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Antiwar Veterans Redefine Veterans' Day

Healing From Empire

by CLARE BAYARD

“Today we asking for more than a moment of silence. We are demanding justice.”

This statement, published in a Veterans’ Day open letter from the Central Illinois chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), explains the spark lit in cities across the country for Veterans Day this year.

Last Thursday, antiwar veterans and their supporters marked Veterans Day with a range of coordinated events around the country. Until the 1950s, November 11th was known as Armistice Day to commemorate the end of World War I. This year, members of IVAW and their civilian allies evoked the original meaning of this holiday through building up Operation Recovery, a campaign to transition this country out of our declared “endless war” and heal some of its wounds.

Operation Recovery: End the Deployment of Traumatized Troops was launched this past October 7th, on the tenth anniversary of the Afghanistan War. It seeks to end the military’s abusive practices of deploying soldiers suffering from traumas including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and Military Sexual Trauma (MST). IVAW’s research estimates that approximately 20% of active duty troops are suffering from untreated trauma; many servicemembers have shared stories of being denied treatment as well as punished and mocked for seeking it, even as military suicides continue to rise.

This campaign is one step towards IVAW’s broader goals to not only ensure the right of servicemembers to heal, but also to end the wars and occupations, deliver reparations to Iraq, and hold accountable the people who are responsible.

Operation Recovery events included an art opening and Warrior Writers workshop in Chicago; street outreach in New York, Philadelphia, Champaign-Urbana, IL and Manhattan, Kansas; outreach on bases to active duty soldiers at Fort Riley, KS and Fort Lewis, WA; teach-ins and organizing meetings in Savannah, GA and San Francisco, CA; and the public surrender of an injured AWOL soldier at Ft. Campbell, KY.

Picture This When You Think of Veterans Day

Among this year’s Veterans Day events for Operation Recovery, Army Specialist Jeff Hankspublicly surrendered himself in a press conference across from Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. Spc. Hanks went AWOL to resist redeployment to Afghanistan this fall after the military refused to treat him for severe PTSD. Supported by military and civilian allies alike, Hanks and other veterans testified about the military’s negligent and often abusive treatment of even severely traumatized soldiers seeking care.

Spc Hanks decided he wanted to turn himself in publicly to draw attention to these widespread practices. Hanks, his wife Christina, and their two young daughters are still awaiting the Army’s verdict, trying to keep up hope despite their anxiety. If he is court-martialed, he could face up to 2 years in prison, and a lifetime felony conviction on his record. At worst, the Army could attempt to forcibly deploy him again.

At the gates of Ft. Campbell, 25 supporters from across the Southeast stood with Jeff Hanks as he told his story to 15 news cameras. Another AWOL soldier from his unit traveled to join the rally, disclosing similar experiences. One supporter explained that her husband, who is currently deployed, was sent against medical advice. Over the last week, a number of other soldiers gone AWOL from the 101st due to mental health struggles have reached out to Operation Recovery for support.

Visibility and support are important factors influencing not only morale of traumatized troops and their families, but can impact the military’s treatment of people who go public. Aaron Hughes of IVAW shared with supporters that “Jeff’s command was extremely hostile when he turned himself in on Veterans Day, but after [Jeff was interviewed by Katie Couric in a] CBS story aired on Friday, they changed their tune.”

At the same time, Operation Rescue unfolded in other forms around the country. On the University of Illinois campus in Champaign-Urbana, IVAW members and civilian antiwar organizers publicly mounted a large display board counting off past year of Army suicides, with 334 bold tally marks. The striking art drew veterans, students including Iraqi-Americans, professors, and workers into conversations with the organizers.

“It felt like an important presence to have because there were so many pro-military groups, including the military themselves, who were there using the day to drum up support for the wars. We effectively inserted a different understanding of what it means to support the troops, which is to bring them home,” said Sarah Lazare from the Civilian-Soldier Alliance, who helped organize the event.

In San Francisco, 50 people gathered from a range of veterans’ and civilian organizations to launch Operation Recovery on the West Coast. IVAW members traveled from four states across the West. Leaders visited from Coffee Strong, the G.I. Coffeehouse at Ft. Lewis, WA, that provides critical support and community to questioning soldiers. IVAW members explained the campaign and strategized local steps with people from over 15 organizations and at least 5 cities. Thursday’s event built on the momentum of the previous Sunday’s annual Veterans Day march in San Francisco. This year kicked off a multi-year set of healing ceremonies and events led by veteran and non-veteran members of the Ohlone Nation, working alongside Veterans for Peace.

Veterans Breaking the Silence

The November elections revealed a striking wall of silence around war as a campaign issue. Politicians across the spectrum seem to be finding it expedient to keep people from thinking about or discussing the wars. Interestingly, at the same time mainstream coverage of PTSD and other health issues for veterans has increased. The various forms of violence that people experience in the military, and the effects of bringing war home in their bodies, have long been taboo subjects in this country. But veterans and their loved ones are refusing to continue quietly confining these health and safety impacts to their own homes and bodies.

The increasing visibility of this campaign not only lifts public awareness, but is breaking through the isolation often affecting traumatized servicemembers and their families. Advocating for individuals’ cases creates the building blocks for this growing movement, which ultimately aims to end the circumstances causing this damage.

“We’re excited to help Jeff get the help he needs, but this is not over. We intend to hold the people responsible for this accountable,” says Chantelle Bateman, a field organizer with Iraq Veterans Against the War who accompanied Spc. Hanks into Ft. Campbell as he surrendered himself.

Nobody is a Bystander

This moment calls for the mass participation of veterans, their families and friends, and everyone who is aching for ways to actively reclaim this country from war. Operation Recovery offers concrete and powerful ways to involve a real grassroots movement in turning the tide. IVAW encourages veterans and their communities to contact them directly. The rest of us have the opportunity to apply ourselves in a number of ways to build up the capacity of war resisters who are pushing back from inside the military.

Here are some ways to get involved:

Sign the Pledge and learn more about IVAW’s work and the campaign.

Support Operation Recovery and Spc. Jeff Hanks financially– we are the ones who must come together to generate the needed legal defense and organizing funds in order to take on the military, backed by its mammoth budget.

Raise funds through raising awareness in your own circles, and bringing your community into the loop: Hold a house party for Operation Recovery (contact IVAW field organizer Joe Callan at zkjcallan@ivaw.org).

Write a supportive letter to Spc. Jeff Hanks and his family, as his wife Christina has requested. Even a quick note makes a difference. Email to: CMH1more30@yahoo.com.

Help us build networks of skilled people who provide health services and other basic needs to support veterans transitioning to civilian life. The campaign team is plugging in lawyers, therapists, doctors, acupuncturists, and others who are donating their talents and time to build a network that can meet needs the government ignores. Networks like this are key elements in sustaining healthy communities in hard times. The patient and hard work being put into building these networks up, driven in this case by the staggering needs of veteran communities in health crisis, can be done in a way benefits everyone.

Outreach to veterans is the backbone of this campaign. You or people you may know can help. Are you or do you know any social workers, healthcare workers, college students or professors, other providers of services that veterans are accessing or people who work with homeless and transitional populations (where veterans are disproportionately represented)? Do they know about Operation Recovery, and that veterans are organizing to demand their right to heal as part of challenging these wars?

It’s time to turn away from war and towards healing and rebuilding. For the countries we’ve devastated, for the internal health of our schools and healthcare and basic societal needs, for the children growing up now knowing the decision-makers of this country have already given up on them, and for the soldiers who have decided that lives, including their own, are valuable.

CLARE BAYARD organizes with the Catalyst Project and War Resisters League, building a G.I. resistance movement that challenges U.S. empire, and connecting domestic racial and economic justice organizing with international movements against militarism.