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At war 

Iraq veteran Kelly Dougherty speaks of the realities of life in Iraq and the growing movement against the occupation

click to enlarge SEAN CAYTON

Kelly Dougherty has seen more of the world than the average 27-year-old American. A native of Cañon City, Dougherty joined the National Guard during her senior year at Cañon City High School. To her surprise, she was deployed overseas twice during her eight-year service period: first in 1999 to the Balkans, then in 2003 to Kuwait and, ultimately, to Iraq.

Now Dougherty is seeing her own country, crisscrossing the U.S. to attend rallies, give speeches and demonstrate against the war in Iraq and current American military policy.

Dougherty was assigned to a military police unit while in Iraq. An E5 sergeant, she spent nearly a year escorting convoys and conducting raids in a country of people she observed to be mired in poverty and traumatized by American bombings.

In August 2004, Dougherty departed military service with an honorable discharge. Around that time, she and eight other Iraq war returnees founded Iraq Veterans Against the War, a group whose mission is to bring the troops home, provide reconstruction aid to the people of Iraq, and support veterans and troops now and when they return home.

Dougherty believes the U.S. military should disengage as soon as humanly possible, before the war becomes another Vietnam -- a subject she knows something about, since her father is a veteran of that war.

The Independent caught up with Dougherty before she departed Colorado Springs on Sunday, Aug. 28 as part of a local group headed to Crawford, Texas to show solidarity with Cindy Sheehan and others demonstrating there in opposition to the war.

Indy: Did your parents support your decision to join the military at age 18?

Kelly Dougherty: It was kind of my stepfather's idea [that I] go and talk to the National Guard recruiter. I think my mother thought it would be good to give me some direction, some discipline.

My dad, who had served in Vietnam, said, "No. Don't do it. They'll turn you into a robot. Be a raft guide and go to college."

But, obviously, they didn't turn me into a robot. And although my father didn't want me to join, he was very supportive of me.

Then, when I got the call that I was going to be deployed, first to Kuwait and then to Iraq, my parents had different reactions. My mother tried to just support me and not really express her fears to me. My dad said, "You can't go. You're gonna die." He was completely against the war, as was I. My getting deployed actually got him very active in the anti-war cause.

Indy: You say you opposed the war before you went over. Did you find there were other soldiers who felt the same way?

KD: I think the numbers that opposed the war grew the longer we were over there. Before we left it was hard to gauge. A lot of people thought that Saddam did have these weapons of mass destruction, then we didn't find them and we didn't find them, then -- oh, it turns out there never really were any. Then it was, "Well, we're here to help the Iraqi people." Then the longer we stayed, it turned out that what we were doing wasn't really helping the Iraqi people.

I think there was a change, though not a huge change. People tried to justify [what they were doing] any way they could.

It was interesting. Before we left, I was talking to my captain and I said, "I don't believe in any of this. It's just so wrong. I don't know if I can do this." And he said, "Well, between you and me, I have my serious doubts about this whole thing, too."

Then, that same day, he addressed our platoon and said, "Those people who are protesting the war, saying this isn't the right thing to do, tell them to remember September 11. Remember when those twin towers came down."

Maybe some people use that excuse and don't realize it's completely false reasoning, but I know that he didn't mean what he was saying because he had said to me just before that he had doubts about it. Then he lied to us, to get us pumped up, to make us think we were avenging the deaths of those who died on September 11.

Indy: What was your initial experience like, over in Iraq?

KD: When we first got there, it was in April, so the initial invasion had just taken place. The troops hadn't been in Baghdad very long. I think the Iraqi people were still in shock, because they had been bombed continuously before the troops came in, then the troops came in with smaller artillery and guns, so there was just this bombardment.

I can't even imagine what it was like for them.

When we were first in Kuwait, we experienced a lot of Scud missile alarms, where they detect [a missile] and sound the alarm, we put on our gas masks and all our gear and hunker down in concrete bunkers. It's scary, and all you can do is hope you don't get hit by a bomb.

I remember one night I was settling down, about to fall asleep. I'd taken my chemical gear off and there was a loud boom, and all the windows in the building blew out. The impact happened, and afterward the alarm went off. We didn't know if it was a missile, or if a car bomb had gone off at the gate. Everyone was panicked, leaders who you looked up to for guidance, who were supposed to be strong in emergencies, were just panicked, looking around, wild-eyed. Finally, we found out it was a small missile, a surface-to-air missile that hit about eight miles away in the water.

So for the Iraqi people who were being constantly bombed, with bombs dropping just across the street or next door, I can't even imagine how frightening it was.

Indy: Where were you stationed?

KD: South of Nazarea, where it's really, really dry and barren. The people were really poor, then the war came. That's what we saw first.

It was so confusing. We didn't really know what was going on in the country, since we didn't really have any way to communicate. All the news they show on the Armed [Forces] Network is Fox News, so you don't really know what's going on. You don't really hear anything of substance. Everything's just rumors.

We'd get crazy things in our intelligence reports, like Marines went blind because they were drinking Iraqi whiskey. Or, there were some Iraqis who were trying to give apples to American soldiers, but a dog came up and ate one and died because it was poisoned. This wasn't just a rumor -- this was actually in the intelligence report.

click to enlarge Kelly Dougherty (left) at age 18, with best friend - Elizabeth Spradlin, 19, in training to become a medic in - the National Guard in 1997. - COURTESEY OF KELLY DOUGHERTY
  • courtesey of Kelly Dougherty
  • Kelly Dougherty (left) at age 18, with best friend Elizabeth Spradlin, 19, in training to become a medic in the National Guard in 1997.

There were so many rumors flying. And we didn't have any translators for the majority of the time we were there. When we had to do roadblocks and pull people over, it would have been good to be able to speak to them.

Indy: How did you spend your time there?

KD: When we were first there we were patrolling on the highways south of Nazarea. Then gradually, when convoys of contracted vehicles came through, there would be Iraqi hijackers hoping to pull them over and rob them. What we tried to do was protect the convoys from hijackers. Maybe we made a difference. I don't know.

Mostly they were delivering fuel. Sometimes food. All of the stuff was slated to go to military bases -- all the water, all the fuel. While the rest of the country sat in ruin, we made all these improvements to quarters where American military were stationed. As for the Iraqi people, the only improvements I saw in the whole year I was there were to military establishments, not to the homes or neighborhoods of those who lived there.

Indy: So was it the nature of your job that bothered you, or your general opposition to the war from the beginning?

KD: Well, it was frustrating. I knew that [President Bush] lied to get us there and I just thought, gosh, here I am and I could get hurt or killed and I don't believe in any of it.

What was more difficult, however, was realizing our mission was so absurd. One of the things we did all the time was, when a semitruck would break down, we would guard it against the Iraqi people that wanted to loot it.

The people in this part of the country were so poor that a little scrap of something you would think was trash was important to them. They would want to loot the vehicle for the tires or some little metal door or a door handle or whatever. Anything had value.

So we would guard these vehicles and call Brown & Root, which is the main contractor we worked with, part of Halliburton, and ask them to send a recovery asset. We'd wait and wait and wait, standing between the crowd and the vehicle, very outnumbered, and luckily nobody ever got shot with real bullets, though we did have fake bullets that some people seemed to like to use a lot. I was always so worried that one day an Iraqi would bring their AK-47 and shoot at us. I was really surprised that never happened, because every single day we'd be in this situation, standing between them and something they needed.

And then, inevitably, after guarding the vehicle for two or three hours, we'd get a call saying [Brown & Root] didn't have anyone to send out for the vehicle, so just go ahead and leave it. After pretending that this was an important asset to us, that we were willing to shoot people to protect it, we'd just leave it ... or we'd burn it.

Indy: You burned vehicles?

KD: The theory was, if you let the Iraqis have it, then they'd just run off with any old vehicle; they'd think they could have any asset they saw. We just have to teach these people a lesson because they don't understand, they're less than us, they're not as smart as us.

It's hard to feel proud of your mission when your mission is to burn fuel, and they have to wait for fuel in a line miles long, all day, every day.

Once we burned produce on a flatbed truck. We burned food, we burned fuel. Once we burned a brand-new ambulance. We ran over bottles of water to destroy them so that the Iraqi people couldn't have them.

It's not that the people in my unit were going, "Hey, great! Let's burn some more fuel." We were so frustrated by what we were doing every day, but those were our orders.

The ambulance was on the back of a flatbed truck that was mired in the mud. We tried to get someone to come, but they didn't.

We burned it and completely destroyed it. And for the Iraqi people to see that every day, to see us wasting things of such value every day, it was so weird. I didn't want to even look at the Iraqi people. I felt so absurd just being there.

I thought, wow, this is really helping. I can throw some candy to your kid. That's about as much as I can help you.

Indy: And when you returned, how did you become mobilized in anti-war activity?

KD: I [was discharged] in August after I returned.

While I was in Iraq, I'd had the experience of just doing this stuff day in and day out, and feeling that it was so meaningless. Then, finding out more through reading about our foreign policy, after being in the middle of it, I thought I needed to get involved.

I got back home and I did a few things locally with the Kerry campaign through moveon.org. But it wasn't until July that I became deeply involved. I went to the national Veterans for Peace convention in Boston that took place just before the Democratic convention, and that's when we announced the formation of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

It seemed that after we did that, people began to take notice that, hey, it's not just crazy leftists who are against this war -- it's also the veterans who are returning.

In the year since then, I've been getting more involved, speaking to different groups about my experience.

Indy: What's available for vets who've returned from Iraq and need help?

KD: One of the other things that some of us have started is called Vets4Vets. It's an Iraq veterans support group, for those who come back, so they have a space to talk about their experience. In Colorado Springs, we have one of the most successful chapters. We meet every Tuesday at 6:30 at the Unitarian church on Tejon Street.

Indy: Have you found with these groups that veterans are getting the help they need when they return?

KD: One of our members, who's not in the Army right now but was in the Army at Fort Carson, went down there to out-processing recently, and was told, "We don't have time for you right now, just get out."

click to enlarge SEAN CAYTON

Some soldiers in hospital beds are reportedly being pressured to sign their discharge papers and, of course, they don't want to sign their discharge papers and lose their benefits.

Others can't find a job because they suffered an injury and can't work as much as they used to be able to, but are being denied unemployment benefits.

People [outside the military] think, oh, they can go to the VA, they'll be taken care of. Well, look -- Walter Reed Army Hospital [in Washington, D.C.] is being closed. We're completely overwhelming all our services, but at the same time that our president is saying you have to support the war to support the troops, he's shutting the biggest Army hospital in the U.S.? You can't even get buried if you get killed in this ridiculous war. I've heard there's a three-week wait to get buried in Arlington Cemetery.

I don't see how the VA can be underfunded by a billion dollars, and they're saying this war is going to last at least four more years, it'll last as long as this president is in office. What's going to happen?

We see what happened to Vietnam vets who came back, and a lot of the Vietnam vets that I know suffered terrible psychological damage after serving only one year. Now we've got soldiers who've served one, two years in Iraq and are going back for a third year-long deployment. And what about these people's families? Some of these soldiers have seen their families maybe two weeks out of two years. You come back and find out you don't have a spouse any more, or your children don't know you.

Indy: What do you say to those who say, "Well, we can't just pull out?"

KD: I'd say, "Yeah, we actually can."

First of all, if the majority of Americans feel that this war was unnecessary and it hasn't been worth it, and we know that all the information used to support this war was complete lies, how can we continue to support a war that is unfounded and unnecessary, and how can we justify the deaths of more people, when it didn't need to happen?

There's no solution that's going to be a good solution now, but I think the best solution is to pull our troops out and bring them home and take care of them and give the Iraqi people real assistance instead of giving all the jobs over there to foreign contractors, to foreign workers.

It just seems to me that the supposed goals of the occupation, which now are to bring the Iraqis democracy and freedom, seem contradictory. I don't see how you can have a free society when they're being occupied by a foreign military; when their people can't drive around the city without being stopped at a dozen checkpoints, or live in fear of having their house raided at 3 a.m.; when their constitution and their laws and all their leaders are being watched over and supervised and dictated by the Americans.

How can that be a free society as long as we exist there? How long do we think it's going to take until the Iraqi people say, "Oh, now we accept you American occupiers. Now you're welcome." I would say, never. I would say either we commit mass murder, we continue to commit murder there until so many have been slaughtered that the people cannot fight anymore, or else we leave.

I think any American would agree that if our country was overrun and occupied and we suffered all this violence and death at the hands of a foreign army, we wouldn't just submit, we wouldn't just passively say, "OK, you know what's best for us. You are smarter than us. You know how to fix us."

Indy: Why do you think the argument is rarely framed that way?

KD: I think there's just this inherent racism, this inherent disregard for the Iraqi people.

We've lost about 2,000 Americans and an estimated 100,000 Iraqis, most of them civilians. You don't see them on CNN or Fox News or network news. You might see the aftermath of a bomb, but you don't hear their stories. You don't hear from them what it's like to live in fear and uncertainty every day.

So it's easy to just say, "Oh, 30 Iraqis died today; what else is on TV?"

They're dehumanized. And I think the soldiers are dehumanized too. People get more upset whenever an American soldier dies, but they don't really get that upset. A lot of people really don't.

Indy: What would it take for the administration and President Bush to reassess, to admit that they need to rethink our presence and our mission over there?

KD: They'd have to ask, "Is it worth doing this to people over and over and over, or is it worth being mature and taking responsibility for your mistakes?" I know when I got an underage drinking ticket when I was in high school and I wanted to say I was not guilty, my mother said, "Kelly you know you did it. Admit it. You have to take responsibility for it because that's the grown-up thing to do."

If we're supposed to take responsibility in small personal issues like that, why don't we demand that our government take responsibility for things that are damaging thousands, if not millions, of people's lives?

I don't think [President Bush] will admit he's made a mistake. I don't know if he's capable of that. I think the only way to end this war before it ends in complete disaster, before we have another Vietnam, is for people right now to demand -- not just a couple hundred here and a couple hundred there, but thousands, millions of people -- to demand that the war end, to make [the opposition to the war] look so bad and so ever-present that he has no choice but to change course.

Indy: How do you respond to the president's statement to the American people urging that we must stay the course in order to honor those soldiers who have died?

KD: I think that's a very obvious ploy to work on people's most emotional and inner values, and I think he's stealing and completely abusing people's true emotions.

For him to say that we can't leave Iraq, or the people who have already died in Iraq, their deaths will be in vain -- well, that's not the reaction a president should be expressing. That's the reaction that someone who has watched their friends die in Iraq would have, because it's an emotional reaction to something they've experienced; you can understand it from them. For a president to say that ... Who does he know? How many of his friends has he seen die in Iraq? Of course, none. He's stealing those heartfelt emotions from suffering people and using them to manipulate others.

Indy: Do you feel that the anti-war movement is growing?

KD: I know that before the [presidential] election, people were saying, "Gosh, I've never been involved in politics but now I'm involved." Trying to get Bush out of office mobilized a lot of people.

But now I see even more of that happening, and I think it's good. I do think it's growing. You can tell from the polls that the president's approval rating is low, that people may not say unanimously, "We have to get out of Iraq now," but they're asking, "Why are we there?"

I don't think we should have gone. And that's what the majority of people are saying, that they don't think it's been worth it. And it's only a matter of time, hopefully not a very long time, that the majority of people will say, "OK, it's not worth it, so we don't need to stay on a course that's heading toward a cliff."

capsule

For more about Iraq Veterans Against the War, visit ivaw.net or contact ivaw@ivaw.net.

Colorado Vets4Vets meets every Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church (730 N. Tejon St.). Visit vets4vets.us or e-mail CO@vets4vets.us.

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