Archive for the ‘Iraq’ Category

Alive and Kicking: Back Home with Jacob Schick by Michael Slenske

Thursday, September 6th, 2007

Back Home with Jacob Schick from HBO’s Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq
By Michael Slenske

Michael Slenske’s last Back Home From Iraq piece was an interview with Marine reservist Todd Bowers.

The numbers are dizzying—nearly 4,000 U.S. troops have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, and seven times as many have returned home wounded. And still: unless you understand these statistics at a human level they’re just numbers in a string of news stories. Enter James Gandolfini. As Tony Soprano’s reign as the don of cable was coming to an oh-so-clever close, the Emmy-winning actor sat down with 10 severely wounded troops and listened to their stories for his first project as a producer Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq.

Alive Day producer, GandolfiniPremiering on September 9, Gandolfini’s enthralling doc is an intimate look into the harsh physical and emotional toll exacted on Iraq vets by their “Alive Day,” the day they barely escaped death on the battlefield. “The fight doesn’t stop when you get home,” Cpl. Jacob Schick explains on camera. “In our cases, it’s just begun.” Schick, a 24 year old machine gunner who served with the 1/23rd Marines, Bravo Company, met his alive day on September 20, 2004—just a month after he arrived in Iraq—when his Humvee ran over a pressurized anti-tank bomb while running a security patrol outside Al Asad.

“I can’t even remember the day I arrived, I just remember the day I got hit,” he says. “My left leg was broken with compound fractures, my right leg was broken, my foot was crushed, my left arm was broken with compound fractures, and one of my bones got blown out of my arm.” Three years, two hospitals and 46 surgeries later, Schick is still fighting for his brothers-and-sisters-in-arms. His hope is that they don’t face the same hardships as he did, especially on the V.A. benefits front, when they too return home.

Your “Alive Day” came pretty quickly after you arrived in Iraq. What was going through your mind when you got hit?
Schick recuperating at Brooke Army Medical CenterI was lying in the sand. I got blown from the Hummer. It pretty much blew up right beneath me, and for some reason or another I never lost consciousness or went into shock. I remember everything except hearing the blast. When they took me to the command post, the doc started working on me, the corpsman and some other Marines were trying to dress me up the best they could, but they were having trouble stopping the bleeding out of my left leg and my left arm. I just remember they would wrap me and I’d bleed through the bandage, they’d take it off, wrap me again, just a constant process while we were waiting for the bird to get there. Everybody was just saying words of encouragement but I was pretty mad they were talking. They were just doing what Marines do. They were scared. I could tell by the look in their eyes they didn’t think I was going to make it.

Did you think you would?
Yeah, when I took my first breath after I couldn’t breathe for a couple minutes, I thought, “Done deal, I’m not dying today.” My staff sergeant came over, helped get me on the bird, kissed me on the forehead and said, “I’ll see you soon, Devil Dog.” And that was it. They took me off to Balad. I remember asking one of the guys in the flight crew, “How long?” He said 12 minutes. I started getting weak, I was bleeding out so I was pumping myself up, “Dude, you can do this, you can make it 12 more minutes.”

Was there anything about that day that seemed off to you? Did you have any bad feelings about that patrol?
I had it the day before. I just knew something bad was going to happen. I didn’t know what but I did have a bad feeling. I called my mom, my dad, my brother, my sister. Whoever I could get a hold of the night before. I just got a feeling in my gut and I just knew something was going to go down, and lo and behold, it did.

What made you want to join the military?
I played 5A Texas football. We could have beat pretty much any DII college football team out there. I could have got a scholarship to a small DII school, but I made my mind up. I’m a third-generation Marine. My grandfather was a scout sniper on Iwo Jima. My uncle was a Marine in Vietnam. I thought it’d be a great honor to serve my country and I still think it’s the best job in the world. I just think the government needs to do their part when you’re all messed up and you’re home from the war.

Where is the breakdown in the system?
It’s not the Marine Corps I have the problem with, it’s the politicians who don’t give a damn about our wounded but then they go to these yearly VFW meetings and say, “You’re the finest in the world, without you we wouldn’t be here, we wouldn’t have a job.” Whatever. Quit talking. Prove it.

Why did you agree to participate in this documentary?
I just thought it would be a good opportunity to explain my story, tell my story from a firsthand point of view and hear the story of other soldiers and Marines who got wounded over there, and how their lives have changed. I think it’s important for the American people to know how difficult it is for transition when we get home, as far as the soldiers, Marines, sailors, airmen that get severely wounded. The transition from being a fighting force to not being able to move in a hospital bed for eight or nine months is pretty rough and I think that needs to be brought to the American people’s attention. You know when we get home we get the best care in the world when we’re first home and we’re wounded and we’re in the hospital and all that, then when we get out and we separate it’s like where does all the care go. It’s like nobody gives a damn anymore.

Do you think that’s a VA problem?
Oh yeah, who doesn’t have a VA problem as a wounded person? I’d like to meet them. It’s the most laughable, inconvenient system I’ve ever been associated with in my life. I think it’s funny how the American people who enjoy their freedoms everyday will turn their cheek about it. They think just because it’s tough that it’s something that can’t be done. People have to stand up. I’m going to continue fighting the rest of my life for one thing or another. I’m considered temporarily retired. Every five years I have to get a head-to-toe physical from the VA to make sure my leg didn’t grow back.

That’s kind of absurd.
It’s ridiculous.

Is there any particular hang up on the home front that really made an impact on you?
Getting a wheelchair. I lost my right leg so I have to go and make an appointment and meet with orthotics and they have to determine what kind of wheelchair I need before I can get a wheelchair. I can’t just call and say, “Look my wheelchair is wrecked, can I bring it to you and get another one?” It’s so obvious to me now why we have so many homeless veterans. Because when you come home and you’re broke and you’re battered, missing limbs, you don’t want to have to fight for every little thing you think you’re entitled to. The last thing I want to do is fight for damn compensation for hearing loss or TBI or something. I’ve had 46 operations, I don’t want to have to go and explain myself and wait and wait and wait and go to another appointment. It’s got to change.

Did you know after you got hit that you wanted to tell your story?
I’ve told my story several times before I did the documentary just for awareness. People had a lot of questions so I talked to different groups about things. I did a lot at the Rotary Club of Tyler as a favor to my grandmother. I did some in Dallas, and in Lake Charles, Louisiana with the group that I volunteer with, American War Heroes. I’ve told it a lot.

What made you start telling it?
Honestly, it was one day in the hospital when I was in San Antonio. I don’t really remember a lot in Bethesda [at the National Naval Medical Center] because I was in and out of surgery every other day for the first month and a half. I was a bad patient; people did not like to come in my room. I was a complete and utter ass, but that was my way of fighting it. One day a nurse came in, or maybe it was an old retired Marine, and that was the first time I told my story. It hurt a lot, but it helped a lot. So I figured, “What the hell?” It was my way of dealing, I guess. I definitely didn’t want to talk to a shrink.

What did you think of the whole documentary process?

Schick is on the Board of Directors for American War HeroesIt was pretty tiring, to be honest. The best part of the whole deal was when I got to meet Sgt. Eddie Ryan, who’s a fellow Marine, a sniper who got shot in the head in Iraq. That made it all worth it for me. All the filming we had to do was worth it for me to meet Sgt. Ryan. He’s one of the most motivating, outstanding Marines I’ve ever met in my entire life. I’ll probably never meet another Marine like him.

What did you guys talk about?
We talked about the Marines, our battle scars, our war wounds. It was just motivating to me. At the same time I freakin’ cried because on my days when I wake up and I’m depressed and bitter—because I have those days you know, I’m human—I thought I could be going through this crap like Eddie and his family. It was very humbling to meet him.

In light of what’s happened to you, would you go back?
Hell yeah I’d go back. I have brothers and sisters there who are in harm’s way and here I am getting ready to go to a frickin’ premiere for a documentary. Of course I’d go back. I just had a bad day at work.

Do you have any immediate plans for the future?
I’m getting ready to start school, I want to get a degree, I want to write a book. There’s a lot of stuff I want to do, but there’s only so much stuff I’m capable of doing. I wrote for the HBO website, wrote a couple letters to a couple senators and a few mass emails. I like it; I think it’s therapeutic. But the thing I’ve found is that I have to write about something I’m passionate about. If someone told me to start writing about the Michael Vick case you’d have to pay me a stupid amount of money, because I don’t give a damn. Anything about war-related issues, V.A., the Marine Corps—obviously stuff like that is all near and dear to me.

Did this film inspire you to get more involved with that sort of storytelling?
It’s important to me that the American people understand the sacrifices that are made, and not just by me, but by all the men and women who go over there. I’ve been treated with great respect and I’m sure most people have too, but some people haven’t and that’s a damn shame. I want them to understand that those severely wounded who come home their lives are severely changed forever. They need to understand. I can understand why it could be hard for them to go to a military hospital like Bethesda National Naval Medical Center or Brooke Army Medical Center or Walter Reed. I understand why they don’t want to go, because if they don’t see it, it’s not there. But they need to understand what prices are paid to keep these streets safe. Whether they agree with the war or not, I don’t care, that’s their prerogative, but they will support the troops. You got any kids?

Well, says your friends’ kids are playing in the front yard and a car sets off an improvised explosive device. That would be shocking wouldn’t it? But they don’t have to worry about that because they live in America. We’re the freest country in the world, and yeah it’s hard to turn on the TV everyday and see something about Iraq. I know it’s hard. It sucks, but that’s reality. War is unforgiving, but it’s necessary, and as long as we can foil one of these coward’s plans that want to attack us oh well. We need to do that. If us being there keeps them from coming here and achieving what they want to achieve here, which is really mass casualties, mass fatalities. So be it. That’s what it takes. They don’t fight like men because they’re cowards. Print that in big black bold letters.

Iraqi Graffiti: The Photos of Todd Bowers

Tuesday, July 24th, 2007

By Michael Slenske

SMITH contributing editor Michael Slenske's last story was a "Back Home from Iraq" feature on MoveOn's VideoVet winner John Bruhns.

Go to the Photos

As far as Iraq war vets go, Marine reservist Todd Bowers might be the luckiest. During a routine patrol on the outskirts of Fallujah in the fall of 2004, his civil affairs unit was called to a firefight. There, amidst heavy fighting with insurgents, they spotted three civilians caught in the crossfire. Bowers’ unit attempted to rescue them, but the skirmish was too intense. “There was some gunshots kicking up around me, I saw where they were coming from, so I dropped to my knee, fired back a couple times, then BOOM!,” recalls Bowers. “A bullet literally missed my head by an eighth of an inch. It hit the scope [an advanced combat optical gunsight, or ACOG, which Bowers' father bought for him with his own money]. I’ve still got a bunch of chunks of metal in the left side of my face.” Although he had blood pouring from his head, Bowers refused to be medivaced from the site without the civilians. “I threw them in the back of a Humvee,” he says. “Then jumped in the driver’s seat with my eye all bandaged up and drove over to Bravo Surgical to get them treated.”

Amazing? Sure. But Bowers returned home with much more than a crazy souvenir and a wild story. Knowing he’d face these kinds of indescribable experiences in Iraq, before deploying he planned to mirror a project his uncle Kendall undertook as an Army surgeon in Vietnam. When Kendall wasn’t saving lives, he was taking photos—graphic snapshots of wounded soldiers and close-call incidents in the MASH—that he later turned into a slideshow, dubbed Vietnam Graffiti. To offer context to the slides for the vets who viewed them back home, Bowers’ uncle added quotes he’d heard during his tour. “He felt the time you hear the most honesty from people is when they do graffiti on bathroom walls or port-o-johns and they write it anonymously,” says Bowers. “When I took a picture I knew that moment would be the one time I would hear what people really felt.” During his two tours Bowers snapped some 1,400 photos. His images offer an intimate view of the war: from immediate pics of Jessica Lynch’s convoy after it was attacked to ironic shots of the Fallujah Career Retention Center to panoramas of the Straits of Gibraltor sailing to Kuwait for the initial invasion.

“We deployed so quickly I was using little disposables at first. They actually worked pretty well. My favorite pictures are from the Ziggurat of Ur, the birthplace of Abraham. You can tell someone what it’s like on top of it, but unless you can actually show them it’s hard to imagine,” says Bowers. “I even got pictures of when they delivered Thighmasters [to Fallujah]. We were getting humanitarian aid sent and we got in a bunch of Thighmasters—official, Made in Taiwan, Suzanne Somers Thighmasters.”

Two months after his second deployment, he made his own slideshow while he was living in Los Angeles, “sofa-surfing” at friends’ homes. Although he showed his project, Iraqi Graffiti, to a dozen or so people, and later to a couple Washington, D.C. art galleries, Bowers wasn’t comfortable taking the project public. “I got the vibe from people where they were like, ‘Oh this is so awful, the war is so wrong’ and I just didn’t want to get into that debate at all,” notes Bowers, who says the salve of time has helped him get comfortable with letting people into his world. “Things are not going well in Iraq. Everybody knows that. But all we see are the guns, bombs, and explosions. It’s hard to get a feel for what the dynamic is—where one second you’re playing soccer with kids and the next second your vehicle is blown up. I want someone to be able to watch this and say, ‘Okay, I have a much better understanding of what it’s like to be in Iraq now.’ No politics, just being able to understand what soldiers and Marines experience when they come home.”

Click on photos to enlarge; mouseover for previous and next.

Fallujah, August 2004 "How the hell did I get here?" - Marine Jolan Park, Fallujah, January 2005 "Playgrounds can also be battlegrounds." - Iraqi Interpreter Fallujah, November 2004 "There goes the neighborhood." -Marine Outskirts of Fallujah, September 2004 "The smiles make this all worthwhile." -Marine Fallujah, December 2004 "We destroyed the enemy and someones home. Hard to say who wins." -Marine Outskirts of Fallujah, October 2004 "Think there is any hope for these little ones?" - Eritrean Interpreter North of Fallujah, November 2004 "Books, Pencils, RPGs, AK-47s. All the basic school supplies." -Marine Fallujah, February 2005 "Does the "V" stand for peace or victory? Or just Bugs Bunny ears." -Sgt. Bowers Fallujah Career Retention Center, September 2004 "I bet business is slow." -Marine Jolan, Fallujah, November 2004 "We are going to need more brooms." -Marine Outskirts of Fallujah, October 2004 "I think he is scared of us?" -Iraqi Interpreter The Infamous bridge in Fallujah, November 2004 "This is where it all started." -Sgt. Bowers Fallujah, February 2005 "Sir, can we take this one home?" -Marine Fallujah, November 2004 "This place is like a ghost town but the ghosts are real people." -Marine Fallujah, January 2005 "Hi. I am here to help rebuild your school. Do not mind the rifle and grenade launcher." -Sgt. Bowers Jolan, Fallujah, November 2004 Fallujah, January 2005 "I hope these kids have it better than their parents did." -Iraqi Civilian Fallujah, November 2004 Fallujah, January 2005 "These kids are eleven going on forty." -State Department Employee Fallujah, December 2004 "This book is more powerful than we will ever be." -Marine Outskirts of Fallujah, August 2004 "Some of these kids do not smile very much. I guess I would not either." -Marine Fallujah, December 2004 "I hope the owner is doing better than her doll is." -Sgt. Bowers North of Fallujah, November 2004 "Sorry we destroyed your city. Here, have a bag lunch and twenty bucks." -Marine Marine Camp outside Fallujah, September 2004 "I have got to make it home." -Marine Fallujah, November 2004 "How will I tell anyone about days like this?" -Marine Fallujah, January 2005 "These people hate us but they love our money." -Marine Jolan Park Election Site, January 2005 "I have seen polling lines before but never any wrapped in razor wire." -Marine Fallujah, February 2005 "There will never be enough soccer balls to hand out." -Iraqi Interpreter Fallujah, March 2005 "I am going to miss this place, and the people." -Sgt. Bowers Fallujah, March 2005 "I am not sure where home is anymore." -Iraqi Civilian Jolan Park, Fallujah, December 2004 "Suzanne Somers is hot and all but why the fuck is she sending Thighmasters to Fallujah?" -Marine Nasiriyah Iraq, June 2003 "Abraham was here. Not Lincoln you shit pants." -Marine Southern Iraq, July 2003 Nasiriyah Iraq, June 2003 "Abraham was here. Not Lincoln you shit pants." -Marine Baghdad, May 2003 "All Donne Go Home. They could have at least have spelled done correctly." -Sgt. Bowers

Beyond the Hoods: The Abu Ghraib Images of Daniel Heyman

Wednesday, June 6th, 2007

The hooded figure. That’s the image of Abu Ghraib that began living in our heads when The New Yorker published photographs taken by American soldiers along with Seymour Hersh’s historic Torture at Abu Ghraib article three years ago. By this point, the image has been significantly deadened—flattened and stylized into angry, well-intentioned iconography, the stuff of editorial cartoons and T-shirts. In becoming a symbol, it’s been detached from the gut-wrenching detail of its own origin story.

“I tried to use that image as a shorthand to comment on torture,” recalls artist Daniel Heyman , who began working on renderings of the hooded figure into silkscreen prints and etchings shortly after The New Yorker publication in spring 2004. “But it started to become ubiquitous, and I think it lost its ability to have much impact.”

Click on photos to enlarge; mouseover for previous and next.

The above portfolio includes drypoint prints from Heyman’s work in Amman and Istanbul, as well as watercolors from Istanbul. For more information on Heyman and his Abu Ghraib work, visit

Its initial impact, however, was never lost on Heyman, who became fervently engaged in anti-war political debate. And then came an opportunity to throw back the hood of symbolism in his artwork and bring the stories of Abu Ghraib front and center.

A serendipitous meeting with Susan Burke, lead attorney in a reparations lawsuit against civilian interrogators and translators at Abu Ghraib, led to an invitation for Heyman to join Burke’s legal team on a trip to Amman, Jordan. There they would take depositions from former prisoners, and Heyman’s work could move beyond symbol and into story.

Heyman spent six days in hotel rooms in Amman during March 2006 listening to a dozen men and one woman recount abuse and humiliation. He also joined Burke’s legal team for a second set of depositions in Istanbul that August. Working quickly onto copper plates from which he would later make prints, Heyman captured words as well as images.

“I began drawing their faces as the interviews got under way, listening to the reporting of biographical information through the translator, the number of children they had, where they lived, but mostly concentrating on getting a good start on the portrait. They were often in prison many months, and the nature of these interviews was a recitation of the entirety—as much as they could remember—of all that time. So I had to listen, and wait and pick a moment to start writing that might capture the essence of their experience. As soon as I started writing, often with just a few lines established in the portrait, I focused completely on the words.”

“When I have made portraits of people in the past, I was never as concerned with the inner history of the sitter,” says Heyman. “I used the sitter’s image to convey a separate aesthetic idea. Years ago, I made larger narrative paintings that had particular stories attached to them, the sitters in front of me inhabited characters much the way an actor becomes someone else for the duration of a play.”

“But these particular people’s human identities had already been removed twice: first as wrongly accused and brutally tortured prisoners, second in the photos their captors took of them, hooded and faceless, where they became global icons but lost their individuality. I wanted the Iraqis to regain their humanity, to regain their faces and their voices.”

Nonetheless, says Heyman, his own perspective is embedded in the work: In drypoint etching the copper plates to make the prints featured in this portfolio, he had to transcribe his subjects’ words in reverse so they would be readable when pressed onto paper. The stories Heyman shares were written as if in a mirror. —Jim Gladstone

Back Home From Iraq With John Bruhns By Michael Slenske

Saturday, May 12th, 2007

Michael Slenske's last Back Home From Iraq feature was on Sean Huze.

“I think the real power from veterans comes from their experiences. When just regular vets have their voices heard. When the administration says one thing and they say, ‘Wait a minute, we’ve experienced something totally different.’”

If you ask John Bruhns, he’s “no hero.” Even though he switched his non-combat MOS (military occupational specialty) to an active duty infantry unit after 9/11 because he viewed it as his “generation’s Pearl Harbor and wanted to fight.” He wanted to fight even though his Kansas-based infantry unit stormed Baghdad in the initial invasion. He wanted to fight even though he then spent the next year training the new Iraqi military and delivering detainees to Abu Ghraib prison. He wanted to fight even though his unit was responsible for responding to any violent activity in the Baghdad area, handling “forward-operating security, foot patrols, Bradley patrols, Humvee patrols, searches and seizures, raids, you name it.” To him that’s just par for the course for your average Army Sergeant in Iraq.

But it doesn’t take a Medal of Honor to be a war hero. And that might explain how Bruhns, who now works in veterans advocacy with VoteVets in the Washington, D.C. area, became the subject of’s new Oliver Stone-directed ad calling for a stop to the war. As part of its VideoVets project, MoveOn interviewed 20 Americans—vets and their families—asking why the war needs to end. While all of the videos are moving and certainly worth viewing, Bruhns’ came out on top when MoveOn members cast votes for their favorite earlier this month.

“I actually didn’t think my video was the best one,” says Bruhns, a moderate, if modest, Philly native who started speaking out against the war and even testified before Congress about the truth on the ground in 2005. “I think what stood out about my video was that there wasn’t really anything political about it. It was a simple video about a soldier who went to Iraq. My experience in Iraq totally conflicted with what the administration presents to the American public. I just portrayed that I wasn’t fighting terrorists over there, I was just fighting Iraqi people. And I think that had a lot of power.” SMITH caught up with Bruhns when the ad went on the air and found that you can staunchly oppose the war without opposing the troops in the slightest.

You started speaking out immediately when you got back home. What prompted that?
When I was in Iraq I realized there were no weapons of mass destruction, they had nothing to do with 9/11—the Iraqis, Saddam—nothing to do with al Qaeda. So basically every reason they sent us in there for they were wrong about. And I kept hearing the justification for the war and the justification from the administration was, “This is the central front in the war on terror, we’re fighting terror, we’re fighting al Qaeda. These are the people that we’re fighting.” And I was looking around saying, “Not me.” The people of Iraq are trying to attack me, because they don’t want me here, they hate me. That was my experience. There wasn’t any al Qaeda. I don’t want to sound redundant, but that’s how it was.

How did you first get your voice heard?
After I got out of the service I relocated to the Washington, D.C., area, and I started knocking on doors trying to get any members of Congress to listen to me. And I really didn’t get their attention until June of 2005. There was an “Out of Iraq” Congressional Hearing. There was the far-left liberal groups there, and I didn’t belong to that. I don’t
have anything to do with that element. But I approached Congresswoman Barbara Lee. I said, “Listen, I was a soldier over there, and I could offer some insight of what the reality of the situation on the ground is.” She was leaving the hearing room and told one of her assistants to get me a chair. I sat down and started telling my story, what I saw. We exchanged information, and I was contacted by one of Maxine Waters’ assistants, and he said, “Could you come to another hearing and testify about your experience there?” I put together a written statement for him that I read at the second part of the hearing. After that, Marcy Kaptur took my speech over to the House and read a portion of it on the House floor.

Would you say you’re involved in the anti-war movement?
I’m not anti-war at all. I can’t help how people see me on television or people see things I write on the Internet, and they put them on their blogs. There’s nothing I can do about that. But I am not anti-war, I’m not a pacifist, I’m just against the Iraq war. I’m against this war.

How do you feel about the current anti-war movement?
I personally disagree with the mentality of soldiers who return home from Iraq and wear half of their uniform with a pair of jeans or Hawaiian shorts. And they put black magic marker on their desert camouflage top and try to revive that type of 60s anti-war movement. I think it’s more effective if you conduct yourself in a professional manner and speak rationally and coherently and share your experiences in a professional way. I think that will get you further than if you go to Capitol Hill and disrupt a hearing and get arrested.

What’s the difference between the anti-war movement in Vietnam and the one to stop the Iraq war?
Right now you have so many different groups. You have Iraq Veterans Against the War. My main problem with that organization is that they allow vets in their organization who’ve never been to Iraq to call themselves Iraq vets. I get disgusted by that. Why are you out on the street calling yourself an “Iraq vet against the war” when you haven’t been there and had not had to endure the hardships we (Iraq Vets) had to endure? I don’t want to get in a quarrel with IVAW. I don’t believe in pitting vets against vets, especially because both of our organizations share the common goal of bringing the war to an end…we just operate differently.

The difference between VoteVets and an organization like Iraq Vets Against the War is that they’re an anti-war, pacifist organization and they strongly resemble the anti-war movement of the late 60s and early 70s. At VoteVets we’re a solid group of veterans who conduct ourselves professionally, we’re not anti-war, we’re pro-military, and we believe in fighting for this country. The war in Afghanistan was right. Iraq was the wrong thing to do. The time for more troops, that ship has sailed. Now it’s just how we’re going to get our troops out reasonably and responsibly. You can’t say we’re going to give Iraqis democracy with 130,000 troops, and when that doesn’t work say, “Okay, we’re going to send in 30,000 more.” They have to want it for themselves. We completed our mission a long time ago. To keep them there indefinitely is irresponsible.

Do you think we’re having a problem affecting change because we’ve been clouding the personal narratives with politics?
In a way it is. A lot of veterans feel strongly about the policy, how the administration is conducting the war. It’s not a good policy. In a sense politics somehow gets into the discussion. But I think the real power from veterans comes from their experiences. When just regular vets have their voices heard. When the administration says one thing and they say, “Wait a minute, we’ve experienced something totally different.” I think that appeals more to the American public, because we’re not foreign policy experts. I don’t have a master’s degree in political science. We’re not all Capitol Hill staffers or elected officials. But what we do have is our experience, and no one can take that away from us.

Oliver Stone directed the MoveOn ad with you and Ron Kovic. What was it like working with them?
I think Oliver Stone and Ron Kovic both care deeply about veterans. I might not share all the views they have, but we do all support the troops 100 percent. Oliver Stone acknowledges the current situation in Iraq is not working. I think he sees similarities between Iraq and Vietnam. This bothers him, this situation in Iraq, and it compelled him to participate in this project. I think the link comes by the fact that they’re both veterans. Oliver Stone is a pretty big name in the film industry but he volunteered, served his country honorably in Vietnam. He received two purple hearts and a bronze star. Oliver Stone is a hero. I’m not. I’m no hero. I just went, and I saw, and I came home, and I’ve been speaking out about my experiences. Ron Kovic might not have the same ideologies as I do, but the guy took three bullets and gave three quarters of his body to his country. As far as I’m concerned he’s more than earned his right to his opinion. And I respect his opinion.

Have you got any feedback on the VideoVets ad yet?
Sure. I was on my way back home from L.A. and somebody stopped me in the airport and said they saw the Oliver Stone segment on CNN. They thanked me for speaking out. And one of my neighbors stopped me in the parking lot when I was getting my mail and thanked me for what I was doing. At the same time, those are just two examples. I totally acknowledge that there are a lot of people out there who disagree with it and who are going to try and turn it around on me and make it look like I’m not supportive of the troops and that I’m some sort of turncoat, which I think is ridiculous.

How does that work? Don’t troops have the moral authority here?
Ever since we invaded Iraq. I think in the very beginning of the war the Bush administration was very successful in selling the war to the American people when we first went in there. Tim Russert just outlined it when he was talking with George Tenet, and Russert put a poll up that said 70 percent of the American people had approved of the initial invasion. They scared the public into believing Saddam was an imminent threat, and then when we went into Iraq, you had Shock & Awe, and you saw pictures of soldiers in the streets, fighting in Iraq. You had people in the streets beating their chests and waving their flags. Then you have this image of the Saddam statue getting ripped down. Everybody felt so patriotic. Anybody who criticized the war was anti-troops. The administration hid behind the troops, they hid behind the flag, and made it almost impossible to confront them on Iraq. But now it’s just so blatantly obvious that they misled us into war, and if they didn’t mislead us they were just dead wrong about everything, just wrong and incompetent.

Were you expressing this to troops you were there with on the ground?
To my close friends, yes.

Did they share your sentiments?
Not at the time.

What about people back home?
I remember I went to a Kerry-Edwards rally in 2004 in Kansas City. This is a really important story. I was probably the only soldier from Ft. Riley who’d gone there. And when I got there I got surrounded by a group of young men. They were carrying signs that said, “Vote For Bush,” and they saw that I had a Kerry-Edwards button on my shirt. They called me a traitor, told me to move to France. They told me I support terror. They told me to get out of this country. That I don’t deserve to live here. And I’d just come back from Iraq and that was what they said to me, “Get out of this country and move to France.”

Did you have a response?
I bit back pretty hard, hard enough for them to leave me alone. I took a little bit of heat in my unit because I supported John Kerry and John Edwards. I put a sticker on my car, but I didn’t really care. I find it really fascinating that your average army infantry grunt or Marine grunt could identify with the likes of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. These are two guys, both of them, that went way out of their way to avoid the war in Vietnam. And 40 years later these guys find themselves in a position of power and start a Vietnam of their own. And then when anyone disagrees with them they fire back with, “You don’t support our troops.”

The nature of the VideoVets project suggests that the public still doesn’t get something about the war. What stories of your own speak to that notion?
There was a night in Iraq where a roadside bomb had gone off and it disabled one the Humvees our scout platoon was driving around. Luckily nobody was injured. Part of my job was to respond to any disturbance in the area, so they called my squad out there, and some of the local Iraqis said that the people who planted the bomb were in the house next door to them. So we went in the house fast and furious, gathered all the people in the house and put them in the living room. There was a diverse crowd—some old men, some women, some children, there were some men in their 30s, and some teenage boys. Everybody was scared. I wasn’t scared. I could tell we definitely had the upper hand. We had 10 troops in there, locked and loaded, fingers on the trigger, and we had this machine that could detect bomb-making residue on the hands of insurgents.

Everybody was saying, “Should we arrest these people?” And I noticed everybody was scared except for one person. There was a kid in there, maybe 13 or 14 years old; and when I looked at that kid he scared me to death. Because when I looked at his face I saw that he had no fear at all, none. He looked like if he had the chance he would slit my throat right then and there. So I ordered him to be arrested, and they took that kid into custody. They said, “Why?” I said, “Look at him.” He was fearless and had this disgusted look on his face. So they took him back to our unit and our soldier tested his hands and radioed back to our company that he had the highest reading for bomb-making material that the machine had ever got. And this was a kid. A 13-year old kid. He was not al Qaeda, he was not a Baathist. He was a teenage boy who was making bombs and setting them off in our sector trying to kill U.S. soldiers. Now, George Bush will stand up on TV and say, “This is the central front in the War on Terror.” And a lot of the American people just don’t realize that’s not the reality of the situation there.

Staging War: Back Home with Sean Huze

Friday, April 13th, 2007

Michael Slenske's last Back Home From Iraq feature was on Herold Noel.

“As veterans we often get our experience defined for us. For me the goal of it is to provide a creative outlet for veterans, for us to put work out there, and for the community to see it and get a better grasp on what it really means. To see that we’ve got a lot more to offer than just bullets.”

What does a Hollywood extra do after his time as an enlisted soldier ends? Stage war, of course. “I grew up in theater and had what you might consider an atypical path to becoming a Marine Corps infantryman,” says Sean Huze, an actor who joined the Corps at his local recruiting station off Sunset Boulevard on September 12, 2001. No shock then that since his 2003 demobilization from Iraq with the 2nd Light Armored Battalion, the warrior-thespian has returned to the stage in full force. In the past two years, he’s penned two raved-about plays drawn from his military experience, The Sandstorm and Weasel. He recently formed an all-veterans theater company in Los Angeles, VetStage, which boasts 22 members, including vets from Iraq and Afghanistan. Among his crew is actor (and former Army grunt) Ed Asner, who was originally slated to appear in a screen version of Huze’s new play, The Wolf.

The story, which draws on everything from news headlines to Huze’s intense personal combat experiences, has been hailed critically and given him cred in Hollywood. Huze plays the lead role of Joey Dallriva, a PTSD-suffering vet attempting to navigate the horrors of the homefront—alongside military parents coming to grips with losing their children and a Catholic priest having a crisis of faith—while chained up in a psych ward after participating in a Haditha-like rampage in Baghdad.

huze2.jpgIn December, shortly after incorporating VetStage, the ex-Marine corporal spent a week shooting a part in Crash director Paul Haggis’ upcoming Iraq war flick In The Valley of Elah. And after reading about VetStage in the L.A. Times, screenwriter Bobby Moresco, approached Huze and helped turn out a star-studded, sold-out crowd for the March premiere of The Wolf. Shortly after the gala, SMITH caught up with the infantryman-turned-playwright to see the advantages of tackling war from his new high ground.

Why start VetStage? Did you have a model or major influence this sort of “theater of war” concept?
Back in the day, the Vietnam guys had something called VETCo. VetStage member Dan Lauria was part of it. So I knew Vietnam guys had done something like it 20, 30 years ago, but I think there’s certainly a need for it. I just wanted to get it done, to put it out there. Other than the stipulation of the themes and that the theater company consists of prior military, the model of it is that of any other theater company.

You’ve got some older vets on board, so I’m assuming service in Iraq or Afghanistan is not required for membership?
Correct, it’s prior military. Period. I thought about making it exclusively for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, but that’s almost like saying this is not a place for you if you served in Kuwait, or if you served Stateside, or if you were involved in the first Gulf War, or Vietnam, of Korea and not involved in the current operations. I didn’t want to invalidate any veteran’s experience. I feel like the more perspectives we can get, the better when you’re talking about creating. The only requirement for membership is being prior military regardless of whether you served in garrison or combat or both.

Did you find a lot of vets were approaching you to participate in theater?
No. But I also recognized as I got some distance between the time I wrote The Sandstorm and the year and a half before we put it up for the first time how much of a healing process and catharsis I personally experienced being able to express it creatively. And looking around and seeing these struggles in some non-positive outlets that I think a lot of vets turn to to cope, I realized this is something I’d like to make available to other veterans, regardless of what their theater experience level is. The response that I received initially was primarily from veterans that were already into the arts, who already had some sort of inclination to be involved in it, but not exclusively. There are a couple guys who’ve never acted before who are getting involved.

How did your debut on March 23rd go?
Tremendous turn out. Some pretty big names and a lot of veterans were out there, and the general public just turned out in force to support it. We had Jonathan Tucker, the star of The Black Donnellys, who was also in the Paul Haggis film with me, Kirsten Bell, who plays Veronica Mars, Ed Asner, Dan Lauria, Patricia Foulkrod, Paul Rieckhoff, and we played to a packed house. I know I’m forgetting people. It really was an incredible event. Hollywood is a community often demonized, I think, as unpatriotic or a place that doesn’t support troops. But they’ve been overwhelmingly supportive of this endeavor more than any other single industry that I can think of. Right now we’re announced through May 6, but with the response we’re getting we’re already looking at an extension.

What was it like shooting with Paul Haggis?
Incredible. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the project or not, but it just reflects a lot of what my writing does as well—that the first casualty of war is humanity, and I feel the script really embodies that. I only shot for a week. I’m not a lead. But to be a part of that project and to get to be directed by an Oscar winner while doing scenes with another Oscar winner, Tommy Lee Jones, was a pretty incredible experience.

What was your role?
Captain Jim Osher. But it’s pretty integral to the plot so I can’t really talk about it right now.

Do you feel you’re getting more roles now than you did before the war?
I think if somebody’s got a military script I do have a name that’s recognizable in that genre or niche now.

How would you gauge the overall participation of Hollywood community in general?
huze1.jpg Very interested and lots of offers to help. Showing up is a big deal. Wrangling celebrities to attend an event—it sounds like a minor thing, but it’s hard to get people to commit to coffee, so I’m really excited. You have guys, prior military vets like Dan Lauria and Ed Asner getting involved and being able to reach out. Joe Mantegna and Lesley Ann Warren have been really encouraging. I think a lot of people in this community really give a shit. It’s something creative so it’s something they relate to in that regard, and it gives them an opportunity to be supportive of a community they identify with.

What’s Ed Asner’s role in VetStage?
Kind of as a mentor. He’s a member of the troop and it certainly means a lot to these guys to see a face they grew up with that’s also a vet. A lot of people don’t know that about Ed. He’s known for a lot of things, but having served a couple years in the Army is not one of them. I think it means a lot to him, and I think it’s inspiring for [VetStage members] to see someone with that similar background that’s gone on and achieved a very real level of success in this industry. Ed’s got, I guess, about a dozen Emmys, a half-dozen Golden Globes, and a half-dozen SAG Awards, and when he was our age he was just another grunt in the Army, so I think that his involvement really serves to inspire the other guys.

And he was slated to have a role in the movie version that never came to be, right?
The company that had the option on the film didn’t get it off the ground so their option expired, but it gave me a great opportunity. It’s funny, when you initially think something didn’t work out, but after a little time passes you gain some perspective and realize it worked out exactly as it should have. This gave me a chance to go back in and do a lot more script-development; I think I have an infinitely better story.

And Bobby Moresco?
He’s conducting writing and acting workshops. They’re free for VetStage members and the general public pays money to attend, with all the proceeds going to VetStage. He’s done two workshops—one for actors, one for writers—and he’s part of the host committee and really did a lot to get the word out. It is L.A., it is Hollywood, and to get people interested and excited, you know having some recognizable faces in the crowd certainly helps. Bobby did a lot to help make that happen, and he also made sure people paid. A lot of celebrities feel that at other events their presence, just being there, was their part. I feel really grateful that they not only showed up but they financially contributed while they were there.

How many vets have come to you with scripts?
huze3.jpg I’ve had about a half-dozen script submissions from veterans. We’ve really been focused on getting our first production up, which just opened, so I didn’t have the time to script-read, but we’re going to get caught up on that now. With the Bobby Moresco workshop we did in March we found about four or five veterans from that. One of the first veterans I didn’t know who joined the group is a Marine Corps reservist from New York who just got back from his second tour in Iraq; he heard of me from The Sandstorm. And another guy, Brian Seuffert, is a fellow Marine who came to L.A. to get involved in the industry. He tracked me down, fired me an email, and jumped right in.

Is there an overarching political goal with VetStage?
As a nonprofit we don’t endorse any policy or candidate, but I think the most important thing whether someone is Republican or Democrat, political, not political, whatever—if they’re prior military this is a good place for them to sort it out and define their experience. As veterans we often get our experience defined for us. For me the goal of it is to provide a creative outlet for veterans, for us to put work out there, and for the community to see it and get a better grasp on what it really means, To see that we’ve got a lot more to offer than just bullets.

You were also one of the subjects of The Ground Truth, which was shortlisted for a Best Documentary Oscar. What was that experience like?
I’m very pleased to have been a part of it, I’m just very glad I could lend my voice to affect some change. I’m very proud for Patricia Foulkrod and Focus Features. I know a lot of people who hosted Ground Truth screening parties, and a lot of people have seen it. I hope that all of these projects cumulatively become this deafening roar that the country has to respond to and pay attention to, because we are responsible as a society when we send men and women off to war. We are responsible for them. And I think these projects that really drive that point home are important to be in the American consciousness. I’m certainly proud that I’m part of a film that I think does that.

Do you think people are watching enough of these films?
They will eventually. If I didn’t believe that, I’d go sell car insurance or something. Make more money and work less hours. Paul Haggis said it best when he accepted his Academy Award, and it’s probably one of my favorite quotes from Bertolt Brecht: “Art is not a mirror to be help up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” I do believe that we can be a hammer and that we can affect change.

What is it about stage that helps to better talk about this war?
I think stage provides a really intimate experience between the actors and the audience; it’s almost participatory, whether you break the fourth wall or not. They’re right there. You know the majority of productions are put up in really small theaters, whether it’s Equity Showcase in New York or 99-seat theaters in L.A. and that affords the audience a really personal experience with what they’re witnessing and I think there’s a lot of power in that. One of the advantages of stage is that you can put together a really great stage play for about $30,000. You can’t make a good movie for that. It affords some talented people with a voice and message to get it out there very quickly.

Is there something about not being able to run away?
Yeah, they got you. You’re there. You can’t pause it and take a smoke break and shake it off.

I read you’re considering doing some David Rabe material for VetStage?
We are considering one of his plays, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, for later on in the season, but I would love to be in touch with David personally. Particularly at VetStage I want to have world premieres of veteran-authored work. I would consider it a privilege for VetStage to do a world premiere with David Rabe. Put it in the magazine and maybe his people will contact me?

What else is in the works?
We’re looking at things like John DiFusco’s Tracers, The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, possibly revisiting a piece from the Vietnam era, and putting up all veterans in a cast. I really am looking for world premieres. I want to get to the point where it’s all world premieres, all veteran authors. That’s important to me.

Back Home with Herold Noel

Thursday, January 18th, 2007

Herold Noel’s War At Home
By Michael Slenske

Michael Slenske writes SMITH’s Back Home From Iraq column

What’s the difference between a tank fueler working in Iraq for Halliburton and a grunt doing the same job for the United States Army? One gets a six-figure salary; the other gets a rifle and a steady supply of MREs. It doesn’t take much imagination to guess who’s more likely to end up homeless upon returning from the war. (Hint: It’s not the one with the fat KBR pay stubs.) Just ask Herold Noel.

After spending eight months in Iraq—during which time he took part in the initial push to the Baghdad Airport as a fueler with the 3rd Infantry, 7th Cavalry, out of Fort Stewart, Georgia—Noel returned home to Savannah in August 2003 as an unemployed 24-year-old with few options. Having already extended his enlistment beyond the standard four-year contract, he was told he’d have re-enlist if he wanted back into the army. With a wife and three children to support, he tried finding a civilian job as a commercial fueler (even with Halliburton). Unfortunately, his vet status didn’t broaden his employment opportunities. Running out of time, luck, and money, Noel packed up his family and went to live in a tiny bedroom in his mother-in-law’s apartment in Brooklyn, the borough in which he was born.

Unemployment wasn’t the only problem dogging Noel, who also returned with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “I was always jumping out of my sleep, scaring the kids, walking around the house in the middle of the night like I’m looking for something—so I had to move out,” says Noel, who would later become the subject of the award-winning documentary When I Came Home, which was just released on DVD. “After that, I was on the road. I was in the car, sleeping everywhere I could sleep. Sometimes, I’d just go up on the roof of a building. I was roughing it.” Noel ended up roughing it on the streets of New York for a year—all the while trying to get disability and housing benefits from the V.A. After six months, he finally got his disability payments, but it took a year for him to get off the streets, and that happened only with the help of an anonymous donor. “They are creating terrorists,” he says, “because they don’t pay us any mind.”

With some 600 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan estimated to be living on the streets—and with the president calling for the deployment of more than 20,000 additional troops in the so-called surge —Noel is engaging in another war, speaking to high-school and college students, rap stars, and politicians to raise awareness about this new generation of homeless vets. His mission is to help avoid what happened after Vietnam, a war that left 150,000 troops homeless after the fighting stopped.

Did you always know you wanted to join the military?
I didn’t always know, but at that time I was 19, I was going to New York City Technical College [in downtown Brooklyn], I had two kids. And I was living with my mother. So what’s the best thing for me to do? Join the military and have my own home, right?

Did you ever think you’d go to war?
Nope. It was before 9/11, before all of that. It never crossed my mind.

And after 9/11?
Yes. I did, but I didn’t want to believe it. I was stationed in Korea when 9/11 happened. After Korea, I was stationed in Fort Stewart. We were supposed to go to Kuwait for training, but everybody knew we were going to war. I was about to leave the military because my time was up. But me trying to be a whole horse soldier and all that, I didn’t want my friends to go to war and I’m not there. I’m not a person who likes to hear about shit; I like to be in the midst of shit, so I joined.

Operationally, what were you doing over there?
We were the spearheads of the war. Our mission was to take over Baghdad Airport. Every other unit was attached to us. It was March 2003. The president gave Saddam 24 hours to get out, but everybody knew Saddam wasn’t going nowhere. The night before we went in, we heard the air force dropping bombs. My sergeant was crying and talking about “those are people out there.” Daylight came, we was in front of a berm before Iraq. We bust the berm, and all we see is T72 tanks. We see a whole bunch of those blown up, bodies hanging out of them. So I was basically happy, we didn’t have to bust out our guns, because I was in a support platoon, which consists of mechanics, fuelers, the people that fill up the Apaches and the tanks.

How is that job?
Sounds easy, but shit, it’s far from it. I only chose the job because women did it, but I was sadly mistaken. They put me in a Cav unit. It was all men. It was, like, the second or third day—I know I didn’t sleep for two or three days—and I was driving the whole time, since I was the lowest rank. We were about to hit the hard turf, and we were almost there, sitting by the truck, smoking a cigarette, just bullshitting, when a mortar landed right in the middle of us. Everybody took off running, and all you heard was BOOM! But it dug so deep in the sand that all you saw was sand shooting out. Next thing you know, everyone jumped in their trucks and just scattered. I didn’t know I could move that quick. My sergeant was driving, and he had his headphones on. And another mortar blew up right by our truck, and I’m in a fucking fuel truck. I was, like, “Move the fucking truck!” We take off; our truck gets stuck in the sand. Then a big 88—it’s like a big-ass unarmed pickup truck for broken-down tanks—slid right in front of us. If we took five seconds more, we all would have been dead.

So how did that play on your mind through the course of the war?
I thought the government sent me there to die. That was my first reaction: “I’m going to die.”

It felt like a suicide mission?
Yes. Because we were not supposed to see that shit. I’m a support platoon; you have to protect us so we can fill you up. After that day, all we were getting was attacked. And I’m talking for the whole eight months we were there, even when we were leaving.

And how did that play on you when you came back?
When I came back, it was unreal to me because I was supposed to be dead. That story I just told you—that was one event, just one of many. And that’s just the beginning, just a light coat. I didn’t even tell you the horror. When I first got back, I couldn’t believe I was alive. I couldn’t believe I was looking at people. I couldn’t believe I was hugging my kids. I couldn’t even touch my kids at a point, because I had seen kids die over there. I was looking at a little girl in Iraq who got her head blown off, and I’m looking at my daughter. The girl was the same age as my daughter.

How soon after you out-processed did you fall upon hard times?
It wasn’t right after. When I got out, I was planning on going back in. So I stayed in Georgia for a while. I was going to go to a recruiting station in Savannah and just go back in. They told me I had to get out to go back in.

Why did you want to go back right away?
That’s all I knew. I seen the horror. I’ve been there, I can’t believe I’m alive, but that’s what I know. I tried it, I got out, stayed, I tried to get a job as a fueler on the civilian side. They told me I needed a CDL [Commercial Drivers License]. In Georgia, jobs are scarce. Trying to look for factory jobs is tough, so I tried to become a truck driver, but they were telling me you had to go to school for, like, 16 months out of state. Then I tried to work for Halliburton.

Yeah, I put in my application to work for Halliburton, because they were paying, like, $20,000 a month in Iraq, and the bonus is like, $50,000. So in, like, six months, you’ll have over $100,000 in your bank account, and I know people working for Halliburton right now.

So what happened?
They accepted my application; I got approved. You got to go through this whole process—go to Texas, do some training—then they send you off.

And you did all that?
No. I was in Georgia. They gave me a letter, my ticket. I packed my bag. We were getting ready to go, so I called the guy again, just making sure of things. I asked, “What kind of weapon do you give us?”

What did he say?
He said, “No, you don’t get weapons.” I was, like, “What? I’ve been over there. You want me to go over there with no weapon and just a gas mask?” So I hung up the phone. I didn’t use the ticket. So they tried to get me some security job, tried to refer to some other agency, but I was, like, “No.”

What did you do then?
Money was running low, and I was paying rent. I called family members who told me to come to New York. So I came to New York. I was reading a brochure about V.A., and it said you could get education benefits, disability benefits, and I do have shrapnel in my knees, and I need a home. “Can you help me?” They asked, “Do you have a job?” And I was, like, “No, I don’t, but I still need a place to stay.” So they told me to go to the shelter. They told me I needed to stay in the shelter for a while to get Section 8. So I went through that, and I went to DHS [Department of Homeless Services], and they said they did have a DHS just for veterans, but they cut that program off a long time ago. So I said, “What am I supposed to do now? I’ve got kids, a wife, a new baby—come on, I need a place to stay.” But they said they can’t help me, and they referred me back to the shelter.

What drove you to start sleeping in your car?
The doctors call it post-traumatic stress disorder. I felt like less of a man just having to go through this. I’m in my sister-in-law’s house, and she has kids. She had to move those kids out of the room we were staying in, now I was going through my own little issues—my wife says I’m scaring the kids, so I had to move out. I had to leave. They allowed my wife and my youngest son to stay there, but my other two kids wasn’t by my wife. I had custody of them and had to take my kids with me, so I had to move them back to West Palm Beach, back to their mother. She bought the tickets for me so they could move back down there.

What’s the spectrum of where you would stay in a week?
Every night, I would stay somewhere different. Sometimes I would stay at my aunt’s place just to take a bath, but I wouldn’t let anyone know what I’m going through—you feel me? Because everybody knows I just came out of the army. Now, what am I going to tell them, I’m on the street?

Were you embarrassed?
Hell, yeah! Wouldn’t you feel embarrassed?

At a certain point, for sure.
If you went through what I went through, seeing kids getting killed, looking at death in the eyeball, and you came back alive, and you feel like you went through all that for a reason… They trained me to be a killer. Now you telling me you’re going to give this killer nothing, and you’re going to put me on the fucking street? So once I got rid of my kids and I knew my wife was staying with my mother-in-law, I fucking snapped. This is the part you didn’t see in the documentary—the part where I had to do what I had to do. I brought Dan [Lohaus, the director of When I Came Home] to the hood. I brought him to the drug houses and the places where the stick-up kids was, but they thought I was crazy, so they didn’t mess with me. They wanted me to be a problem—I’ll be a fucking problem. You want to put me on the street, I ain’t taking it like that.

So at what point did you realize you needed to start engaging in this war back home?
When I found out how the media works. When Paul Rieckhoff sat me down and told me how the media works.

Were you leery of the media?
Hell, yeah. I thought the media was full of shit.

Were you talking to any reporters in Iraq?
CNN was following us everywhere. The colonel was trying to get rid of them. People were telling them to get away.

Did you write letters home?
No. I wrote little poems that I sent home. The stuff they have over there now, we didn’t have any of that. We didn’t have Internet—we barely had phones. We didn’t have anything. We were the reason why they have that shit over there now.

When did you know you needed to start speaking out?
All that speaking out was from Paul, because Paul was a real soldier, and he does it with such ease. And I thought. “I could do that.” He said I had a passion about this. He said just say what’s in your heart and say what you feel, because once you do something with passion, nothing will go wrong. Those insurgents in Iraq have passion; they have passion to blow themselves up—you going to die for that? I’ll die just to save another soldier’s life so they don’t end up like how I ended up. Because that’s how Vietnam vets ended up: fucked up and drunk, getting all into drugs, ending up on the street for seven years. Not me.

What’s the main problem causing homelessness among troops?
Lack of resources. That’s it. That’s the basic point. I went to a press conference at the Salvation Army vets homeless shelter in Queens on December 21 because Black Veterans for Social Justice’s Ricky Singh called me and told me Mayor Bloomberg is going to give a press conference about this homeless-vets situation because they seen the film, Mayor Bloomberg seen the film, all these people seen the film. But they were keeping it on the hush-hush. So I get to the homeless shelter, and the guys were Vietnam vets, and I’m looking at them, like, “Wow.” And they were going to make an announcement that they were going to give 100 vets permanent residences by the next 100 days.

That’s it?
No, they said they were going to raise that up because they said they have 700 homeless vets in the city now. So they put all the homeless Vietnam vets in the front, and they were going to give three homeless vets residences that day. It was part of whatever plan Mayor Bloomberg is trying to do. We have a whole bunch of camera crews behind us—New York 1—and I’m thinking this is a vets event, ask questions about the vets because that is what I came here to hear. This one lady asks about the pollution in Staten Island. I’m, like, “What the fuck?” Then they start talking about [former New York State comptroller, Alan] Hevesi, then some guy starts asking about some book some guy just wrote, and he’s sitting there answering these questions. He’s not even saying, “No, this is about the vets.” He’s answering these questions. So another vet from Vietnam Veterans of America came in. He says, “Excuse me, mayor.” He had a loud tone of voice, so the mayor had to listen to him, and he started telling the truth. He was, like, “The V.A. don’t offer this, and every time we have a thing for vets, the city doesn’t like to fund vets-only programs.” Bloomberg was just looking stupid, and the V.A. Secretary [Jim Nicholson] he was there looking stupid, because the guy said some real shit.

So 2008 rolls around, who do you vote for to fix this situation?
Barack Obama.

Why’s that?
Because his name is the only name I’m hearing who is trying to do something. He’s really, really trying to do something with it, but they are picking away at his ideas. With a little understanding and talking to, he’d be great. There’s other politicians that don’t agree with it.

How do you feel about that kind of disconnect? What causes it?
Greed. People forget about their history. They’re scared to make a change.

What’s your message when you speak to groups?
My message is getting people to think about the soldier. Because there’s a soldier in everybody’s life. You may know a friend of a friend, who has a brother. And that soldier is fighting for your future. If you don’t want to see Armageddon real soon or World War III, where you see people in America carrying AK’s freely, people in America sticking people up freely, where our money ain’t shit. Imagine all the Bentleys didn’t mean shit. We’re preventing that—so why put us out on the street?

Are you enlisting anyone else in this war?
I’m reaching out to superstars, rappers. I’m trying to get people to rap about it, to sing about it, because I dabble a little bit in the music industry. I produce a little bit—I make beats. Dan Lohaus talked to Questlove; I talked to Chuck D, Busta Rhymes, Eminem. Once they start singing about it, the politicians’ kids hear the music, they’re going to ask questions. It’s all a mindfuck. All you have to do is structure how people see society.

What are they saying?
They’re feeling it. Everyone I talked to. It’s just what they do about it. Are they going to mention it in their next interview? Are they going to do something? I ain’t hearing nothing yet. I don’t hear anything about it on the radio. If you make music about it, you can make a hit just by talking about a soldier’s life. Come on. There’s people talking about getting shot nine times for some unnecessary shit. But imagine somebody getting their arms blown off for something legit. Somebody losing their face, or somebody getting shot 14 times and living.

What will end your war back home?
I’m going to keep doing this until I talk to someone who’s going to really do something. Until I’m sitting down at a table in the White House or a conference room in D.C,. and the people that can make things happen are listening to me. But I don’t think it will ever happen in my time. I already see how it is. Hillary sat down with me—it boosted my head up—but I think if Paul Riekhoff weren’t in the room we never would have spoken. Look how long it’s been happening. It’s already repeating itself.

The Vet Factor

Monday, October 30th, 2006

Does fighting in Iraq make you fit for office?
By Michael Slenske

Michael Slenske writes SMITH’s Back Home From Iraq column.

“You can’t tell me I don’t support the troops. I am the troops.”

Of the 1008 candidates running this election, six have a credential the others can’t match: they’ve served the U.S. armed forces in the war on terror. Among these, you’ll find an ex-Recon Marine whose unit rescued 31 wounded men during a firefight with Fedayeen militiamen, a Black Hawk helicopter pilot who lost both her legs to a rocket-propelled grenade, and a former vice admiral of the Navy. And if the “Iraq Factor” is as big a factor as the pundits and political strategists would have us believe, the incumbents facing these vets, none of whom have served in the military, should be hard-pressed to retain their seats in the midterm elections. But will serving on the front lines in the war on terror really offer anyone a political advantage this fall?

Clockwise from the top right: Van Taylor, Andrew Duck, and David Harris.

“Definitely,” says pioneering Netroots political strategist, Joe Trippi. “The Democrats have been positioned as soft on terror and weak on defense since 9/11. It takes the Republicans’ core argument and pulls the rug out from under it. I think they’ve got a huge advantage.” And with Iraq mired in civil war it would appear that Democrats own the “Vet Factor.” Why? According to Trippi, Republican vets—much like the president—simply can’t extract any more mileage from “stay the course” rhetoric. “There’s a combination of failed policy and things going badly in Iraq, so it doesn’t benefit a Republican to defend the president’s policies just because they’ve served in Iraq.”

Author and Iraq vet Nathaniel Fick isn’t so sure. “I’m not of the school that says you have to have served in uniform in order to be a good commander in chief,” says Fick, who wrote One Bullet Away, about the Marine Recon platoon he led in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003. “Look at Lincoln and FDR—both exceptional wartime presidents who didn’t serve in the military but made a point of surrounding themselves by people who had.” As a member of the board of advisers for the PAC, Fick works to get vets elected from both parties, though he stresses that these candidates need to connect with voters on more than just the war if they want to win. “I think their constituents care more about jobs and health care than they do about Iraq. But combat service should mean something. Senior leaders are grown over decades—if we want to have people with credibility to stand up and make or question strategic decisions in twenty or thirty years, then we need to start grooming them now.”

SMITH wanted to find out how a politician’s personal war experience fuels his political philosophy, and desire to serve his country once again. We extended interview requests to every Iraq vet in the midterm elections. Maryland’s Andrew Duck, and Texas candidates Van Taylor and David Harris answered the call.

ANDREW DUCK (Maryland-6)
After serving over twenty years in the Army—including three tours in Bosnia and one in Iraq, where he acted as an intelligence liaison to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force—Democrat Andrew Duck, 43, returned to his hometown of Frederick to work as an adviser to the Pentagon on Army Intelligence issues for Northrop Grumman. He’s running against Republican incumbent Roscoe Bartlett.

How has your personal experience in Iraq shaped your political agenda as a Congressional candidate?
The fact that I served on the ground in Iraq gives me credibility and a great deal of latitude. You can’t tell me I don’t support the troops. I am the troops. I was the guy in the 120-degree heat. In the last year 14 years I’ve spent time in Bosnia, in Iraq, whereas the guy in office now spent the last 14 years behind a desk not getting things done. That presents a very stark choice.

What was the most surprising thing you saw at war?
The most surprising moment for me was when we first got word that we were not going to bring back the Iraqi regular army. I was in a tent in with a group of field grade Marines and we just looked at each other incredulous. We were told the Pentagon didn’t have a contractor to train them. That just doesn’t make sense to me. We have the greatest military instructors in the world, they’re called the Army Special Forces. In 2003, I also had a meeting with a guy from the Army Supply Board about getting up armored vehicles and he said the production line was full. I told him to build another production line, we’d use every one that came off the line and he just looked at me like I was crazy. That’s the level of corruption I personally witnessed.

What was the most surprising thing you saw when you came home?
I wouldn’t characterize much as being shocking. I came home and people were very supportive. You had people coming up to you at gas stations thanking you for your service. It’s America, there’s a bunch of different opinions.

Does being a veteran give you a better sense of the current political landscape?
Yes. And the gentleman I’m running against was of age during World War II and avoided service. The big question today is what can you do for national defense; I can speak not from a hypothetical-theoretical perspective, I can speak directly to the situation on the ground. I’ve looked into the eyes of Iraqis. There aren’t enough people with that body of knowledge. It’s unbelievable that the president signed a bill establishing one set of laws for enlisted men and another for the men in Washington, and the soldiers are being held accountable for the politicians’ decisions. It’s indefensible.

What is the most pressing issue facing vets in your district?
Health care. Providing access for vets who are already here and those coming back from Iraq. They’re creating thousands of more vets and Bush is cutting funding to the VA. How are we going to get by if we’re going to have an increasing need for these services? Right now, we screen every returning soldier for PTSD, but more than seventy percent of those who meet the criteria are not referred for treatment.

How do you plan to resolve that issue if you’re elected?
The first thing we need to do is adequately fund the VA and make sure they raise their requirement numbers. Right now, they’re saying Iraq and Afghanistan vets are an anomaly. We also need to have a more active screening program. Not only when they come home, but a six-month follow-up, a one-year follow-up, and we need to make sure that we’re paying these guys so they’re not losing money while they’re getting screened. And we need to build long-term care facilities for Vietnam and Korean vets alongside rehab centers for the young guys coming back. You’ve got two different patient populations, and they’d benefit each other—it’s a great synergy.

Would you go back to war if you were called up again? Why?
If my country needs me, of course. A large part of the reason I’m running is to not leave behind the guys I served with. We created a mess. America is about taking responsibility and that’s what we need to do in Iraq. I expect to get elected to Congress, and I expect to be over there [in Iraq] again, talking to people on the ground, which is what we need to be doing to get this thing fixed.

Born in Swarthmore, Penn., Democrat David Harris enlisted in the Army in 1992 then transferred into the Reserves in 2002 just months before he was mobilized for Operation Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. Harris served in Iraq for 14 months as a Logistics Officer and is now running against Republican incumbent Joe Barton.

How has your personal experience in Iraq shaped your political agenda as a Congressional candidate?
I’ve always been politically active, but seeing how we were treated, the lack of planning and resources across the board, I never want anyone else to go through that again. I want to make it better for those going to war. I want them to have the right tools in place before we send them out the door the next time.

What was the most surprising thing you saw at war?
The biggest surprise was the complete disparity between active duty and reserved forces in terms of training, equipment, quality of life. I served active duty for 12 years. When I was mobilized as a reservist we had to fight for everything we got—desert camo, uniforms—we were using twelve-year-old Humvees, which we were doing missions with alongside active duty units with new up-armored vehicles and night-vision goggles.

What was the most surprising thing you saw when you came home?
Again, how reservists and guards were treated when demobilizing. We got no medical evaluations, no dental or psychological evaluations—they just passed us off on the VA. We were one of the first units mobilized and one of the first to come home, and there was no plan for us—no counseling, no support groups for people having marital issues, no health concerns.

Does being a veteran give you a better sense of the current political landscape?
I don’t think me being in a uniform alone qualifies me for office, but I understand sacrifice, and I have a duty to my country to work for it. Those in Washington who have served are few and far between. I do think veterans in general have a better understanding, and they can ask the hard questions before going into a theater of war. We have been on the ground. We know that anything you do can set off a world event. I understand these consequences, and that the bills you sign in Congress are no different. They have an effect on not only people here, but around the world. I have traveled the world, led people, worked with all types of ethnic backgrounds, so I understand a lot of the issues normal people face—how to pay for health care, living on one income. These issues affect the military, as well as American families.

What is the most pressing issue facing vets in your district?
Health care. I’m an active believer that if you go and fight for this country, no matter whether you were wounded or not, you should have health care for life. People are still battling health concerns from Vietnam, Korea and as recent as the first Gulf War and these guys are still struggling to have their cases heard because there’s a backlash between the VA and the three branches. To this day, the VA is still refusing to admit there’s Gulf War Syndrome. Congress keeps cutting VA funding, but at the same time they’re pushing more guys out the door for Iraq.

How do you plan to resolve that issue if you’re elected?
The first thing is to prioritize where the money is being spent. Most of the money for defense is caught up in discretionary spending and gets sucked up by the war on terror. Only a small percentage of the $84 billion of Katrina aid was marked for emergency response—the rest was soaked up by Homeland Security. We need to lock up the money and allocate it accordingly, and it should be proportional throughout the country.

Would you go back to war if you were called up again? Why?
I would do everything in my power not to go, but until my resignation is approved I have a duty to go.

VAN TAYLOR (Texas-17)
The only Republican vet running for office this year, 34-year-old Van Taylor joined the Marines after graduating from Harvard. In Iraq, he led a Recon battalion with Task Force Tarawa’s first platoon and participated in the rescue of Jessica Lynch. He owns and operates a real estate company in Waco, where’s he running against Democratic incumbent Chet Edwards.

How has your personal experience in Iraq shaped your political agenda as a Congressional candidate?
Having served in Iraq I realize war is a terrible, but tyranny is worse. I realize we need to stop people who want to enslave and destroy us. One of the main reasons I got into running for office was to go and stop liberal Democrats from undercutting our will to defend ourselves.

What was the most surprising thing you saw at war?
Two things. One was the terrible price of freedom and how awful the human suffering is in war—how terrible war really is. The second thing is how awful tyranny is and how grateful the Iraqi people were about what we were doing over there. War is a bad thing, but tyranny is much worse.

What was the most surprising thing you saw when you came home?
Coming back, I had a really renewed respect for our country and our way of life.

Does being a veteran give you a better sense of the current political landscape?
There was a time in our country when most of our Congressmen were war veterans, but those days are behind us. Today, there’s not a single member of Congress who’s served in the front lines of the war on terror. There’s actually only 25 who’ve served in battle. And we need more people in office who can speak with a moral authority about the war on terror.

What is the most pressing issue facing vets in your district?
Clearly keeping the VA hospital open. That’s a key issue here in central Texas. It’s been in danger of closing, and it’s a center of excellence for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and that takes a lot of time to work through. Iraq veterans are really going to need that hospital.

How do you plan to resolve that issue if you’re elected?
We need to send more people who are committed to veterans and have the moral authority to speak for them. As a combat veteran I’ll have a unique voice.

Would you go back to war if you were called up again? Why?
Absolutely. In a second. If my country needs me I’ll go, and I’ll go anywhere. It doesn’t matter.

9/11 Within Our Sites

Monday, September 11th, 2006

At last count there more than 63 billion sites* about September 11. These 11 made us stop, click and think.

*slight exaggeration

By Michael Slenske

Michael Slenske writes SMITH’s Back Home from Iraq Column

What if - as ur-blogger Andrew Sullivan imagined recently for New York magazine - 9/11 had never happened? If Al Gore were president? If Al Qaeda unleashed attacks on 30 separate New York subway stops (instead of four planes)? If the war on terror were more than a photo-op in Afghanistan? Would any of us be any safer? Maybe.

But playing “what if” games five years ex post facto is a thorny proposition: 9/11 did happen. And whether the catastrophic events of that quiet fall morning did or did not unfold as we’ve been informed by the administration, the damage has been done. In part, because the blogosphere - much like the mainstream media - let its eyes (and words) drift away from the hallowed grounds - into the rabbit holes of TomKat, Plamegate, John Mark Karr, and others - over the past five years.

Luckily, there are a handful of personal media movers who’ve kept a constant vigil over the sites, and some who’ve risen from their ashes, to remind us what it is our troops are still dying for.

Where Were You?
Were you “nine months pregnant sleeping on a couch next to my mom,” “engaged in a sexual act and couldn’t go once you heard of the carnage,” or “in class…facing the towers” as they fell? No? Well, some folks were, and they shared those experiences on , a user-generated project started by three teenagers (Geoffrey Hick, CA ; Lane Collins, NC; Marie Pelkey, VT) on September 15, 2001. Over a year the trio collected more than 2500 9/11 recollections from around the world, which are still as raw and powerful today as they were five years ago. Feeling left out? Don’t. The similarly titled - which has collected more than one thousand personal stories since its December 2001 launch - is still taking submissions.

Kristen Breitweiser on HuffPo
If you’re the scorn of Ann Coulter you must be doing something right. At least that’s true in the case of 9/11 widow-turned-HuffPo blogger Kristen Breitweiser. Since spring of 2005 the “Jersey Girl” has filed extensive posts on everything from Giuliani intruding on the victim’s impact hearings at the Moussaoui trial (”Which family member did Guiliani lose in the attacks?”) to the NSA wiretapping program (”Our intelligence agencies held a treasure trove of intelligence on the 9/11 hijackers, intelligence that was gathered through their initially unencumbered surveillance. President Bush should busy himself by investigating why that information was not capitalized upon to stop the 9/11 attacks.”). Be sure to pick up her new memoir Wake-Up Call (complete with a note to Ann) this month.

The Art Project
Everyone has an opinion about 9/11, but how many communicated them via images? For those of the visual persuasion there’s’s virtual exhibition, which gauged the artists’ response to terrorism (from September 2001 to December 2002). While closed to submissions, this provocative disastoplex (of paintings, sculpture, and photo installations, complete with image-based call-and-answer discussion boards) continues to prompt dialogue by remaining online indefinitely.
In the last five years over 250 proper 9/11 memorials (incorporating WTC steel) have popped up around the world, except, of course, at Ground Zero. This clearinghouse of 9/11 commemoration - from Shanksville to New Zealand - is courtesy of mountaineering guru Roger Rowlett, who keeps track of all the latest memorial news and scandals. In other words, Michael Arad and Larry Silverstein must hate it.

Flickr: Post 9/11 Project
In order to see “how life has changed - or not - since 9/11,” every year on the anniversary of the attacks this community group calls on Flickr members to share as many words and photos from their September 11 experiences as possible over a 24-hour blitz. Get ready for the deluge.

Paul Thompson and Matthew Everett’s 9/11 Timeline
The Wiki-like calls itself “an experiment in open-content civic journalism.” The jewel of this spot is an extensive September 11 timeline - which pulls material from the 9/11 Commission Report, American Airlines employees and 80 new posts, among others, from the two researchers - and is now the subject of the documentary 9/11 Press For Truth. If you can’t slog through all 2216 entries in one sitting there are plenty of diversions on the CR’s wide-ranging Iraq and Katrina timelines.

The 2996 Project
Started by L.A.-based writer D. Chancellor Roe, the 2996 Project aims to “join together 2,996 volunteer bloggers on September 11, 2006 for a tribute to the victims of 9/11…by remembering their lives, and not by remembering their murderers.” Among the participants are National Center for Public Policy Research prez Amy Ridenour and hawkish blogger Michelle Malkin.
Firehouse magazine’s site posts audio, video, photo, and blog entries - from initial radio dispatches by a Brooklyn firehouse to news that 283 WTC rescue workers have developed cancer (33 have died) since the attacks - in their 9/11 news section. In the coming week the site will reopen their “Victim Database” and serve as a Ground Zero for first responder bulletins from the last five years.
“The rebuilding process has been marred by scandal, controversy, and squabbles over power. I just wish that the hole in the ground can be filled by something worthy of the site sooner rather than later,” writes this New Jersey legal buff who’s kept a hawkish vigilance (a 164-part series, in fact) over the ongoing “Battle for Ground Zero” since 2004.

“George Bush had better be fucking right” is how IAVA founder Paul Rieckhoff begins his war memoir Chasing Ghosts. With 2973 troops already killed in action, and 20,666 wounded it doesn’t seem like that’s the case. Fortunately, Rieckhoff, along with vet-bloggers “Mad Mike” Zacchea, Ray Kimball, and Perry Jefferies, is keeping the administration’s feet to the fire over a war in a country the President, himself, admitted had “nothing” to do with the 9/11 attacks. With any luck they’ll help us avoid a second “2996 Project.”
Perhaps the most widely known of the sites on our list doesn’t disappoint. Directed by Imagine Entertainment (Cinderella Man, The Da Vinci Code) president Jim Whitaker, Project Rebirth has been documenting the resurrection of Ground Zero - with six 35mm time-lapse cameras - since March 11, 2002. In that time the crew has assembled an extensive news archive - from recent pieces in the Times about EPA whistleblowers exposing the danger of the site’s dust to a 2005 editorial from Freedom Tower architect Daniel Libeskind. For overhead shots - of Ground Zero and the Pentagon - check out’s “September 11: One Year Viewed from Space” feature. While they only offer a year’s perspective, its satellite, IKONOS, was the only hi-res commercial camera in orbit over WTC and the Pentagon immediately following the attacks.

Korey Rowe - The Loose Cannon of 9/11

Thursday, August 10th, 2006

Back Home from Iraq with Army grunt-turned-film producer Korey Rowe
By Michael Slenske

Michael Slenske writes SMITH’s Back Home From Iraq column.

“I see myself as a person who’s a buffer between conspiracy theorist and military informant, so I thought my help on Loose Change would make it a better quality piece, something more mainstream people, who aren’t dove into conspiracies, could really watch and take in.”

It took two governors, four Congressmen, three former White House officials, and two special counsels two years to compile. They reviewed over two and half million pages of classified and de-classified documents, consulted 1200 sources in 10 countries, and spent over $15 million of the taxpayers’ money in the process. And on July 22, 2004, the 9/11 Commission issued their final report about the terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Is it possible that two twentysomethings from “a small hippie town that time forgot” could undermine that entire effort with $8,000 and a laptop?

Korey RoweYes, if you ask ex-Army specialist Korey Rowe. The 23-year old from Oneonta, New York returned home from two tours—one to Afghanistan; the other to Iraq—to help his best friends, Dylan Avery (director) and Jason Bermas (researcher), produce the sensational 80-minute, Web-based documentary Loose Change, which seeks to establish the government’s complicity in the terror attacks by addressing some very tough questions: Why wasn’t Ground Zero treated like a crime scene? How did both towers “freefall” to the ground “in 9.2 seconds” in just under two hours? And where are the black boxes from American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175?

Korey Rowe in IraqWhile the film is admittedly flawed and draws on some dubious new media sources, including Wikipedia, it’s inarguably sparked a new interest in the “9/11 Truth” movement. Since its April 2005 debut online, Loose Change (the first and second edition) has received over 10 million viewings, it was just featured in the August issue of Vanity Fair, and the final cut of the film is expected to debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January. “I’ve got four movie studios [including Paramount and Miramax] beating down my door to make the final cut,” says Rowe, who’s now got offices from California to London to handle his growing company. Last week SMITH caught up with Rowe—who’s been labeled everything from a traitor to a CIA operative in the past year—to see how he went from protecting the Iraq-Syrian border against Muslim insurgents to a self-described “conspiracy theorist” poised to take Hollywood (and the country) by storm.

Do you work for the CIA?
No, I do not work for the CIA.

Just wanted to get that out of the way. What made you want to join the military?
The fact that I was doing nothing. I was 18; I wasn’t ready to go to college yet. I knew that if I went to college I wouldn’t have spent too much time in class, I would have spent my time partying. I wouldn’t have gotten done what I needed to do. It would have been a waste of my parents’ money. So I decided it would probably be best if I joined the military—this was pre-September 11—Bush was in office, there wasn’t a whole lot going on, I didn’t foresee a war happening, I just thought it would be a good way to get out of town, man-up a little, and then move on with the rest of my life. Before I knew it, I just joined.

Did you want to go to war?
At first I did. I wanted to retaliate for September 11. The government told me it was Osama bin Laden, the government told me he was hiding in caves in Afghanistan, they told me he had killed a bunch of innocent Americans, so at first I wanted to go over there and defend just like everyone else. It was the hooah thing to do at the time.

What were you doing in Afghanistan?
My primary MOS [military occupational specialty] was 11 Bravo, which is infantry, frontline infantry. I was carrying a gun, humping a lot of weight on my back. That was what I did in Afghanistan full time. I was at the Kandahar airfield, Bagram, and Khost. But in Afghanistan I really didn’t do much. I was there for six months, pulled a lot of guard; I went on, I think, three missions. Never got any enemy contact, never got fired on, I watched it on my perimeter, a couple hundred meters out while someone else was getting shot at, but I never really got any action.

And in Iraq?
In Iraq I went from the southern tip all the way into Baghdad. I road in the back of a truck from the southern tip, through the desert into Al-Hillah, took the battle of Al-Hillah, which was pretty crazy; it looked like a Vietnam movie. Then we moved further north into Baghdad, where we were in Medical City. I was stationed in an emergency room door for about a month and a half just watching these bodies of children and their families come in. Then I moved north into Mosul, swung west into Sinjar, on the Syrian-Turkey border where we had to watch for insurgents coming across the border.

How did that experience change you?
I went from being some kid who had no idea about anything in the military—I didn’t even know what the infantry was when I joined, I just told them I wanted to shoot stuff and blow stuff up—to being a communications specialist for my commander. That was really when I started to see the bigger picture—when I started working for higher commanders—seeing how things ran.

When was the first time you heard from Dylan Avery about what he was doing with Loose Change back in New York?
After I got back from Afghanistan he started to talk about the idea that 9/11 was an inside job, and started letting me know about some of the information he had come across. It was between returning from Afghanistan and redeploying for Iraq that my mind started to click on. I was like, “Wait a minute—I was in Afghanistan three months ago, and now I’m going to be in Iraq in four months, I’ve got to invade another country, where is this going?” Then—and I hate to say this—I saw Fahrenheit 911, which to me is a terrible movie. But a lot of it made sense in the pretext and military build-up to Afghanistan before we were actually attacked. When I walked out of that movie I was like, “Wow, that messed with my head.” Right before I deployed for Iraq I had the inclination that something was seriously wrong. But then it didn’t matter because at that point I had to go. My unit needed me. I was the company RTO [radio telephone operator], I was running communications. It didn’t matter what my personal beliefs were. I just had to go over and shut my mouth for another year.

So why this film?
Loose Change happened by accident. The whole thing started out as a fictional screenplay about me and Dylan and another friend of ours finding out 9/11 was an inside job. It started out as a comedic action film with us being chased by the FBI and all that. But when Dylan started researching the screenplay he found out the attacks really were an inside job, so we made it into a documentary. I see myself as a person who’s a buffer between conspiracy theorist and military informant, so I thought my help on Loose Change would make it a better quality piece, something more mainstream people who aren’t into conspiracies could really watch and take in. I call it the gateway drug because it can take someone totally green to the information—who believed Muslims carried out 9/11, that the World Trade Center was brought down because of jet fuel, and that the Pentagon was hit by a plane—you put them in front of this movie and 80 minutes later they are going to question it at least. Bottom line: they’re going to question it. It makes people think. It made me think, so I wanted to make other people think.

When you got back from Iraq did you know you wanted to go work on the film?
No, I went back to work. I was training. That’s what you do. When you’re not deployed you’re in the rear either fixing your gear or using your gear. I was stationed in Fort Campbell, Kentucky the whole four years besides the time I was overseas. When you’re back from overseas you get a month off, you clean your gear, and then go fight again.

Didn’t you ever stop and think, “Wait, Dylan is just a kid.”?
Yeah, several times. I thought, I’m in the military, I know stuff. But Dylan was way more informed than me. Like I said, I’m getting the Army Times, I’m getting the AFN, and now it’s out, it’s reported that the government spent millions of dollars spinning false articles to newspapers across the world. So who’s to say the Armed Forces Network and the Army Times aren’t chockfull of bullshit.

How prevalent is that mindset in the Army?
That they know what’s going on?

It’s 98 percent. It’s a fantasy world those people live in. I mean it’s really something. I call them infected. They can’t come back to civilian life. They’re like, “You can’t get out of the Army, you ain’t gonna get no job, you ain’t gonna do nothing. You gonna work at Burger King. What are you gonna do at Burger King? You still wear a uniform; you still get a hair cut at Burger King. So why don’t you just stay in the Army, join up, sign again, get $6,000.” If you don’t re-enlist they just make you sit in a chair. They made me sit in a chair for a week. Sit in that chair until you re-enlist. I just sat there. “You want me to sit in this chair,” I said, “I’ll sit in this chair for a month, because in a month I’m out of here.”

When you came back was there anything that really bothered you about the American public?
Yeah, their ability to believe the B.S. they see on TV. They’re so in tune with their television and CNN and Fox News and the New York Post. They watch the news and the news reporter, whoever it is, forms an opinion for them. Take the release of the Pentagon video. CNN had been bashing conspiracies all day because people kept writing in about conspiracy theories. They build it up for two hours, then they show the video, then Jamie McIntyre, who we actually use in our video says, “All right, there’s the plane, you can see it, there’s the vapor trail, and there’s the explosion. They only shoot in half-second frames; it’s the only shot of the Pentagon. We’ll be right back to cover more of this. This is undisputed proof that a plane hit the Pentagon.” They go to commercial, and instead of coming back and going to Flight 77, they go to American Idol. They just implant the idea, there’s Jamie McIntyre saying he sees a 757 flying into the Pentagon, and then they switch to American Idol. So then when someone says there’s no plane that hit the Pentagon someone else can say, “That’s not true, I watched CNN this afternoon. Jamie McIntyre saw the plane, he showed me.” People believe anything because it’s on CNN.

What do you think about the Popular Mechanics cover story about “Debunking 9/11 Myths”?
rowe_911.jpgThat’s a good article. It covers some good information, but it directly takes away from some of the facts. It states that NATO scrambled planes at one time that could’ve intercepted the planes, but couldn’t because they couldn’t reach them in time. That’s bullshit. That article reports they only would’ve had to have flown at 24 percent of their full-blower, and an F15 flies at 1800 mph. You’re telling me when the first plane was hi-jacked at 8:20am, until 9:45, when the plane was flown into the Pentagon, you’re telling me that not one F-15 could be scrambled and taken down one of those planes. Not to mention the [“Debunking 9/11 Myths”] piece stands on the Nova theory (the “Pancake Theory”) that one floor collapsed on another floor creating a succession of collapses where the towers fell. If that’s true, you have a 75-story office building untouched by fuel, fire, any debris whatsoever. You have a 30-story chunk above that, which is also untouched. You have the 78th to 82nd floor, which is on fire. Think about that. You have a 70-something story office building, untouched, unscathed by fuel. You’re going to tell me that the steel supposedly weakened, fell on one floor, on top of another floor, on top of another floor, for 78 floors, reaching the ground floor, and fell in 9.2 seconds. 9.2 seconds is the exact rate of freefall for a building that tall, which is 1,368 feet tall. If you take Galileo’s Law of Falling Bodies and you calculate the distance by the time it takes to fall, it’s 9.2 seconds. That means that all those floors fell without any resistance from any of those untouched floors below it. It’s completely impossible. Not only do you have to do that, you just have to watch the collapse of the towers. You can see the bombs going off. It is so obvious. It’s an umbrella theory. You blow up the top to conceal what’s going on beneath it.

The Blair Witch Project also looked real to people who were in on the documentary preceding it. It totally worked. The first time you watch it, it grabs you. But Loose Change isn’t meant to be fictional. It’s a watchable film, but what do you expect people to do with it?
What I encourage people to do is go out and research it themselves. We don’t ever come out and say that everything we say is 100 per cent. We know there are errors in the documentary, and we’ve actually left them in there so that people discredit us and do the research for themselves—the B52 [remarked to have flown into the Empire State Building], the use of Wikipedia, things like that. We left them in there so people will want to discredit us and go out and research the events yourself and come up with your own conclusions. That’s our whole goal, to make Americans think. To wake up from the 16 amps of your television to watch something and get a passion in something again. And that’s what America has always been about. From the Vietnam protests…it’s always been about a passion. And now we’re trying to build that passion in people, to wake up, to stop watching television, to stop reading the crappy newspapers, and go online and find those de-classified documents, go find the scientists that aren’t young filmmakers, but the ones after Steven E. Jones at BYU, who has steel from the World Trade Center and has conducted tests on the steel and it’s come to the point, over and over again, that what they [the 9-11 Commission] say can’t be true. That it had to be brought down by controlled demolition. Our whole goal is to wake Americans up to do something about it.

What do you say to people who’d say you’re doing this to make a dollar?
You should see my dilapidated house in upstate New York. I drive a Ford F-150 that has a tape player. We sell DVDs, we make money, but we just give the shit away because we don’t want to be war profiteers. We’re not about making money on the whole thing—we’re about getting information out. That’s why we’ve turned down seven figures, more than once, from people looking to buy our film and put it in theaters—because they don’t care about it. They only see the moneymaking aspect of it. We want to make sure it’s handled correctly. That the movie gets out 100 per cent accurate when it comes out in theaters, because it’s obviously not now, and that it’s projected in the right light so people aren’t threatened by it. If we coordinate 500 theaters across the country to start playing it, it’s going to start a wave. We’re going to have a whole weekend of events on 9/11 just to raise awareness among New Yorkers so that we can try to get an independent investigation to look back into the facts that every news agency in the world has ignored. Americans are going to be pissed.

Back Home with Jimmy Massey

Monday, March 13th, 2006

Michael Slenske writes SMITH's Back Home column. His last piece was Back Home With Paul Rieckhoff.

“I don’t harbor any ill feelings toward the Marine Corps. I learned valuable, intangible traits when I was in there-self-confidence, self-discipline. But in the back of my mind is that the reason they taught me these intangible traits was to turn me into a killer. And they succeeded.”

massey_flag.jpg In the wake of the James Frey debacle-and its tractor-powered disinterment of similar thinly-veiled literary hoaxes surrounding the louche and love-starved — it’s rather conspicuous (or perhaps not) that Jimmy Massey’s name has failed to resurface in the broadsheets. If you haven’t heard of him, Massey, a former Marine staff sergeant who spent 12 years in the Corps before being medically discharged with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and becoming a key figure in the peace movement with Veterans For Peace, rose to infamy last November after St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Ron Harris (followed lockstep by hawkish blogger Michelle Malkin) discredited claims made by Massey in his book Kill, Kill, Kill that he’d been party to (and a participant in) war crimes during his tour in Iraq with a Combined Anti-Armor Team (CAT) platoon.

Although Harris and Co. vehemently disputed Massey’s claims of killing innocent civilians on the road to Baghdad, Harris has admitted that he doesn’t read French (the language in which Massey’s book was published) nor was he ever directly embedded with Massey’s unit. Malkin, for her part, failed to return various emails, which is telling, considering the fact that the claims made in Kill, Kill, Kill, which is also being published in Spain, were corroborated by three other Marines in Massey’s platoon in interviews with the same French-American investigative journalist who ghost wrote the book with Massey. To find out what really happened SMITH deconstructed the fog of the Iraq war with the Marines’ most outspoken anti-war, war criminal.

SMITH: What made you want to write Kill, Kill, Kill?

MASSEY: When I was first diagnosed with PTSD, the psychologist suggested I write a memoir as part of the therapy. I started writing, basically just jotting down notes, and then when I got discharged from the Marine Corps, Natasha Saulnier, my ghostwriter, contacted me through Veterans For Peace. She did a couple interviews with me and asked if I wanted to write a book with her about my experiences, and it all kind of fell into place.

SMITH: How do you feel when people in the press like Ron Harris want to attack you for what you’ve said or what you’ve written?

MASSEY: Ron Harris is just covering his own behind. He knows he is just as liable for war crimes as any military member serving in Iraq.

SMITH: How so?

MASSEY: Because of his failure to do any investigative journalism into the actual incidents of the killing of civilians.

SMITH: Was he with you when this was happening?

massey_tank.jpg MASSEY: No, he was never with my company. He was with Lima Company. The only time that I saw Ron Harris was after a particular incident happened at a checkpoint when he came in to do his little interview and leave back to Lima Company. It took an international incident for him to report any of the civilian casualties. It took the killing of reporters for him to finally talk about that.

SMITH: But what’s the actual dispute?

MASSEY: Well, that’s the thing. Ron Harris even stated that he didn’t set out to dispute, he just didn’t see the harshness I portray in the book. And I don’t think Ron Harris has read the book either.

SMITH: So the contention is essentially whether the events you describe in the book should be labeled as normal combat procedures or war crimes.

MASSEY: I leave it up to the readers in the book. Are these war crimes or are these just fog of war? My definition of fog of war is that you’re on the battlefield and out of the corner of your eye you see somebody run and you fire off a shot and you go find out it’s a civilian. That’s fog of war. Where I have a heartburn with it is that we actually escalated the violence by heightening the intelligence reports. We demonized the Iraqi people and we were given carte blanche to shoot first and ask questions later. I think that the truth hurts. I think when a lot of Marines read this book it’s going to bring to their point of view the violations of the Geneva Conventions. Can you win a war with continued violations of the Geneva Conventions and International Law?

SMITH: So did you feel you were violating the law at the time?

MASSEY: Oh definitely, and I raised the BS flag very early on.

SMITH: And what did your fellow Marines say?

MASSEY: I was kind of treated like an outcast or rogue because they didn’t like my opinions about certain situations. I became very agitated because I went up to Captain Smith [of Lima Company]. This was shortly after the red Kia incident. I told him we need to get combat engineers in here to fortify when we have these kinds of checkpoints. And his response was, “No-there’s not going to be any combat engineers to come in.”

SMITH: So what would you say to people who’d claim your story is a fake war story?

MASSEY: The thing is I was there. There were other members of the platoon that were there. I haven’t seen one reporter that has interviewed guys who were in the book. Mainly these are just random Marines in other companies who have been interviewed. I think what is going to have to happen is that these Marines I talk about in the book are going to have to come forward or be interviewed and ask them about each particular event. Natasha Saulnier actually conducted the interviews with the Marines in the book, and they openly admit to killing civilians.

SMITH: Is this at the level of a Mai Lai incident?

MASSEY: I don’t think it’s to that level yet. I do think we have the propensity to head in that direction because of the military thought process and [because] we demonize the Iraqi people and treat every Iraqi as a potential terrorist. I’m very curious about Fallujah and the actual battle plans of what took place in Fallujah. I’d love to hear the civilian accounts of what happened, especially because I’ve been hearing that they used white phosphorous.

SMITH: Are you trying to get the book published in America?

MASSEY: If an American publishing company comes along and wants to publish it, sure. We’ve had a few look into it, and a few more are still looking into it, but it will published in Spain in March. We’ve also had a good response from the French-speaking provinces of Canada.

SMITH: What about those who’d say you were trying to make money off these events?

massey_mre.jpg MASSEY: Come on, brother. You know how much I’ve made off this book? I made about $8,000. The reason I wrote the book was initially for therapy. I have started a PTSD foundation through Iraq Veterans Against The War called the Vets for Vets program. What I’ve been using are the proceeds that are going to that so that we can continue helping returning vets diagnosed with PTSD because the VA system is taking almost two years to get into the system, to get a diagnosis, to get a rating before they even start seeing a disability paycheck. These guys are living on the streets, homeless, and we still got people slapping yellow stickers on the back of their cars saying, “Support The Troops.” They don’t have a clue.

SMITH: What was the hardest thing for you to deal with over there? Not just the stuff you saw, but the day to day?

MASSEY: The desperation in the Iraqi people. I don’t think that the Marines in my platoon had realized the devastation this country had been under. Thirteen years of sanctions, lack of medical supplies, humanitarian rations, and I knew the Iraqi people’s plight because I read the history of Iraq, and I knew the US involvement with Iraq, and I was a firsthand witness. I saw American tanks in Iraqi compounds; I saw ammunition with American flags spray-painted on the ammo box. All evidence. But it was just the desperation in their eyes. They were looking at us to be liberators and provide that humanitarian support and just act humanely toward the Iraqi people and we didn’t do it. We established places like Abu Ghraib; we established free-fire check zones at Marine Corps checkpoints, just crazy, crazy military blunders.

SMITH: What made you want to join the Marine Corps?

MASSEY: I came from a long line of military going all the way back to the civil war. All my kin, my family is from South Carolina, so I can trace all my roots back to here. I’ve had relatives that fought for the Confederacy, for the Union. My grandfather [Zachariah Roberts] was with Patton’s division during World War II, and I was growing up hearing stories of what he did while he was over there. So I always had a deep sense of pride in my country.

SMITH: Did you enlist?

MASSEY: I was going to UTI [Universal Technical Institute] I was studying to become an automotive engineer, but my goal was to design new cars. But I ran out of money and so I worked in the oil fields for Cardinal Well Service in the Gulf Coast. I was a tool hand. I took a job in New Orleans doing the same thing. But being young I fell in love with Bourbon Street, and I was eventually fired, lost my apartment and became homeless. I had too much pride to go back to my mom and tell her, so I talked to a recruiter when I was in New Orleans. I called my mom [and told her] what I planned on doing. She begged me to come home, so I came home. I told her I wanted to go into the Marines, and this is what I need to do to be successful.

SMITH: Do you regret anything about your service?

MASSEY: Absolutely not. The only thing I regret … is that I did not go into the Naval Investigative Service and tell them what I saw.

SMITH: Why didn’t you do that?

MASSEY: The Marine Corps told me they were doing the investigation and they were looking into what I was saying, so I was like well, “If they said they were looking into it, they were looking into it.” And I didn’t think I was getting discharged anytime soon.

SMITH: How do you think the support system is set up for soldiers and Marines who get “shell-shocked” over there?

MASSEY: We’ve got to look at the whole medical system of the military and see what their overall goal is. Lieutenant Col. Dave Grossman wrote a book called On Killing, and he talks about the psychological effects going all the way back to World War I up to the recent Gulf Invasion. He says the overall goal of the system is to get a member of the armed forces back on the battlefield. That’s why they are setting up these little rehabilitation centers in Iraq. So they let them play video games, and I’ve seen pictures of these little camps they have, and they play video games and they have this down time. They give them psychotropic medications, antidepressants, things to help them sleep. Then they get them back to a certain level, they ship them back to their unit. But they’re not getting to the real cause because the real cause-the PTSD-is a trauma that they’ve received while they are in country. And if you continue to keep them there that trauma continues to build and build.

SMITH: How did you feel when you came back? I’ve talked to other vets who say when they hear a car door slam or hear a firecracker go off they are very, very on edge.

MASSEY: I tell you what; the worst thing for me is driving. If I see a bag of garbage on the side of the road, or even if I see somebody walking, I’ll just instantaneously flashback and think about IEDs. My wife doesn’t let me drive anymore.

SMITH: You’ve been working with Cindy Sheehan. What is that like?

MASSEY: Working with Cindy is wonderful.

SMITH: What’s it like on the ground in Crawford, Texas?

MASSEY: It was amazing. My life to me is certain periods where I heal and that’s what I remember. PTSD, battling with it is everyday, but when I was in Crawford I didn’t have to battle with it, it was like I felt a sense of camaraderie, communion, we were achieving the same goals.

SMITH: Have you met any opposition at these events?

MASSEY: Yeah, I’ve been on speaking engagements-one in particular was in upstate New York-where I had people actually out front protesting me being there.

SMITH: Did things get messy?

MASSEY: No, but that’s the great thing: this is what the soldiers over there are fighting for is freedom of speech. I welcome those people if they want to come in and listen to what I have to say, or ask questions. I don’t claim to be perfect or know everything so I welcome a healthy debate on topics. But the Marine Corps was good to me the 12 years I was in. It’s not the Marine Corps’ fault for being used in a negative direction; I don’t harbor any ill feelings toward the Marine Corps. I learned valuable, intangible traits when I was in there-self-confidence, self-discipline. But in the back of my mind is that the reason they taught me these intangible traits was to turn me into a killer. And they succeeded.

SMITH: What was the fondest memory you had in Iraq?

MASSEY: I had a big saying while I was over there, I would come across the radio and say, “My Spiderman senses are kicking in.” And that was kind of like a key to the rest of the boys to be on a heightened sense of alert. And this wonderful artist, Lance Corporal Martins, came up to me and drew this Spiderman with a Marine uniform on that had a caption that said, “My Spiderman senses are tingling.” Just little stuff like that.

SMITH: And what is the day-to-day routine for you now?

MASSEY: I do a lot of work for IVAW [Iraq Veterans Against the War] so I’m heavily engaged in that and lining up different speaking engagements with various organizations throughout the U.S. and the rest of the world. I recently went to Kuala Lumpur. The prime minister of Malaysia was hosting a peace conference, and wanted a representative from IVAW and I was the chosen one. I also went to Ireland to help with the plan of getting the U.S. warplanes out of Ireland’s Shannon Airport. I was on The Late Late Show [in Ireland] talking about the depleted uranium being flown through Ireland. I’m Scotch-Irish, so Ireland is my home country.

SMITH: What’s the one thing we don’t know about this war as the American public?

MASSEY: [Laughs] I feel … how can I put that … how do you tell a 25-year-old Iraqi that just witnessed his brother being killed at a Marine Corps checkpoint … how do you tell this young man not to become an insurgent?

SMITH: I don’t know.

MASSEY: That’s a question I’d like answered because I feel that’s something we did. We escalated the violence by our stupidity, our lack of Middle Eastern cultural customs.

SMITH: What’s a concrete example of that?

MASSEY: For one, [at checkpoints] we were sticking our fists up in the air, which is pretty much the military sign for stop. And then we would fire a warning shot as the car approached. I had this Iraqi-American woman, she came up to me, after I got done with a presentation [in America], and she said, “Wait a minute, explain to me what you were doing?” So I explained to her that we were sticking our hand in the air and firing a warning shot. She said, “Okay, don’t you think that by sticking your fist in the air in a Middle Eastern country that that could possibly mean solidarity?” And I said, “Okay, I’ll play devil’s advocate with you, but what about the gunshot?” She said, “What do you always see Saddam Hussein doing on the television.” And I was like, “Oh my god!” I travel to Iraq, go through that, to come back to the US to have this elderly Iraqi woman tell me that we were culturally fucked up.

SMITH: Were there any other things that bothered you after you returned home from Iraq?

MASSEY: I’ve got to bust on Harry Connick, Jr. This guy is from New Orleans. I’ve seen Harry Connick, Jr. play at the old Preservation Hall. This guy gets on CNN has the prime opportunity to say, “You know what? The government messed up. We were not getting the support we need to rebuild.” And he blew it. When they asked him the hardball questions about how he felt, he blew it. He just kind of tiptoed and danced around it. I guess he’s worried about his cell service. If that was me I would say, “Hey, come with me, walk with me down the street. I’ll show you what New Orleans is like.” And the celebrities are not doing it. Where are they at? What happened to the Johnny Rottens? What happened to the Dead Kennedys? That’s the stuff I grew up to, the Dead Kennedys and Black Flag and The Cult. I grew up with those kind of bands, and it’s just not there anymore.

SMITH: What did you think about the book and recent movie Jarhead?

MASSEY: I’ve got to give [author Anthony] Swofford props. I think he set out to tell a very heart-wrenching story of his indoctrination into war. I think that Swofford was censored. I could tell when I read the book that he wants to say something more here, and he wants to say something more here. You understand that Marine mentality. You can understand he was censored. Once I wrote my book and presented it to publishing companies, [and] they wanted to add things and take things out, I started to understand what he was up against. But I think Swofford did the very best of telling a gut-wrenching story, and ultimately I think his story has an anti-war statement.

SMITH: What’s the ultimate goal here?

MASSEY: The ultimate goal is to end the occupation of Iraq and bring the troops home and once they’re home provide support for them. That’s the ultimate goal. I don’t have any political ambitions-no crazy stuff like that.

SMITH Magazine

SMITH Magazine is a home for storytelling.
We believe everyone has a story, and everyone
should have a place to tell it.
We're the creators and home of the
Six-Word Memoir® project.