The Veterans For Peace caravan came through Hinesville, Georgia last week. It was the first time since the start of the war that a group from the Peace movement had held any actions in this military town, home of the Third Infantry Division, the division to invade Iraq.
Hinesville is a quiet community whose resident population includes many veterans from wars as far back as World War II. Yellow ribbons still circle the trunks of giant oaks and pines in the center of town, but they belie the true support the community of Hinesville has given to Ft. Stewart soldiers over the years.
In 1971, the community of Hinesville joined together to create a waiver program meant to offer real support for the men and women stationed at Ft. Stewart. This program was a joint effort between business members in the community to ensure that soldiers and their families were taken care of while they served their country. Local landlords offered discounts on rent, waived security deposits and offered lower rates on storage when the soldiers were deployed. Local utility companies participated as well also offering to waive security deposits, and local businesses gave discounts to soldiers and family members who visited their stores.
Hinesville doesn’t wear its political bent openly. The community members don’t actively protest the war, nor do they rage against those who do. The community of Hinesville quietly supports the soldiers who serve, knowing the difficulty of the times. Veterans talk together about how the war has changed and how frustrated they are at the lack of any real results. They speak of the administration’s decisions with a wisdom that comes from having served and seen war firsthand, and they acknowledge the efforts to alter the course of the war with equal intellect.
Are we ready for that change in course?
It is time to bring the war to an end and to begin the process of bringing our soldiers home. But the community of Hinesville knows there is much about this country that is not ready for the return of 200,000 combat weary members of the military. The soldiers of the 3rd Infantry have been to war three times in the past five years. Many of the members of the 3rd Infantry were in Afghanistan before being sent to the invasion of Iraq rather than redeployed home. The community of Hinesville was here for the soldiers when their families were told they would be stop-lossed in Iraq for months past their scheduled return dates. They were here when the soldiers were told they would be returning to Iraq just one very short year after they had arrived home.
At Warrior Walk on Ft. Stewart there are currently 320 trees standing in memorial to the members of the 3rd Infantry who gave their lives in Iraq. As we walk around the grounds of Winn Army Hospital we pass soldiers with artificial limbs, a permanent limp, and in wheelchairs all trying to recover from the war that seems to go on forever. The community of Hinesville knows, cares and does what it can to support them and their families. Veterans have not forgotten and they understand how much is needed when the war comes home.
Do we understand what we will face when the war is over?
In the year between the first two deployments of the 3rd Infantry there were 191 confirmed cases of child abuse on Ft. Stewart alone. Soldiers returned but we were not ready.
In the next year the soldiers were home following their second deployment to Iraq, there were 138 cases of spousal abuse confirmed on Ft. Stewart. America continued to call for the soldiers to come home, but we were not ready.
As we drive the twelve mile stretch of road that passes through the training areas of Ft. Stewart there are new landmarks along the way. Billboards in bright colors with simple messages, thirty or more, directed at the soldiers of the 3rd ID, ordered to be erected by a concerned installation command:
"Don’t drink and drive."
"Riding motorcycles drunk will kill."
"We care about our soldiers, we want you alive."
Large neon message boards at the exit gates of the garrison proudly display the message, "177 days since our last traffic fatality."
Soldiers have returned home from war alive at least, although far from unaffected. Alongside the memorial posts in the local newspaper reminding us of the lives taken in Iraq we read posts reminding us that soldiers are affected, and while they survived combat in Iraq, they could not survive drinking and driving to forget.
Once again the soldiers of the 3rd ID are heading to Iraq. America is calling loudly for them to be brought home, but America is not ready.
In 2005, the garrison commander of Ft. Stewart, Col. John Kidd, approached the on-post office of the Community Waiver project. At no cost to the military the members of the Hinesville community had operated a project which resulted in a multi-million dollar a year savings for the soldiers and families of Ft. Stewart. With no explanation this Colonel, serving as garrison commander, told the employees of the Waiver project that they had 30 days to collect their papers, close the office and close the door on a community offering which had been serving the needs of the soldiers for over 30 years.
This Colonel told members of the project that they were to disband, and to begin charging security deposits to the soldiers who continued to lease from them. This same Colonel was the Convening Authority for my husband’s courts-martial, a man openly hostile to our attempts to publicize the mismanagement of the installation and the corrupt practices of some members of the command. Col. Kidd determined that my husband deserved to go to jail for his actions, and insisted that it be for no less than 18 months a decision he discussed with the prosecutors in the case even before the charges against my husband had been investigated.
Shortly thereafter, new construction began at the back gate of Ft. Stewart. New town homes appeared, a map for a master-planned community is now displayed, and hard-selling representatives leap exuberantly in hopes of a new sale as cars wind through the entrance with passengers seeking to satisfy their curiosity. The community of Hinesville now understands. It’s hard to sell an over-priced monster to soldiers who don’t really need the burden, unless the community has been detached where is that Colonel now that he is no longer in command?
The Veterans For Peace were well received in Hinesville. Soldiers and their families continue to speak of the event and the information they received about the Appeal for Redress. The community of Hinesville understands the need, but they also understand the need for so much more.
My husband went to prison as a result of his public protest of this war and the lack of support the soldiers were receiving. He spent over a year in prison yet continued to speak of the need for a legal remedy for soldiers to have the right to speak about their concerns regarding this war. The Appeal for Redress does just that. We hope many will support it so that soldiers do not have to face what my husband faced simply for telling the truth.
It is the kind of support our soldiers need, and the kind I wish my husband had been given.
Americans talk about ending the war. Americans talk about supporting the soldiers who fight, and supporting the soldiers who choose to take steps to honorably refuse to further participate in the actions of a war which has shown itself to be unjust, immoral, and to include so many illegal actions.
So many Americans still do not understand, and our soldiers and their families continue to pay the price for their sacrifices while Americans face off over their differences, rather than work together to create a solution.
So we end the war. So our soldiers come home. I can tell you from firsthand experience: America is not ready.
MONICA BENDERMAN is the wife of Sgt. Kevin Benderman, a ten-year Army veteran who served a combat tour in Iraq and a year in prison for his public protest of war and the destruction it causes to civilians and to American military personnel. Please visit their website, www.BendermanDefense.org to learn more.
Kevin and Monica may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org