Despite the president’s pledge to end the war in Iraq within the month, one regiment awaits its redeployment and inspires a call to action.
While addressing the national convention of the Disabled American Veterans in Atlanta on Aug. 2, President Barack Obama said, “Our commitment in Iraq is changing from a military effort,” and all combat operations will cease by the end of the month. But in Killeen, Texas, the run-down military town that sits just outside the gates of Fort Hood, the largest active-duty military base in the United States, the reality of the Iraq war stands in direct opposition with Obama’s proclamations.
Within a week, the over 5,000 soldiers of Fort Hood’s 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment (ACR) will redeploy to Iraq for the fourth time since the war began. Deployment is set for sometime around August 25 (exact deployment dates aren’t allowed to be released to the public).
Members of the Fort Hood war resistance community see 3rd ACR as a paradigm for what plagues our military: repeated deployments leading to high rates of physically and mentally wounded soldiers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and Military Sexual Trauma (MST).
The psychological consequences of the wars among soldiers are rampant. PTSD has received the most official documentation, but it is important to be aware that TBI is the leading injury among Iraq veterans, usually caused by the leading cause of death in Iraq, Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), and one in three women in the military are raped.
In September 2009, the number of veterans who were diagnosed and treated for PTSD through the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) was 508,000, up from 480,000 only a few months earlier in June 2009. To receive full benefits from the VA, a veteran has to have finished his military contract and received an honorable discharge. But soldiers who have returned from a tour, yet are still active-duty and suffering from PTSD, must rely on the mental health services on base. The issue here, however, is that many cases of PTSD in active-duty soldiers go undiagnosed in order to keep troops deployable. This, paired with the shortage of mental health professionals on bases, leads to an Army full of heavily medicated, psychologically unstable men and women.
“A lot of them are diagnosed [with psychological and/or physical conditions] but [the chain of command] is fighting to get them not diagnosed,” says Cindy Thomas, the director of Killeen’s Under the Hood Café. Thomas started Under the Hood in March 2009 as a place for active-duty soldiers, veterans, as well as their friends, family, and supporters to gather for community and advice when facing the challenges of military and post-war life. It’s a place for soldiers to seek help when resisting orders to deploy, including dealing with its legal and personal consequences. Those who frequent Under the Hood regularly plan demonstrations aimed at pushing for the end of the wars.
Most importantly, Under the Hood is a safe place for soldiers to hang out and talk. Thomas sees soldiers coming in almost daily describing their experiences with redeployment while suffering from physical and mental wounds. Often, soldiers seek medical and psychological help at Fort Hood only to be ignored: they are either not seen by doctors or they wait for hours to be seen for only a couple of minutes and told they’re fit to deploy. Thomas recalls a soldier she knew a few years ago with a broken knee, who went undiagnosed and untreated for over two years in Fort Hood. He later needed to get reconstructive surgery because the damage from his untreated injury was so severe.
The redeployment of the 3rd ACR has served as a call to action for the war resistance movement in Fort Hood. On July 30, Under the Hood organized a protest at the East gate of the base, demanding that 3rd ACR’s Col. Reginald Allen choose not to deploy wounded soldiers, but it received no coverage from the local news media.
Thomas later found out that commanders on base have pressured the local papers and TV stations to stop covering Under the Hood. In response, they launched a Livestream channel which airs three, 30-minute webcasts per week and organized a phone campaign called “Harass the Brass,” releasing the office telephone numbers of every officer in 3rd ACR’s chain of command via Facebook. The “Harass the Brass” campaign is designed to get concerned citizens and the military community to come together to call those in charge to ask why wounded soldiers are getting deployed. It could be a major step in reminding Americans of their power to create change.
“This does affect everyone,” Thomas says. “These soldiers that are not being taken care of are going to be in the civilian sector when they get out. And after each deployment it gets worse, [our soldiers] deploy two, three, four, [or] five times and are not given the time to recover – you never recover from PTSD. They’re going to be your neighbors.”
During Under the Hood’s Aug. 7 webcast, participants in the campaign were encouraged to call every day until the estimated date of deployment.
“The military operates with our money, in our name,” says Bobby Whittenberg, an activist and Purple Heart veteran of the Iraq war who organizes at Under the Hood, during the webcast. “We have every right to hold them accountable … not caring, not checking into things like this is how you allow things to continue – how you allow people to run rampant with these ridiculous policies of ignoring soldiers medical needs, ignoring families.”
“We’re not even asking people to be nice,” adds Matthis Chiroux, an activist, Iraq war resister, and veteran of Afghanistan, on the webcast. “This is a great way, simply, to be heard. These people are making awful decisions in all of our names that are violating law, if not just the dictates of conscience.”
According to Thomas, even if a soldier is diagnosed with a physical or mental condition that could be damaging to his or her long-term health and ability to deploy, ultimately, who stays and who goes is up to the commanders, since they can wield authority over any doctor’s recommendation.
When I spoke to a Sgt. Major in 3rd ACR to discuss this issue [name withheld since he was not authorized to speak to the press], he confirmed that Army Regulations prohibit deploying any soldier who has been diagnosed with a physical or mental condition which makes them unfit to fight, but the doctors first speak to the commanders and then the commanders decide if the soldier can go.
Under the Hood and the rest of Fort Hood’s war resistance community hope that by working to prevent this deployment, they will not only help 3rd ACR’s wounded soldiers and take a step toward ending the wars, but they will inspire a national trend that will save other active-duty soldiers who are suffering.
“Only civilians can do this,” Chiroux says in an interview after the webcast. “We can’t ask active-duty soldiers to call up their commanders and harass them. Civilians have to do this on behalf of soldiers.”
Over seven years into the Iraq war, the damaged lives of both Iraqi civilians and American soldiers are evident. But it is also clear that from this destruction, a new movement is growing, and with it an opportunity to abandon the former state of the Iraq war and the military’s treatment of soldiers to create something new and ardent. Fort Hood is just the beginning.