A column of American military veterans of wars in Iraq, Vietnam and points in between, as well as parents and families of soldiers, marched into New Orleans Sunday chanting radical cadences and flying a 1776 version of the American flag.
Young Iraq vets led the column of roughly 250 through the gray, wrecked landscape, many wearing their desert camouflage uniforms, with upside-down American flag patches on their shoulders, sporting shades, beards, kaffiyehs and chests full of metals. At night and along the roads the conversation frequently turns to PTSD, poverty, depleted uranium-caused cancer, unpaid student loans, Ramadi, Tikrit, IEDs and the intense camaraderie of this new movement.
Older veterans, mostly from the Vietnam War, who helped a younger generation of soldiers to launch Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) are still as angry as they were thirty years ago, but their once-youthful anger and grief has been tempered by a generation of struggle. And it is upon this platform that the young Iraq vets are now building their piece of the movement.
“Our motto is that never again will one generation of veterans turn their back on another,” said Dave Cline, a longtime activist and early member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
The column spent the six days prior to arriving in New Orleans tromping and caravanning from Mobile, Alabama, through the devastation that is, still, the Gulf Coast. Along the way the vets and their supporters left teams to help “muck out” some of the trashed homes along the small towns of the Gulf Coast. But the protest’s larger aim was to make the connections between the devastation here and the ruin of Iraq. The protesters say corruption, incompetence and inhumanity mark both.
“All the money that is going to Iraq could be going down here,” says former Army sniper and IVAW member Garrett Reppenhagen.
According to the IVAW, the invasion and occupation of Iraq could cost $2.65 trillion. Other numbers mentioned along the march were the more than 2,400 American troops and 100,000 Iraqis killed.
At times the connections between Iraq and the Gulf Coast became all too real, or even surreal. The ruined homes, lack of water and sporadic electricity along the way reminded many vets of the war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan that some had left only months before.
“In Gulfport I heard a pop or a snap and looked back, and one of my guys took a knee,” said Navy corps and combat vet Charles Anderson, referring to the common military position of kneeling in preparation for action. “I went back to him, put my hand on him and told him: ‘It’s OK, we’re in Mississippi now.’ ”
On Thursday, the thirty-eighth anniversary of the My Lai massacre, the marchers were camped deep in the wrecked bayou country east of New Orleans and the mouth of Lake Pontchartrain. In a clearing by a brackish creek, among a forest of dry, ashen-colored, half-toppled pine trees, the vets listened to the stories of local residents who spoke from a small plywood stage about the horrors of the storm and the abandonment that followed. Bereft of state or federal aid, many of the people there were still in bare survival mode.
A local man named Raymond Couture broke down in tears as he told his story of finding thirty-four corpses in a local nursing home. “They ain’t done nothing for us here yet, so I know they ain’t done nothing for them people in Iraq.” Then the vets and military families spoke. Tina Garnanez, a young Navajo, lesbian and vet, spoke of her experiences in Iraq. She described the track record of lies, broken promises and rising violence in Iraq as mirroring the history of broken treaties, genocide and poverty that shape reservation life in the United States.
Dinner in the broken forest was alligator gumbo; the IVAW kids partied out and then slept under the stars.
Later, in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Demond Mullins, who returned from heavy combat in Iraq only five months ago, looked out at the ravaged, filthy wreckage in a quiet fury. “I can’t believe this. This is worse than Baghdad. What my country has become sickens me.”
The march from Mobile to New Orleans marks a new stage in organizing among Iraq veterans and thus a new stage for the peace movement. A year ago IVAW was, in reality, mostly just a good idea and a small speakers’ bureau. Now it is a real organization and a key piece in the larger coalition of groups like Veterans for Peace and Military Families Speak Out that make up the heart of peace movement.