In a 2007 military photograph taken just before his first deployment to Iraq, 20-year-old Army infantryman Derek Kirkland is staring solemnly at the camera from behind a desert camouflage hat, an American flag hanging behind him.
Derek’s mother, Mary Kirkland, will bring this photograph to the May 20 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) protests in Chicago. She will join Afghanistan and Iraq veterans with the group Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), who will march with thousands of protesters to the NATO summit, where veterans will return their global-war-on-terror medals to NATO’s leaders. Mary, who has no medals from Derek’s two deployments to Iraq, will return this military photograph of her son.
As the US-initiated global war on terror drags on and the “coalition of the willing” continues to shrink, NATO bears increasing responsibility for this war. The alliance provided significant military aid and training for the Iraq war and took over the war in Afghanistan in August 2003, continuing to the present. The US and NATO allies claim to be winding down the Afghanistan war, but recently decided to maintain international military troops in the country beyond 2014, far past President Obama’s promised date for US military withdrawal. The US and Afghanistan recently reached a “strategic agreement,” the text of which has not been publicly disclosed, stipulating US military presence over a decade past 2014.
This alliance of North American and European military superpowers is a cold war creation that outlived the fall of the Soviet Union and expanded into former Soviet bloc European countries, contributing to a global military buildup. Throughout the life of NATO, the US has sat at its helm and many argue that the organization serves as an instrument of US global strategy, intended in part to tie Europe to Washington. The United States foots 75 percent of NATO’s military bill, with NATO allies overall accounting for a huge majority of global military expenditures. NATO has 138,000 troops engaged across the globe – including military missions in Somalia, Kosovo, the Mediterranean and off the Horn of Africa – and recently participated in the 2011 air assault on Qadaffi’s Libya.
“Now is an important time for us to finally talk about the fact that the US has a military empire: that we behave in an imperialist way,” said Vincent Emanuele, a former marine and two-time Iraq veteran who plans to return his global-war-on-terror medals to NATO’s leaders. “I don’t think it’s cliché to use those terms. We need to be honest about what the US does and talk about the effect on those we are occupying and the people who are serving.”
For Mary, the cost of war is immeasurable. Before joining the Army, her son worked as a cook at I-Hop. When he found out his then-girlfriend was pregnant, he decided to sign up for the service in 2007 in hopes of boosting his meager income. Mary, who is based in Indianapolis and cleans houses and office buildings for a living, said that Derek had always been a “jokester with a grin on his face, trying to make people laugh all the time.”
This changed after Derek’s first 15-month extended deployment to Iraq in 2007 and 2008. His mother said that, when he came home, he was withdrawn and on edge, haunted by his combat experience. One night, Derek tried to show his mother a photograph of an Iraqi man he had killed. “I told him that’s enough. I’m your mother. I can’t see things like that,” Mary said. In another incident, when Derek and his mother were driving to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, to visit Mary’s youngest son, who was also in the military at the time, Derek confessed to his mother that he was a murderer. “I told him you are in a war. There is a difference between when you kill someone in war and when you just walk up and kill them on the street,” said Mary. “He didn’t give me an answer back.”
Derek was placed on psychotropic medications and, in September 2009, sent back to Iraq. Five months into his second combat tour, Derek attempted to take his life, but was stopped by a fellow soldier. His deployment was cut short and he was escorted to the Combat Stress Clinic at Camp Liberty in Iraq. While there, Derek made another attempt on his life, prompting his evacuation to Landstuhl, Germany, then to the Madigan Army Medical Center (MAMC) at Joint Base Lewis McChord (JBLM) in Washington. Yet, when Derek arrived at MAMC, he was deemed to be at “low to moderate” risk for suicide and his health care providers concluded that “no one-to-one monitoring is needed at this time,” according to a March 15 medical report. Derek, who was released back to his unit, attempted to take his life for a third time on March 18. Again, he was “not identified as being suspicious or suicidal,” according to an Army investigation that does not specify who made this judgment.
Derek went back to his barracks, alone, on March 19, 2010. He was found hanging in his room the next morning.
“There is not a day I don’t think about Derek. There is not a day I am not angry at the Army because they didn’t help him,” said his mother. “It is our poor people over there fighting their poor people. They ended up letting my son die for no reason. There is a big void.”
Lt. Gary Dangerfield, First Corps Army spokesman at JBLM, refused to discuss Derek’s case, but insisted, “We take suicides very seriously.”
Yet, Kevin Baker, a former Army infantryman in Derek’s unit and current organizer for March forward, which has organized around Kirkland’s case, said he saw commanders bully and ridicule Derek for his attempted suicide. They called him a coward and a pussy and a piece of shit,” said Baker. “There are huge hurdles to getting help. The suicide numbers speak for themselves.” Baker said this behavior is woven into a military that dehumanizes service members, as well as the “enemy.”
JBLM, where Derek took his life, has become a national example of the war traumas that permeate and infect military communities. This sprawling military base, with over 40,000 service members, has garnered widespread attention for the spate of high-profile crimes perpetrated by its soldiers, including Robert Bales, the soldier accused of massacring 16 Afghan civilians, one of whom was pregnant. JBLM was also the home base of the infamous “kill team,” which was convicted of war crimes in 2010. In 2011, this troubled base reported a record in suicides. MAMC, the institution that labeled Derek “low to moderate” risk for suicide, has been the subject of a military probe after disclosure that the medical center reversed hundreds of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) diagnoses.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are marked by widespread mental health problems among US service members, with nearly one in five Iraq and Afghanistan veterans reporting symptoms of PTSD or severe depression. The Army’s own studies show an alarming spike in Army suicides which have soared past civilian rates These grim statistics continue to climb: 2011 saw the highest number of Army suicides in military history, with 164 soldiers reported to have taken their lives. This coincides with a 2011 spike in violent sexual assaults perpetrated by active duty soldiers, mostly targeting young active duty female soldiers. Mental health problems are exacerbated by multiple deployments in a military overextended by over a decade of war.
Comparable studies of trauma and suicide among Iraqi and Afghan populations do not exist, but some scholars have estimated trauma to be near universal in these societies. Over a million Iraqis have died as a result of the US-led invasion, and millions more have been displaced. Over 12,000 Afghan civilians have died since 2006, and 2011 marked a record high in Afghan civilian casualties, making it the fifth year in a row that civilian casualty rates increased.(1) More than 185,000 Afghan civilians were displaced in 2011 alone, according to a report from the 2011 United Nations Annual Report, a 45 percent increase from 2010.
Mary said the experience of losing her son made her question the Army’s respect for human life and, ultimately, turned her against the global war on terror. “My son was the victim of a needless war and we are still doing that to the Afghan people and we are doing it to our troops,” said Mary. “We have no business being over there. It is the innocent dying.”
Chicago organizers are planning massive national protests to highlight the human costs of these wars. Occupy Chicago is planning ten days of action to protest the NATO summit, which will launch with an alternative People’s Summit on May 12 and include participation in an anti-austerity march May 18 with National Nurses United. On May 20, IVAW will join the Coalition Against NATO G8 (CANG8) as well as labor unions, social justice and community organizations to march to the NATO summit where veterans will return their medals. According to an IVAW statement about the march, veterans will “demand that NATO immediately end the occupation of Afghanistan and related economic and social injustices, bring US war dollars home to fund our communities and acknowledge the rights and humanity of all who are affected by these wars.”
“For me, the decision to return my medals is a part of healing,” said Zach Laporte, an Army veteran who deployed twice to Iraq and now organizes with IVAW. “We have been planning this action for months and holding these things in for years.”
“As a veteran it is very symbolic to throw your medals back,” said Emanuele. “I know many veterans who believe that those medals encompass something sacred to the military tradition. It is very powerfully symbolic to return them, to say no, I don’t accept these awards; we don’t want to accept them for what we participated in.”
“The fact that my tax dollars go to kill people on the other side of the world for no reason is horrifying to me,” said Rachael Perrotta, a participant of Occupy Chicago who is involved in organizing the NATO protests. “The fact that an entire generation of people in my country has been lied to by military recruiters, misused by the government and then come back with severe mental and physical problems is horrifying. Veterans are part of the 99% and Occupy Chicago stands with them. We hope to unleash a cry that will be heard around the world.”
A meeting of the Group of Eight (G8) had also been scheduled for late May in Chicago in a joint summit, but in early March, the White House announced that the meeting would be moved to Camp David, likely a response to the mass mobilization of tens of thousands of protesters ready to hit Chicago’s streets.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has pushed through Chicago City Council a series of measures to restrict protesting rights, termed the “sit down and shut up” laws by Occupy Chicago. These policies give the mayor the right to cover the city in surveillance cameras with little oversight, shut down public parks and hike fines for protesting without a permit. He has trained out-of-town police; purchased new police riot shields; and, starting May 1, sends federal agents to patrol the city’s streets in full gear, to implement what he has termed “Operation Red Zone.”(2) The Cook County sheriff recently suggested to the mayor that the Joliet Correction Center, which has been empty for over ten years, could be used to warehouse those who are arrested at the NATO summit. Meanwhile, the Illinois National Guard is training for the possibility that it will participate in so-called security measures against protesters.
After a legal battle, the City of Chicago recently granted a permit to the Coalition Against NATO/G8 march scheduled for the 20th, which will include the IVAW action.
“Militarism on the streets of Chicago is not making us safer,” said Aaron Hughes, an Iraq veteran and Chicago-based organizer for IVAW. “We plan to ask the National Guard to stand down.”
“There is a blatant attempt to hide the true costs of violent conflict and control the overall narrative of war,” said Jacob George, an IVAW member who served three tours in Afghanistan. “We were lied to and taken advantage of, that’s why we are giving our medals back.”
For Mary, the lies did not stop after her son’s death. The Army reported that Derek died in the line of duty and gave him a military funeral at the Marion National Cemetery in Indiana. A March 27, 2010, newspaper clipping shows an elaborate military funeral and said that Kirkland died in action. “They lied and said my son was killed in Action,” said Mary. “But I must say it was a nice funeral. That’s one thing the Army is good at – funerals.”
Mary will march with IVAW wearing a T-shirt printed with the same military photograph of her son that she will return to NATO’s leaders. “I feel that I have to march with the veterans to show my support,” she said. “I am proud they were brave enough to go there in the first place and give their medals back. I very much feel that marching against NATO is a way for me to honor my son’s memory.”
Mary said that if she can help just one person by marching against NATO, it will be a personal success. “I don’t want anyone else to have to go through what I’ve been through,” she said. “It is hard on a mother. Let me tell you, it is hard on a mother.”