Veterans recall horrors of war in live broadcast

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Anna Badkhen
Globe Staff / March 16, 2008

CAMBRIDGE - Liz Jackson's eyes were fixed on a screen showing a live broadcast of anguished testimonies by Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans describing what they had seen and done during their combat tours.

Jeffery Smith recalled how his Army unit beat and humiliated Iraqi prisoners. Former Marine Bryan Casler recounted how fellow Marines urinated and defecated into food and gave it to Iraqi children. Former Marine Matthew Childers talked about how he used to humiliate Iraqi civilians during predawn raids on their homes. When he described turning away an Iraqi father who was asking American troops to help the badly burned baby he carried in his arms, Jackson began to weep silently.

"These soldiers are saying: 'I'm complicit,' " said Jackson, 29, a community organizer from Cambridge. "But every American citizen who saw this happen and isn't out there protesting is complicit. I include myself."

Hundreds of soldiers and Marines from across the country are testifying this weekend in the "Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan" hearings, a four-day event held at the National Labor College in Silver Spring, Md. The event is named after the 1971 Winter Soldier hearings in which Vietnam War veterans testified in a Detroit hotel about war crimes they had participated in or witnessed.

The hearings, which began Thursday and end today, were organized by the Iraq Veterans Against War, a national antiwar organization, and broadcast live in locations across the country. The veterans who testified called for an immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.

"In the United States today people's minds have gotten off the war. We are trying to get their attention," said Paul Shannon, whose New England United antiwar network organized the live screening shown yesterday in First Parish Unitarian Church in Harvard Square, in a side room that was packed with about 300 antiwar activists, former troops, local residents like Jackson, and curious passersby.

On Friday, more than a dozen Iraq and Afghanistan veterans from Massachusetts drove to Silver Spring to observe and participate in the hearings.

One of them, Ian J. Lavallee, an Iraq war veteran from Jamaica Plain, said in a phone interview yesterday that although he was not planning to testify, he wanted to attend the hearings because it was his "duty to the people of the world" to condemn an "occupation that is being waged in our name and with our tax dollars."

"We dehumanized people. The way we spoke about them, the way we destroyed their livelihoods, their families, doing raids, manhandling them, throwing the men on the ground while their family was crying," recalled Lavallee, 23, who served in Iraq in 2005 and was honorably discharged from the Army in 2006 after he attempted suicide.

"I became a person I never thought I would become," he said. "It really upset me that I did these things."

From a folding chair in the Cambridge church, a fellow veteran, Patrick Dougherty, watched the hearings intently.

"It just takes me back there," he said. The testimonies reminded him "how malicious we were over there."

Dougherty, who was deployed to Baghdad and Mahmoudiya for 14 months beginning in 2003, "felt from the start that we had no intention to win hearts and minds," he said, his hands nervously running from the stubble on his chin to his hair and back to his chin.

"The way we treated our detainees like animals, kept them in cages in the hot sun all day - " said Dougherty, 24, who studies biology at the University of Massachusetts and lives in Fields Corner.

Dougherty was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He said he had considered testifying at the Winter Soldier hearings, but his doctor talked him out of it because the event could conjure memories too difficult for the veteran to bear.

Most of the people who came to watch the testimonies were members of antiwar groups in Massachusetts. Jennifer Magee, who works at Harvard University Art Museums, came because her roommate, an antiwar activist, had told her about it.

"These are the stories you never hear in the paper," said Magee. "It's really powerful to hear from the veterans."

Charles Gluck, a social worker from Long Island who was visiting Cambridge yesterday, wandered in after he saw a poster outside the church advertising the event.

"Some of the things I heard were shocking," Gluck said after listening to several testimonies. "My hope is that a movement like this would expand and . . . give people opportunity to make a more informed decision as to who the next president will be."

No public screening of the hearings will be held today. Recordings of the testimonies are available at soldier/howtowatch.

Anna Badkhen can be reached at

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