Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Iraq Vet Paul Rieckhoff Speaks at City College

Also Executive Director of Iraq, Afghanistan Veterans’ Group


Photo: Paul Rieckhoff’s enlistment photo, January 1999. Courtesy of Paul Rieckhoff.

“‘George Bush had better be fucking right,’” begins Iraq War veteran Paul Rieckhoff’s book about his in-country experiences, Chasing Ghosts: Failures and Façades in Iraq: A Soldier’s Perspective. “That’s how I began my journal on April 3, 2003. Writing in pencil in an Army-issue notebook with mint green pages, leaning in on deliberate, hard letters, I underlined ‘better’ and penciled over the words again until they wore through the tactically colored paper.”

“I wrote this book because I got pissed off,” Rieckhoff told an audience at San Diego City College for the third annual City Book Fair October 4. “It didn’t really start out as a book. It started out as a series of letters to my girlfriend, some of it written by flashlight, some of it literally by glow sticks, trying to put down on paper just what I and my soldiers were going through. I was in Iraq in 2003-2004, for about the first year of the war. I was a platoon leader, so I had 38 grunts under my command in central Baghdad for about a year. These letters were kind of like therapy for me, cathartic, whatever you want to call it. It was a way for me to try to chronicle my experiences and just explain all the stuff that was going on in my unit and in my head.”

When Rieckhoff returned home, he didn’t plan on writing a book based on this material — but his then-girlfriend had saved all the letters, burned them to a CD and gave them to him. Then two other people told him that his interest in political activism around veterans’ issues would probably be helped if he assembled the stories in his letters and wrote a book about his experiences. In addition to being an author, Rieckhoff is the executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), a broad-based group of veterans of America’s most recent and ongoing wars that lobbies Congress for veterans’ benefits, including improved Veterans’ Administration (VA) medical care and a stronger GI Bill of Rights with more college funding.

“No matter how you feel about the war, you have a responsibility to take care of the veterans,” Rieckhoff said. In his presentation, he carefully avoided saying one way or the other whether he feels the war was right, and he made clear that his group — unlike the Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) — doesn’t do counter-recruiting or otherwise attempt to discourage people from enlisting. But he said at least part of his motivation for writing his book and working with IAVA was to make sure that the experience of Viet Nam veterans — often treated as scapegoats as the public turned against their war — isn’t repeated.

Though he’s glad to see that three of the four major-party nominees for president and vice-president have sons in the military (“skin in the game,” Rieckhoff called it), he worries about how “veterans become chew toys or political props” in political campaigns. “My story is just a piece of the puzzle,” Rieckhoff explained. “I get sick of policy wonks and Bill O’Reilly talking about the war as if they were policy experts. I think the 19-year-old machine gunner in my unit is more up on the Bush Doctrine than most of the folks in Washington.”

Rieckhoff spent most of his war stationed in an area of Baghdad designated “Sector 17,” which (as he described it in his book) “covered the neighborhoods of al-Wasiriyah and Maghreb, and cut across part of the wealthy Sunni neighborhood of al-Adamiyah. It was bracketed by two bridges that crossed the Tigris [River] to the north and south, and contained a number of key strategic targets. Three ministries — Finance, Health and Labor. Four international embassies — Italian, Indian, Lebanese, and Turkish. And the gem of the sector, Medical City, the largest medical complex in all of Iraq. The ministries had been effectively taken out by the Air Force. The embassies were totally untouched. Medical City was somewhere in between.”

In his book, Rieckhoff describes his unit’s life in Sector 17 as alternating between three assignments: checkpoints, patrols and guard duty. At City College he read a section of his book describing checkpoint duty. Checkpoints are one of the most controversial aspects of the occupation because they restrict the movements of ordinary Iraqis and make it possible for U.S. soldiers to mistake innocent Iraqi civilians for resistance fighters and kill them. In a portion of the book Rieckhoff read at City College, he described what he, his men and any other U.S. soldiers who staff checkpoints are up against.

“Traveling at thirty miles per hour, a car covers 50 meters in three seconds,” Rieckhoff explained. “You have three seconds. Every one of us had three seconds to decide the fate of our platoon, or the fate of a family of Iraqis. We have rules of engagement, and know that the enemy doesn’t play by them. Shoot too late and your squad is torn apart by a car bomb. Shoot too early and you kill an innocent family of five and end up rotting in a military prison for the rest of your life. … During my time in Iraq, my men and I were on all sides of the equation. But I never had a soldier killed or wounded on a checkpoint. Never.”

In retrospect, Rieckhoff told his City College audience, “I’m amazed at how callous and how focused we were, and the magnitude of what we’re asking these 19-year-old machine gunners to do, especially on third, fourth or fifth tours of duty.” But he said another purpose of his book was “to put a face on Iraqis,” because they’ve largely been ignored in the discussion on the war in the U.S. even though they’re both the people we’re presumably fighting the war to “liberate” and its principal victims. “Many Americans think that all Iraqis are running around RPG’s” [rocket-propelled grenade launchers, a principal weapon of the Iraqi insurgency], Rieckhoff said. “Some are, but some are teachers and doctors.”

Many of the duties of Rieckhoff’s unit put him in direct contact with Iraqis. Part of his job was to help train the new Iraqi army — which, he noted ruefully, has been going better since he left. Another was “to provide protection for the Iraqi interpreters, who were left behind by the State Department.” Though Rieckhoff praised both American servicemembers and the Iraqis they worked with for learning much of each other’s languages quickly, the American units were still largely dependent on interpreters to communicate with other Iraqis — and the insurgency has gone out of its way to target and kill interpreters. The State Department has been notoriously tight-assed about giving visas to Iraqi interpreters fleeing the country, but Rieckhoff boasted that two of the interpreters who worked with his unit “are already in the U.S., and there’s a third we’re trying to get out now.”

Much of Rieckhoff’s presentation focused on the issues raised by IAVA, and in particular the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental issues faced by returning Iraq War veterans. “One-third of veterans are dealing with mental issues, and a large part of our work is dealing with those issues and getting more mental health care,” Rieckhoff said. “We’re launching a pretty epic campaign on mental-health injuries, in association with the Ad Council, targeted at veterans, their families and the general public. A ‘mental injury’ is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation — combat — and we shouldn’t let it go any more than we’d ignore a shrapnel wound.”

Asked why many returning veterans themselves are unwilling to seek help for mental illnesses, Rieckhoff said, “It’s a toughness environment. We’re fighting against the military’s culture of strength and fighting on regardless. To his credit, Defense Secretary Bill Gates has tried to change the culture.” One of Gates’s reforms, Rieckhoff explained, was to remove from the application for security clearances the question, “Have you ever been treated for a mental illness?,” which encouraged people who had been either to lie about it or to drop the process out of a conviction that if they admitted it, they’d never get the clearance and their chances for advancement in the military would be over.

Rieckhoff also confirmed reports in magazines like The Nation and The New Yorker that VA doctors are being pressured not to diagnose Iraq War veterans with PTSD, but instead to claim that they had “pre-existing mental conditions” before they deployed and therefore the VA shouldn’t have to cover them. “A Marine who had an RPG blow up next to his head was diagnosed with a ‘pre-existing stress disorder,’” Rieckhoff said — mocking the diagnosis by pointing out that somehow the Marine was considered mentally fit when he enlisted in the first place and again when he was sent into combat. He said his group has “10 demands for the next president” — and “PTSD and disability reform are at the top of the list.”

One of the programs his group has is a voter guide rating all 535 members of Congress on veterans’ issues, which was officially released on October 7 — three days after Rieckhoff spoke — and is available online at According to the score card, California’s two senators, Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both had perfect records on the issues IAVA identified as important — mainly improvements in the GI Bill and veterans’ health care. Of San Diego’s five House members, Democrat Susan Davis also had a perfect score, 15 points.

San Diego’s other Democrat, Bob Filner, and North County Republican Brian Bilbray both scored 12 points. Filner lost points for failing to vote for the first post-9/11 GI Bill (though he’s voted for an IAVA-supported version twice since) or to expand veterans’ benefits, and Bilbray opposed a 2007 bill expanding veterans’ health care (though he voted for a similar bill in 2008) and supporting a weak GI Bill IAVA and all other veterans’ organizations opposed (though, again, he later reversed course and voted for a veteran-supported version). Darrell Issa scored 10 points, and the worst record among San Diego Congressmembers was by self-proclaimed “friend of the military” Duncan Hunter, who missed three crucial votes on veterans’ issues altogether and voted against IAVA on four of the 11 votes he did attend.

Another irony is that, even though he’s basing much of his Presidential campaign on having served in the military and behaved heroically during 5 1/2 years of incarceration as a prisoner of war in North Viet Nam, John McCain’s record on IAVA’s score card is surprisingly poor — only 3 out of the maximum 11 possible for a Senator. “McCain missed 63 percent of the veterans’ votes,” Rieckhoff said. “He missed more votes than Tim Johnson, who was in a coma. McCain has tremendous support among older veterans. He’s got the military experience and a son in the Marine Corps.” Barack Obama’s record is better, though not great — 7 out of a possible 11 (Illinois’ other Senator, Richard Durbin — also a Democrat — got a perfect score) — but, Rieckhoff acknowledged, Obama “was out in front on Walter Reed [the troubled military hospital exposed as offering horribly substandard care] and the GI Bill.”

Asked his opinion about how the war in Iraq is going now and how it’s likely to go in the future, Rieckhoff said, “Quick analysis: Violence has dropped dramatically, especially in Baghdad and al-Anbar province. Why that’s happened hasn’t been addressed. It had to do with the ‘Sunni Awakening’ [the decision by leaders of Sunni tribes, especially in Baghdad and Anbar, to turn against the so-called ‘al-Qaeda in Iraq’ and fight with the Americans against them], Muqtada al-Sadr [Shi’a cleric and militia leader] hitting the pause button, and huge swaths of people who have been internally displaced or have left the country It’s still not sustainable. The Sunny army won’t feel good about being answerable to a Shi’a government. I don’t think it’s all won or all lost. It’s going to be a rollercoaster.” As for Afghanistan, Rieckhoff said that this war has dropped so completely off the political and social radar screen that a lot of people who served there call it “Forgottistan.”

Rieckhoff also fielded a question about whether active-duty servicepeople stationed in Iraq or Afghanistan will be able to vote in this year’s election. He said his group had confronted Veterans’ Administration head Jim Peake, “who wanted to keep voter registration off of VA facilities on the ground that it was ‘partisan.’” Rieckhoff noted another attempt to disenfranchise servicemembers — a new law in Ohio that said you couldn’t register to vote and request an absentee ballot at the same time, which according to Rieckhoff “would have disenfranchised about 46,000 people” if his group hadn’t successfully challenged it.

Asked about his group’s relations with the official military and older veterans’ organizations, Rieckhoff said that groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) “realize that we’re not going away. We’re a cross between VFW and Facebook. Big Army, the Department of Defense and Congress can’t ignore us. A member of our organization meets with the VA every two months. They’re listening, but the big gap is still with the President. We need a President who will make veterans’ issues a priority all the time, not just on July 4 or when it’s politically convenient.”

Regarding how to reach out to veterans and not make them feel like pariahs for having fought in an unpopular war (as many Viet Nam vets were treated), Rieckhoff challenged the City College professors in attendance to “ask veterans to come to your classrooms and communities. Make it a welcoming event. Don’t ask them, ‘How many people have you killed?,” or, ‘Who are you voting for?’ We’re not all villains and we’re not all victims. Maybe you should donate time to a VA hospital, or mow the lawn of a deployed National Guardsperson.”