U.S. Military Refuseniks Tell Heart-Wrenching Stories

I volunteered to help transcribe some of the interviews that Courage to Resist conducted with members of the U.S. military who, in recent years, have wised up and turned their backs on the wars they were sent to fight.

The stories they told were often heart-wrenching, horrifying, and infuriating, but also at times inspiring. It seems hard enough for the rest of us to stick our necks out to oppose the government and its wars — think how much more courage it would take if you were in uniform.

I wrote up a summary of one such story, that of David Cortelyou, back in .

Courage to Resist has just put out a collection of these stories by modern military resisters: About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War.

Here are some excerpts that give you a taste for what you’ll find inside:

Joining up

Kimberly Rivera: One recruiter came to my parents’ house, sat down with me and my parents, and basically gave all the positive reasons of why I should join the military. And then they’re like, “well, if you want, you can just go and take the test and see what jobs you qualify for,” and I’m like, “okay.” So I agreed to go do that, but what I realize is when they first gave their spiel they had my parents sign some sort of… they called it a “permission slip” or something, to just allow them to talk with us, but come to find out that wasn’t necessarily a permission slip to allow them to talk with us, it was a permission slip to allow them to recruit me.

But of course I’m not thinking that the government is playing people like that, because I grew up being told, you know, that America is the greatest place on earth and I had patriotism… it’s just ingrained in you.

So in 2000 I was a junior and I went in, took the test, and then I next had to talk to a military counselor. And when I go to talk to the counselor, he’s the one that’s actually gonna be telling me what kind of jobs I’m gonna qualify for with my scores. The military has over 270… maybe even 300 different types of jobs you can get into now, and they gave me three choices, so that was really odd. So I chose a job, but not knowing that when I chose my job I signed for a military contract. And then after signing it I just had to basically convince myself that I did the right thing and that this was going to be the right choice for me.

It goes through so fast, and as soon as you pick your job you sit in the little place and you basically are waiting to be sworn in. And then from that moment on, I’m like, “you know what? I just joined the military.”

Basic training

Robin Long: In basic training they’re trying to break everyone down and build ’em up the way that the Army wants them to be — we were marching around, singing cadences everywhere about killing people, and blood, and guts and gore — they were kind of dehumanizing the Iraqi people. I was hearing on mainstream media, you know, the United States was going to Iraq for weapons of mass destruction, to liberate the Iraqi people, yet I’m being taught that I’m going to the desert to — excuse the racial slur — to kill ragheads. And that at first didn’t sit very well with me, and so I started asking questions to my drill sergeant, like “why are we calling the Iraqi people ragheads?” and they were like, “well, that’s what they are.” And I told them that I really didn’t feel comfortable with them calling them that, and they… I guess I was picked on quite a bit, I was kind of the oddball at first.…

In the Army you just want to fit in. You don’t want to stand out in any way because they’ll do things like smoke the entire platoon — “smoke” means like intense physical activity for an extended period of time — while I’m watching them, to make them angry at me, because I don’t agree with what the president is saying or what my superiors are saying. So, then, back in the barracks, you know, I get the cold shoulders and don’t really have the friends, so I guess that got me to shut up for a while. Maybe the last month of basic training I wasn’t voicing my concerns… I’m sure there were people that agreed with me. I never talked to any, because I think they saw the way I was treated and they didn’t want that for themselves. So no one would admit to me, but I knew there was some people that were thinking on their own too.

Brandon Hughey: I began to notice that it was not just teaching people how to fight, but it was also completely dehumanizing the other side. It was sorta… a lot of racial slurs, a lot of insults that are just commonly used towards Arab people and towards Iraqi people in basic training. And you began to see that they don’t think of ’em as equal. They think of them as less than us and they seem like they tried to drill that into our heads that they’re not as good as us and they’re less than us. I suppose they do that because when you’re over there it makes ’em easier to point your rifle and kill them.

I’d been taught that all human life regardless of country-of-origin is of equal value. Just ’cause somebody’s from Iraq or the Middle East doesn’t mean that their life is worth less than an American. And in basic training you began to notice that they sort of didn’t share that way of thinking, to put it lightly.

War stories

Ryan Johnson: I started talking to vets that had returned to find out what their experiences in the military were, to find out what their experiences in Iraq were, so I knew what I was getting into, because I’d already jumped into something without getting proper information before I joined the military.

They were telling me stories of watching tanks running over civilian vehicles in the street. They were telling me stories of abusing civilians, shooting civilians, seeing dead children in the street, firing on vehicles at checkpoints and then when they look inside they find the dead bodies of a family with no weapons, or an incinerated child. Horrible stories that gave them constant nightmares and made it intolerable for them to even be in a public crowded place. They were telling me about when they came home from Iraq their families would take them to Disney World and they couldn’t even enjoy it with their family. They had to sit in the hotel room while their family went to Disney World without them.

Brad McCall: I heard the stories that were being told about Iraq, stories and details of atrocities that were being committed against innocent people in Iraq. The vets who were telling these stories were proud of them. They were bragging. They were totally bragging about what they’d done and about what other members of the unit had done. They were laughing about it, and it was just a big joke and they couldn’t wait to go back because they enjoyed killing people.

When I heard these, the first thing I did was I ran to the bathroom and, you know, I got sick to my stomach.… When I got done with that, I went straight to my commander and reported it to him. He said, “Oh, well, we’ll have to have a talk with the veterans and make sure they don’t tell you guys these stories anymore.” That was all that was ever done about it. So from there I really started thinking for myself for once — politically and morally and spiritually — even what my really true hardcore beliefs are.

Skyler James: Soldiers who had returned from deployment were everywhere at Fort Campbell, and they would always talk about what they did to the people over there in Iraq — these are horrible things, and I thought, “Why are they bragging about them and trying to one-up each other?”

Matthis Chiroux: When I was with this unit from Hohenfels, Germany, I actually witnessed when they told Gen. B.B. Bell that only about half of the turrets in their humvees worked, that the other half were rusted to the point that they couldn’t rotate the weapons on top of the vehicles, and that really they were just riding around for show: were they to come under any kind of attack they would be completely unprepared to respond. They would have to basically turn these vehicles on the wheels to aim; they couldn’t twist these turrets around. And the young soldiers of this unit were telling the general about this, and the general was extremely upset and immediately got on a satellite phone and called back to Germany and chewed out one of his guys back there and asked ’em “hey, why do I have soldiers on the ground underneath the control of this Romanian battalion and their gun turrets don’t even work” and “basically, I want somebody here, fixing these things within 24 hours, or you’re fired.”

And from what I heard, that happened. I left the next day, before the inspectors from Bagram showed up, but I saw this as very productive, I saw: hey, this unit has a problem, their weapons don’t work, and they just told the general about it, and now they’re going to get fixed. But what ended up happening was all of these troops got chewed out by their first sergeant and their commanding officer for being whiners and making the unit look bad in front of the general.

That’s one of the things that my fellow Iraq Veterans Against the War are often testifying about is the fact that all of the bad things were going on but that people were failing to report them up the chain because they were afraid of looking bad, they were afraid of being scrutinized as possibly deficient or defective soldiers as part of deficient or defective units, and that that was somehow their fault and they should feel ashamed about that and keep it quiet for the sake of unit cohesion and putting on good appearances for the world and for the commanders.

Turning points

Kimberly Rivera: I worked at the front gate, and every single Saturday, different civilians — just civilians that don’t work with us — come in and put in a claim for restitution basically. And I don’t know what their family has gone through, I don’t know what they have lost, some of them gotten their only rifle in the house taken from them which may be their only security for their family for anybody coming in, and some of them got their young teenage boys and their husbands taken from them and are wondering where they are, and some of them had been traumatically injured.

Well this one Saturday I remember just clear as day, just like I see everybody now that I approach on a daily basis, like I have never left Iraq I see this little girl — she was about two years old, maybe, same age as my little girl back home — and could just I see her shaking. It was like a violent shake, not a seizure-type shake, but noticeable. And tears were just rolling out of her face, rolling down her eyes. She wasn’t weeping, she wasn’t crying, nothing. And kids don’t just cry without screaming, you know? And I knew those were… something traumatizing happened to that little girl that she would have tears of trauma roll down her face. And I was helpless, there was nothing I could do, I was in all my battle gear, I was carrying an M16 assault rifle and it was loaded ’cause I was required to keep it on red-safe when I was on the job. And I was just scared that if I was to just pick her up like I wanted to do and kind of assure her that everything was gonna be okay — even though I didn’t know if everything could be okay, or what happened to her; I couldn’t comprehend how this girl’s dad would have to deal with that, and I couldn’t comprehend, being a mom myself, how I would react to my little girl being that way and knowing that I’m helpless to do anything to help her or even know what’s going on in her mind and the situation that she’s been through. And that was very traumatizing for me because I personally couldn’t imagine ever seeing my little girl the same way that she was…

Older women are so mature and so proud of being alive and they don’t speak a lick of English and they would just come and sit and stare at you while they were waiting to do their claims. And in their eyes, piercing your heart and your soul basically saying “why are you doing this to me? what did I do to you? what caused you to want to hurt my family like that?” And you can feel it. They didn’t have to say it; you can feel it and you can see it in their face. And I couldn’t take that.

I can see just people — Iraqi civilians that worked with us — lose somebody that they just knew, and would rip their clothes and fall down on the ground. I had no idea what the heck was going on. That seems totally not like any type of grief that I’ve ever seen in my entire life. But it was compassion. Compassion I’ve never seen, never felt and don’t even comprehend to this day. And that was amazing to me, that I could see that people that don’t even know each other but know what’s going on in their lives, that they would have that much compassion for one another that they would be grieving.

Getting out

Kimberly Rivera: My sergeants knew I was going through a lot of stress, and when I finally got my two-week leave I guess they ere afraid that I was not going to come back. So they decided to pull me in and have a little chat about why not to desert. They said basically they could do anything they wanted to me — not just ruin my life, but they could also, if they wanted, make an example of me and kill me during a time of war. That came from their mouths. But by this time there was nothing that they could say or do to scare me straight.

We were on the road for about two weeks, just in and out of different places. And I was super-paranoid.… I’ve seen the drag-outs myself. In Kuwait we did the trainings for taking prisoners and clearing out rooms and houses, so I had some sense of knowing exactly what they did on their raids, even though I’ve never been out on the raids myself. So it’s pretty scary having that SWAT-type training and knowing that the way that you would probably take someone out is the same way that they would take you out.

And so we were hopping around a lot. We weren’t staying in one particular place, we didn’t use the internet, we didn’t get on-line, we didn’t use cell-phones even — we took out the batteries, and we took out the SIM cards, so if they tried to check our phones and see if they were working they would just know that it wasn’t working, instead of just being turned off. That’s how strong you felt you were being pursued. And, any state you go to, they can find you on your social security, they can track your credit cards, they can track the money, even, if they wanted to, and so it’s pretty frightening. So we got to Canada and we felt very relieved that we were there, and maybe like I could start my healing process from Iraq and just continue with our lives.

Michael Thurman: I think G.I. resistance is going to be the ultimate thing that stops the war, because definitely politicians and the government won’t do it. It’s going to have to be the actions of individuals that bring down the pillars of war.