Over the past two months since this year’s Winter Soldier event, a parade of luminaries has gone before Congress to testify about the Iraq War: distinguished generals, cabinet secretaries and various think-tank dignitaries. One group, however, has been conspicuously absent from the conversation: soldiers.
Today, Iraq Veterans Against the War sought to remedy that, in a packed, three-hour forum on Capitol Hill in which the Congressional Progressive Caucus invited over a dozen veterans, gravely suited, to share their experiences. “We pretty much know what the Americans we sent did to Iraq,” Rep. Lee told the crowd. “What we don’t really know is what Iraq has done to them. That’s why we’re here today. To bear witness to their truth.”
Echoing themes from Winter Soldier, soldiers like Sergeant Kristofer Goldsmith–who last Memorial Day tried to kill himself after being stop-lossed back into the war–spoke about war’s psychological toll. Others, like Sergio Kochergin, testified about the practice of planting weapons on accidentally murdered civilians. Still others recalled taking “war trophy” pictures with dead Iraqis–or in Army lingo, “sand niggers”–and driving Iraqi detainees out into the middle of the desert before releasing and lobbing rocks “the size of softballs” after them as they fled.
Beneath it all ran a palpable theme: intense disappointment in a government that failed to provide for them. “My M-16 was made in the 1970s. There weren’t enough night goggles to go around. The line for psychologists is almost a year long,” said Kochergin. “If there’s no care for the Marines, what care can there be for the people of Iraq?”
Listening to their appeals, a piqued Rep. Waters responded with a kind of determined grit. “Now, I don’t like to make commitments I can’t keep, but I’m on it. I’m focused,” she said. “You’re going to get your GI Bill. They’d better get out of the way because we’re going to get it.”
Rep. Jackson-Lee agreed. “What we’ve done [today] is commit to you to be your soldiers,” she said.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus kept their promise. Hours later as the war supplemental spending bill was debated this afternoon, the House voted 141-149 to reject the supplemental bill’s war funding. (Members of the GOP abstained.) In a second vote, the House adopted a Dec. 31, 2009 goal for withdrawing combat troops from Iraq. And finally, by a robust 256-166 margin, Democrats voted triumphantly to expand the GI Bill’s educational benefits.
All three measures now go before the Senate, where they face an uphill battle. The White House continues to lean on its veto threat. But at least for today, the victory belonged where it should have–to those who’ve actually sacrificed.