Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Kyle Snyder, War Resister, Speaks to Peace & Justice Coalition


Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

At first sight, Kyle Snyder seems like a quite ordinary young man. He’s short, slightly built, and when he came to speak to the San Diego Coalition for Peace and Justice at the Church of the Brethren in City Heights December 4 he was dressed unassumingly in a red hooded sweatshirt and baggy blue jeans. He’s 23 now; four years ago he joined the U.S. Army “for the usual reasons a 19-year-old joins the Army: for the $5,000 signing bonus, college money and medical and dental benefits.”

Snyder didn’t sign up specifically to fight a war, but he was aware enough of the news to realize he might have to. His recruiter was honest enough to admit that Snyder might end up in Iraq, so Snyder asked to be assigned to a construction and engineering unit so at least if he got sent to Iraq he’d be cleaning up the country and helping to rebuild it instead of just destroying things and killing people. According to Snyder, when he went to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, for basic training, “I weighed 25 pounds more than I do now.”

Once he made it through basic, Snyder recalled, “I got advanced training in construction and road-building, which was the only time I actually got to do what I’d signed up to do. My fiancée lost our baby because the military denied her medical care because we weren’t contractually ‘married.’ I tried to get out on medical disability for depression but I wasn’t allowed to because I was assigned to a unit that had already been deployed to Iraq, where it had built the prison at Abu Ghraib.”

More unpleasant surprises were in store for Snyder when he arrived in Kuwait, the dropping-off point for units about to go into Iraq. He was told that instead of doing construction work, his unit had been reassigned and would now do patrols with 50-calibre guns. Snyder got just four weeks’ worth of training on how to use the guns. In addition to doing armed patrols, Snyder recalled, “I became an escort for high-ranking military officials, including a two-star general, moving around Iraq.”

Snyder’s unit was stationed in Mosul, in Northern Iraq near the Turkish and Syrian borders. “My unit did no construction or engineering,” he said. “I saw kids flipping us off and sniper fire, and began to question America’s presence in Iraq after three months. I wanted to reconstruct and bring Iraqi civilians what they needed, and instead we patrolled with a Stryker division.” When he did escort work, Snyder said later in response to an audience question, he wasn’t told where the officer he was escorting was going until they got there.

The last straw for Snyder was when he saw a new member of his unit shoot an Iraqi civilian. “He was not killed, but he was crippled for life,” Snyder recalled. “I asked for an investigation under my rights as a soldier, and was turned down on the ground that they could not question this soldier’s judgment that our convoy was in danger.”

Snyder’s unauthorized departure from the U.S. military took place in April 2005, when he got off a plane in Kuwait, supposedly on his way to a leave to visit his family — and instead made his way to Canada to seek political asylum as a U.S. war resister. “It was a hard decision to leave Iraq and my cadre and friends whom I had fought for and would have died for,” he recalled. “I told them in advance I was considering this decision. I went through a breakdown for one week after my plane went back to Kuwait.”

According to Snyder, he’s one of 28 people currently petitioning the Canadian government for asylum as war resisters. He’s not optimistic about his chances; the Canadians have been considerably tougher on antiwar U.S. immigrants than they were during the Viet Nam war, and while Canada is not involved in the Iraq war they do have Canadian forces fighting as part of the U.S. effort in Afghanistan. One beneficial quirk of the Canadian constitution is that it gives Snyder and his fellow resisters the right to stay in the country until their cases are heard — and many of them, including Snyder, have been waiting over a year for a hearing.

Snyder said that the U.S. military estimates that there are currently 8,000 servicemembers absent without leave (AWOL) in the U.S., and he said up to 40,000 have gone AWOL at some time or other since the Iraq conflict began. “Eight thousand people are AWOL in the U.S., hiding in the shadows, and all they want to do is to be discharged and get on with their lives,” he said. “One-third of all homeless people on the streets in the U.S. now are Viet Nam-era veterans. I don’t want to see people my age living on the streets. I don’t want to be part of the next generation of homeless people.”

On October 31, 2006 Snyder crossed the border back to the U.S. and went to Fort Knox, Kentucky “because Major Brian Patterson had promised me orally that I would be discharged,” he said. “Instead, I was refused because my unit is stateside and it is being deployed to Iraq a third time.” Fearful that he’d either be court-martialed or forcibly returned to his unit for another stint in Iraq, Snyder went AWOL “and since then I’ve been fearful and hate the things that have been said about me.”

The things that have been said about Snyder include the usual hate letters — “People have sent me e-mails saying I should be hanged or shot,” he said — as well as the total rejection of his parents. While the foster parents who actually raised him “are really for me,” Snyder explained, “My father thinks I’m a disgrace, and my mother thinks my leaving Iraq was a sin and I should repent. It’s been 4 1/2 years since I’ve seen them. The first thing I would have done if I’d been discharged was to go to a Thanksgiving dinner with my family. But I don’t want to see them when I’m in this position.”

One thing Snyder did when he returned to the U.S. was hook up with Iraqi Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and join the bus tour they’re taking around the country. Indeed, the bus was parked outside the Church of the Brethren while Snyder spoke and some fellow resisters, including Darrell Anderson and Ethan Crowell, attended the meeting. Anderson briefly took the microphone himself while Snyder was wrapping up an interview with an Associated Press reporter.

“Kyle and I both suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and it’ll be difficult for us to go back to school,” Anderson explained. “We lost our benefits and I’m a disabled veteran. We have this bus and we need to build our own society with our own housing projects, because I can’t relate to people who haven’t served. When Kyle’s resistance is done we’ll need to pick him up from prison — if he’s had to serve time, which we hope he won’t — and take him home.”

So far, IVAW’s own housing project has meant basing the bus in New Orleans and, when it isn’t out touring the country putting Snyder and other IVAW members out as speakers against the war, helping the ongoing cleanup effort more than a year after Hurricane Katrina. Contrary to popular belief, IVAW volunteers said that most of the homes in New Orleans that flooded during the hurricane are in basically good shape and can easily be made habitable again; they don’t have to be bulldozed and replaced by upscale, gentrified redevelopments, as the city government is planning. Snyder savored the irony that he’s finally putting the construction skills the Army taught him to good use and fulfilling his original ambition to benefit people by cleaning up their environment.

Snyder and Anderson were both introduced by a much older participant in the IVAW bus tour: Gerry Condon, a former San Diegan who worked on Latin American solidarity issues in the 1980’s but before that was himself a war resister during Viet Nam. “I actually trained as a Green Beret medic, was given a general court-martial and sentenced to 10 years,” Condon recalled. “I escaped during the trial and spent three years in Sweden organizing against the war and for amnesty for war resisters. I came back in 1975 and went on a 50-city speaking tour. “ He thanked former President Jimmy Carter for granting an unconditional pardon to Viet Nam-era draft resisters — though not to people who went AWOL — as his first act in office in 1977.

Condon’s presence not only provided background on the histories of both Viet Nam and Iraq-era resistance but offered a living link between the two eras. He said he first met the people on the Iraq Veterans Against the War bus in Fort Benning, Georgia, where he and they both came for the annual demonstrations against the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly the School of the Americas (SOA), a U.S.-run training center for combat troops in Latin American countries. Peace activists target this school for protests every year based on accusations that the U.S. is teaching its “students” how to torture civilians and suppress activist movements that threaten U.S.-friendly governments in the region.

After the anti-SOA protests, Condon recalled, he joined the IVAW activists in New Orleans for their ongoing post-Katrina cleanup work. “Then we went to Chicago, where Kyle spoke at 20 schools, including campuses with heavily African-American and Latino student populations where the military recruits heavily,” Condon said. “There are a lot of veterans showing a lot of support. We have the young generation coming together with a lot of us greybeards.”

Condon stressed that he’s under no illusions as to the difficulty of actually stopping the U.S. military involvement in Iraq. “The 2006 election was, more than anything else, a rejection of the Iraq war, but President Bush is only making minor changes and is even considering sending more troops,” he explained. “The antiwar movement needs to step up to the plate like never before. Civil disobedience is necessary, and the veterans are the most important resisters. We need to make it possible for more and more people in the military to stay no to this war and end it.”

“I don’t regret going to Canada, and I don’t regret coming back and becoming part of the war resistance movement,” Snyder said. “There’s not a day that goes by without me thinking about the 500,000 Iraqis and 3,000 Americans who have died. I support the troops but oppose the war. I want my friends home so I don’t have to question anymore. I don’t believe in the Bush administration. One minute I’m looked at as a hero, and the next as a traitor. It’s difficult for me to understand that kind of logic.”