Voices: What People Think Now

The Inlander | March 12, 2008
Curious that sand is the material that transforms into glass, because when it comes to finding a win-dow into Iraq after five years of war and occupation, the future is clear … as sand.

The war has touched many in this area via death or injury, marriage or divorce. It has been a through-the-looking-glass experience.

In a presidential election year, Republican John McCain says the U.S. needs to stay, possibly for 100 years. Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama say the country needs to find a way out soon.

One local National Guard officer says, “John McCain has got it to a tee — we have to stay there.”

“McCain’s an idiot,” a journalist who has made eight trips to Iraq retorts with equal certainty.

And round and round it goes. Iraq, viewed through the lens of people who have been there, is a shape-shifter of a country. There is progress. There is not. It will work as three states, or two states, or (and not many are sanguine about this) as one state.

We at The Inlander can make no sense of it. We merely offer snippets of conversations:


Idaho National Guard

Notable: He pulled wildly disparate factions into a working provincial government while command-ing a brigade in northern Iraq’s capital Kirkuk in 2005.

“Six or eight months after I came back, I read the government had fallen apart.” A new unit, one with less interest in civil affairs, had taken over. “They were strictly war fighters whereas we did both.”

While frustrated by the annual reinvention of the wheel when units rotate in, and by the ineffective-ness and corruption of the central government, he takes a longer view. “We look at this through Western eyes. We sign agreements and think, ‘Well, come on now.’ But they have grievances that go back centuries.”

The good news: “I have been getting calls from the State Department asking what tools we used to form the government, what agreements we had to reach.

“Our soldiers performed magnificently over there.” Nine died in the deployment. “I carry those sol-diers around with me every day.”


Vietnam-era veteran

Formerly intake counselor, Spokane VA

“Once the invasion started and those men got home we were just swamped at the VA,” says McInroe, the intake counselor for the Spokane Veterans’ Administration hospital until last month. “There were over 900 that I personally interviewed.”

Seventy percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, “come through the door reporting lower back pain. An increasing cause of disability is that damn personal body armor — it’s too much of a load.”

The basic vest with ceramic plates weighs 38 pounds. As the war drags on, soldiers have been or-dered to wear side panels, throat panels and crotch panels. Back and spine problems are especially apparent in soldiers who have served multiple deployments, McInroe says.

“These kids are poor. This is another working class army. And one of the real ironies coming out of this war is working class kids depend on their backs to make a living, and now the government is ru-ining their backs,” McInroe says.


Veterans Service Officers, Spokane

Notable: Both were reprimanded by the VA, which they take as a compliment for aggressive advocacy on behalf of wounded veterans.

“What we are seeing is back injuries, the lower vertebras breaking down, and hearing loss and vision problems from extended use of night-vision goggles,” Custer says. That’s not even counting combat wounds. The pair recently assessed Reservists in the 321st Engineer Battalion, deployed on bomb-clearing missions last year, and found “an 87 percent casualty rate. That’s 87 percent with compen-satable claims — mostly it’s hearing loss and lower back issues,” Custer says.

Such a high casualty rate has swamped claim adjudicators and Gittings, who was severely wounded in Korea, says a big part of his job is dogging the details — fighting denials when the evidence shows the adjudicator “didn’t even look at the file.”


Member, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Hailey, Idaho

Notable: She is perhaps the only veteran publicly against the war in Idaho.

Her “deep breath” moment of openly opposing the war came last summer during a peace rally in North Carolina where there were a lot of Quakers — older, quiet. “Then I saw these young guys mak-ing strong statements and giving first-hand accounts. People standing on a street have limited effec-tiveness, but veterans saying ‘this is what I saw,’ particularly if what they saw was illegal, somebody has to answer.

“Service to your country can mean letting your country know when it’s going in the wrong direc-tion … I’m not sure what part of that people aren’t understanding.”


Boundary County deputy sheriff

Squad leader with Idaho National Guard

Notable: His squad found and arrested one of Saddam’s two-star generals who had been sought for two years.

Who is the enemy? “I’ve been shot at by the Iraqi Army more than anybody over there.”

Is there progress? “In my opinion, no. The fact that it’s gone so long — and we’ve taken down key people and found a lot of weapons caches — and there’s still not super stability. If (new troops) are running the same mission we ran five years ago … to me, I don’t see that as progress.”

The experience was a lot like his day job: “There was a lot of searching of vehicles and searching individuals. Over here it’s ‘I only had two beers,’ over there it’s ‘I was in Kirkuk buying a cow.’”


Independent journalist

Eight trips to Iraq since 2005

Notable: He was kicked out of Iraq by the 4th Infantry Division for writing (inadvertently, Axe says) about classified IED blocker. Returned under British permission.

Who is the enemy? “The enemy is instability.” Just as many soldiers do, Axe points out “the enemy” can be local thugs, feuding tribesmen, Saddam loyalists and on and on. “It is all contextual and situ-ational. In the big picture, the enemy is instability.”

Axe quit a newspaper job to cover the war and didn’t care about the politics or morality. “In fact I tended to be pro-war because I was having fun — I liked the war.” It was a grand adventure going to dangerous places. Then Axe covered a huge battle in Afghanistan (where the war’s very different than that in Iraq, he says). “What’s not fun is watching young guys die, then going to the memorial service and watching their friends weep. It’s hard to watch a whole army cry. … The fun sort of wore off.

“I began to care more about what is this all about, are we making a difference? I used to say I didn’t care about politics, but war is politics.”


Peace and Justice Action League, Spokane

1st Lieutenant in Vietnam

Notable: His comment on discovering the FBI had infiltrated PJALS, “At least we know somebody was reading our Website.”

“I feel for the members of the military. They are just thrown again and again and again back into dan-ger. Anybody who says they were in Vietnam for two years, well, that was their choice. Also the con-ditions (in Iraq) are more stressful. Anybody who gets into a truck or a Humvee is exposed to IEDs. It doesn’t matter if you are a cook or an infantryman.”

PJALS has organized a rally Saturday to observe the upcoming fifth anniversary of the Iraq War.


Idaho National Guard

Notable: He survived an assassination attempt, possibly from an Iraqi Army colonel upset at not get-ting a lucrative contract.

He was a husband, a law student and eager soldier when deployed to Iraq in late 2004.

Now, “I’m fresh off a divorce, sold the house. Graduated law school but I just couldn’t bring my-self to drink the punch … I realized that’s not my path in life. I’m still trying to decide what that path is.” He’s still an eager soldier.

On the war, “My peers want to blame the media for only reporting death and casualties and not the good news. I wonder if they were in the same war I was. Sure, there was good news — we built a daycare/kindergarten in Taza. A couple of months later, a bomb leveled it at 2 in the morning. We in-stalled a well in a little village … but nobody can acquire the parts to fix it. It’s been a slog.”

There’s a toll of multiple deployments (and related issues such as stop-loss, where the military can force a soldier to stay in past the end of an enlistment contract). “Families can only take so much of that. … Well, the fact of the matter is, a lot of families have been shaken apart by this.”

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