, twice in Iraq. They're all members of Iraq Veterans Against the War, celebrating their 10th anniversary, as the U.S. goes back to war in Iraq. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: That’s Jacob George singing “Soldier’s Heart.” This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Jacob George is an Afghanistan war veteran and peace activist who took his own life earlier this month. He co-founded the Afghan Veterans Against the War Committee, part of Iraq Veterans Against the War. In 2012 at the NATO summit in Chicago, he was among the veterans who hurled their military medals toward the summit gates in an act of protest against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

JACOB GEORGE: My name is Jacob George. I’m from the Ouachita Mountains in Arkansas. I’m a three-tour veteran of the Afghan War, paratrooper and sergeant. And I have one word for this Global War on Terrorism decoration, and that is “shame.”

AMY GOODMAN: Jacob George killed himself September 17th, one week after President Obama unveiled a new U.S. military mission against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. He was 32 years old. Our guests are all members of Iraq Veterans Against the War—Scott Olsen, Kelly Dougherty and Brock McIntosh. You knew him well. You knew Jacob George very well.

BROCK McINTOSH: Yeah, we were good friends. We met a few months after I got back from Afghanistan. We co-founded the Afghanistan Veterans Against the War Committee with other veterans. And then, a year after that, we went to Afghanistan again, but as civilians.

AMY GOODMAN: To do what?

BROCK McINTOSH: Well, we met with a group called the Afghan Peace Volunteers, which has been doing wonderful organizing against the occupation of Afghanistan and organizing for an end to war in general in their country. And we also went to several schools, orphanages and an internally displaced persons camp. And Jacob has sung about those experiences in his recent album.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what happened to Jacob?

BROCK McINTOSH: Sure. Jacob deployed to Afghanistan three times. His first deployment was in 2001, which was about 13 years ago. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Why did he go? Where did he come from?

BROCK McINTOSH: Where did he come from?

AMY GOODMAN: Where did he grow up? Do you know?

BROCK McINTOSH: Oh, yeah, he grew up in Arkansas in the Ouachita Mountains. He was a very, very proud hillbilly. And returning to Afghanistan was a powerful experience for him, because he got to meet Afghans who were also from the mountains of Afghanistan. They called themselves “mountain boys,” and he called himself a hillbilly. And, you know, he and the Afghans he met talk about the unfortunate reality of sending farmers to kill farmers while people are starving. And there are several people starving in Afghanistan because of war for 30 years and drought.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, can you talk about Jacob’s struggles when he came back to this country?

BROCK McINTOSH: Sure. You know, he saw a lot of killing in Afghanistan, and he also talked about seeing fear in the eyes of Afghans. And the idea that he could put fear in someone kind of haunted him. And he had lots of nightmares when he returned, and felt kind of isolated and didn’t really tell his story. But over the last few years, he’s had the opportunity to tell his story and to build long-lasting relationships, not only with other veterans who are like-minded, but also with Afghans.

AMY GOODMAN: Jacob had this philosophy of what he called “warriorhood.”


AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what that is?

BROCK McINTOSH: Sure. So, a soldier is a career professional, and they go to work, and then they come home, and they are able to compartmentalize the job of going to war and coming home. And a warrior is someone who is—being a warrior is a way of life, and they are driven by empathy. They see injustice, and they want to do something about it, and they fight. But they also—the empathy isn’t limited to—isn’t limited. They have empathy for the people that they’re fighting, as well. And that’s part of what makes them good in battle, but that’s also part of why they bring so much pain home, because they feel that pain, and they begin to understand the enemy in a different way.

AMY GOODMAN: Was he able to seek help from the VA, from the Veterans Administration, for post-traumatic stress disorder?

BROCK McINTOSH: I know that he had been seeing a counselor at the VA for some time, but he was having a lot of difficulty, because this counselor would push back and sort of question him about whether or not he was right about his interpretations of war. He didn’t believe that he had PTSD; he believed that he had moral injury, that it wasn’t a disorder to feel the way that he felt about war and that he was justified in being able to recognize that it wasn’t moral and to be able to tell people about that story.

AMY GOODMAN: When we went out to Chicago to cover the NATO protest in 2012, that’s when we covered so many of you who were throwing your medals back at the gate at the NATO summit. Jacob did that. We just played a clip of what he said as he hurled his medals. How important was that protest to him?

BROCK McINTOSH: I mean, he talked about how throwing that medal was like throwing his pain away. It was a symbolic moment. He believed a lot in rituals. And for him, that was sort of a ritual and a way of shedding, shedding that aspect of his identity.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott, I remember seeing you there with a helmet on. You wore a helmet for a long time after Occupy Oakland, after your head was hit by a police projectile. Can you talk about the VA and your experiences with it?

SCOTT OLSEN: Sure. I first tried applying for health coverage from the VA, you know, within months after I got out. And—

AMY GOODMAN: After two tours in Iraq.

SCOTT OLSEN: After two tours in Iraq. And I’ve now been out for almost five years, and I’ve yet to see a doctor from the VA.

AMY GOODMAN: How can that be?

SCOTT OLSEN: That’s because I have what they call an “other-than-honorable discharge,” and that makes me ineligible to receive care from the VA. And there are thousands of veterans with an other-than-honorable discharge. And—

AMY GOODMAN: And how did that come about, the other-than-honorable discharge?

SCOTT OLSEN: I was accused of using drugs in the military. And I didn’t. And the process to award an other-than-honorable discharge is that there’s no, like, rights, in terms of the defendant.

AMY GOODMAN: So you couldn’t appeal what they decided.

SCOTT OLSEN: Right, it was just three officers appointed by the battalion commander who made this decision. And there was no oversight and no way around it, really.

AMY GOODMAN: And once that decision is handed down, you cannot go through the VA system?

SCOTT OLSEN: Well, after you get out—and I’m working on a process to get that, to get my discharge upgraded and for them to recognize the character of my service.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain what happened to you, not in Iraq, but at Occupy Oakland, and then the kind of healthcare you got after that, if you couldn’t go to the VA?

SCOTT OLSEN: Well, I ended up going to a private hospital.

AMY GOODMAN: The date that you were hit?

SCOTT OLSEN: October 25th, 2011, is when I was shot by the police.

AMY GOODMAN: And you were there protesting because?

SCOTT OLSEN: Mostly because I thought it was wrong that the police evicted Occupy Oakland from this public space in front of City Hall in Oakland. And I thought it was important to support Occupy Oakland as veterans and to say veterans support these rights that we thought we were fighting for.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, explain what happened that night—not that you can really remember very much of what happened.

SCOTT OLSEN: Well, the incident commander from the police gave the order to disperse the crowd.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you wearing your fatigues?

SCOTT OLSEN: I was wearing my cammy jacket, and I was standing next to another veteran in full uniform. And the officer gave the order to deploy gas. And about 16 seconds after he gave that order, I was shot in the head by a beanbag round. It was their policy to protect tear gas canisters using beanbag rounds, so anybody who they thought was going to pick up and throw back a tear gas canister, they would shoot beanbags at them.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what happened to you laying on the ground? As you speak, we’re also showing video of you at the time.

SCOTT OLSEN: Another officer threw a flash-bang grenade at myself and the people who were trying to rescue me and evacuate me. And this officer was terminated last year, and he was recently rehired with back pay.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, you’re being carried by people. They don’t even know who you are. I remember seeing the video and them shouting, “What’s your name? What’s your name?”

SCOTT OLSEN: Right, and I could not answer. And I didn’t know I couldn’t answer. I did not realize the extent of my injuries in those seconds. And when I couldn’t answer them, that helped me accept that I was not doing well and I needed their help.

AMY GOODMAN: So you ended up not at the VA?

SCOTT OLSEN: Right. I went to Highland Hospital, the public hospital in Oakland, and received care there. And I still have gotten zero care from the VA.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Scott Olsen, who sued the city. Explain what happened with your lawsuit. There was just a recent settlement.

SCOTT OLSEN: Right. We settled in this past April for a total of four-and-a-half million dollars.

AMY GOODMAN: And this was voted on by the Oakland City Council?

SCOTT OLSEN: Right, they approved it. And it was through their City Attorney’s Office that we arrived at that. And it’s very good to have that lawsuit over. It was a very stressful period. But, you know, it’s still not over. That officer is still working for the Oakland police, and Oakland police still has poor disciplinary measures and processes.

AMY GOODMAN: And how are you feeling?

SCOTT OLSEN: I’m not feeling good about Oakland police or about going back into war, but I’m feeling ready to resist that and to keep fighting for—to right these injustices.

AMY GOODMAN: This issue of post-traumatic stress disorder and the return to Iraq and Syria, there’s not a lot of discussion in the corporate media about the soldiers, because, well, there’s been this whole discussion of whether there will be boots on the ground. But the top generals are very much talking about that, not to mention those who fly what they call “sorties,” you know, who bomb Iraq and Syria. Can you talk about that, soldiers who are not on the ground but who are doing this, Brock?

BROCK McINTOSH: Yeah, drone pilots and people who operate drones—drones usually involve a team that involves about four or five different people. And they are not immune to—they’re not immune to being mentally troubled by their experiences in war. And, you know, just to go back to what Scott was talking about, there are studies that show that soldiers who come home with PTSD are often more likely to commit crimes, and that means they’re more likely to be dishonorably discharged. And in some ways, these are the people who need help the most from the VA.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you know what Jacob George’s reaction was to the U.S. military going back into Iraq and now bombing Syria?

BROCK McINTOSH: Well, I last talked to him in June, and at that time ISIS was starting to take over Iraqi towns, and he was very troubled by the prospect of going to war. He was also equally troubled when Bowe Bergdahl, the POW from Afghanistan, came home and not only didn’t receive a welcome, but he received the opposite of a welcome—he received nothing but hatred.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to end by asking about the use of depleted uranium in Iraq. Last week, the Center for Constitutional Rights submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Department of Defense and the State Department on behalf of itself and Iraq Veterans Against the War. It seeks the firing coordinates of weapons used in Iraq that contained depleted uranium. If a person inhales, ingests or is exposed to the radiation of depleted uranium, radioactive material can be absorbed into the lungs, bone, kidney, skeletal tissue, reproductive system, brain and other organs. Kelly Dougherty, you’re one of the heads of IVAW.

KELLY DOUGHERTY: Yeah. So we’ve been working with the Center for Constitutional Rights and also with partners in Iraq, such as the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq, around issues of depleted uranium use. They’re seeing in Iraq huge skyrocketing numbers of birth defects and health problems in areas where depleted uranium rounds were used. And then there’s also the issue of returning veterans’ health impacts and similar things. So, we want to see where those weapons were used, so we can start to build a case to support reparations for the Iraqis, as well as guaranteeing that our U.S. servicemembers who are coming back with depleted uranium exposure get the proper recognition and treatment.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, has Iraq Veterans Against the War come out with a statement on the U.S. bombing of Iraq and Syria right now?

KELLY DOUGHERTY: We are working on a statement right now, and that should be out. And, you know, we have seen the human casualties of war. And these are inevitable consequences, is that more and more people are going to be—have their lives destroyed, and more people are going to be radicalized to join radical organizations like ISIS, with our continued militarism in the region.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you all for being with us. Kelly Dougherty, co-founder of Iraq Veterans Against the War; Brock McIntosh, served in Afghanistan; and Scott Olsen, two tours of duty in Iraq, but was injured here at home, when he was protesting at Occupy Oakland, by the police—all members of Iraq Veterans Against the War. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, Jeremy scale on Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Yellow Ribbon,” by Emily Yates, a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War. She says she wrote the song after speaking with fellow veterans about the yellow ribbon magnets people put on their cars. Yates was deployed twice to Iraq, where she served in the 3rd Infantry Division as an Army public affairs specialist from 2002 to 2008. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

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