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A former Marine in Iraq explains "the best way to support the troops":
"Bring them home now!"

April 16, 2004 | Pages 6 and 7

MICHAEL HOFFMAN was part of the invasion of Iraq a year ago. When he joined the military, the former Marine lance corporal thought that U.S. military intervention could be a positive force. Today, he knows otherwise. Michael is now active as a member of Veterans for Peace, and in late March, he traveled to Fayetteville, N.C.--home of the Pentagon's Fort Bragg--for a rally to join with hundreds of veterans and military families calling for an end to the occupation. He spoke to Socialist Worker's NICOLE COLSON about what U.S. soldiers are facing in Iraq today.

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THE BUSH administration said that U.S. soldiers would be welcomed as "liberators" in Iraq. After the uprisings across Iraq last week, what's your take on that claim?

THIS HAS been a long time coming. You can't expect to be acting as liberators on one hand, and then be acting as an actual conquering army on the other, and expect to be welcomed into a country. It's something we should have learned in Vietnam, that you can't do this.

The morale among U.S. soldiers is horrible, and it's dropping day by day. A lot of the units that are there now were supposed to be getting rotated out--they've already been there for a year. Now, they're being told by Bush that units which haven't rotated yet are now going to get extended because of the new hostilities. There's a lack of equipment and a lack of information.

Beyond that, soldiers on the ground know the reality of what's going on right now. They look around, and they know better than anyone else that there's no weapons of mass destruction. They know that we're not really helping this country. If anything, we're making things worse.

There are Iraqis out there saying, "We might not have been living in a free society under Saddam, but at least we had electricity." That's what's happening there, and the soldiers see that. And that's just destroying their morale right now.

WHAT WAS your experience like in Iraq?

I WAS part of the actual invasion force, so I started in Kuwait, crossed the border March 20 when the invasion began, and worked my way as far north as Tikrit. I was part of an artillery battery, so I was a little bit behind the front line. I crossed through these areas right behind the infantry, so I saw towns just utterly destroyed, buildings on fire.

The amount of damage we did to the infrastructure was incredible. And this was damage that wasn't all just from this time. Iraq had been constantly bombed ever since the first Gulf War.

WHAT DO you think the impact of the crisis of the occupation will be in the U.S.?

WHAT HAPPENDED last weekend--I think it might be too strong of a comparison, but in my mind and to some of my friends who are Vietnam veterans and activists from that time, we're all thinking: "Tet offensive." That's really the kind of [casualty] numbers that are happening there--that kind of sustained, simultaneous assault across all of Iraq, with heavy losses on the American side.

That's what it looked like to us. I can see already it's not carrying the same amount of weight, but I think this is going to be a turning point for organizing against the war. People are really going to be clued into what it's like on the ground. We're losing upwards of 12 people a day. That is just absolutely insane.

They didn't expect this kind of resistance. Everyone on the ground, my unit included, was told, "We'll be here for about six months--one year at the absolute latest--and that's going to be it." And that just went completely out the window.

I have a feeling that if they would have had any idea that what's happening right now would happen, I would still be there right now--my unit would never would have left. I think every single soldier that was there would have stayed there.

I think we've got upwards of 130,000 troops right now. We might have had upwards of 200,000 troops if they would have known this was going to go this way. Actually, I think that if they would have known that it was going to go this badly, they might not have done it at all.

They thought this was going to be an easy, winnable war. They were trying to avoid the "Vietnam syndrome," which is what they've been thrown into right now.

WHAT DO you think the solution is?

FOR ME, the solution right now is a withdrawal of the American occupation force. It's not working. We're losing people on both sides every single day. We need to cut our losses and say that we can't have any more deaths on either side.

It's a horrible toll--American, British, all the occupation forces, and the Iraqis. We need to admit that we were wrong, pull out all the occupying forces and make reparations--not be concerned about getting money out of the country, but actually being concerned about the people of Iraq and making sure that they get a real country back.

If you look at Vietnam, there were three things that really ended the war. It was the resistance by the people in Vietnam; it was the resistance by the people of the United States and in other countries; and the third major part was the military, and the refusal to fight in the war. Soldiers got sick of the war, and I think that's happening right now.

As we get more troops rotating back and getting off of active service and such, you're going to see more and more troops coming out and speaking out against it. Right now, the line that everyone keeps saying over and over again is "We need to support the troops. We need to let them know that we're behind them, that we support them." But the best way of supporting them is to make sure that they're brought home now.

Cannon fodder in a war for oil and empire

"IT WAS a tough week last week." George W. Bush's Easter Sunday message to reporters was insulting in its understatement. The death toll in Iraq from the renewed fighting last week included 62 U.S. soldiers--and an estimated 900 Iraqis, many of them women and children.

"Obviously, every day I pray there is less casualty," Bush had the nerve to tell reporters, "but I know what we are doing in Iraq is right," Easy for him to say. Because the "we" in Iraq today will never include Bush or any of his rich pals.

Instead, Washington's war makers are using predominately working-class young men and women--as cannon fodder in an occupation for oil and empire. U.S. soldiers were told that they would be greeted as "liberators"--and that their stay in Iraq would be short.

One year after the fall of the former Iraqi government, they are learning--many not for the first time--that they won't be able to return home as scheduled, and that thousands more troops will join them in the occupation of Iraq.

Over and over, the Bush administration has claimed to be making "progress" in Iraq. They should tell that to Lt. John Fernandez. For this 26-year-old, "progress" is about learning how to walk on his new artificial legs--because his real ones were blown away when a U.S. Air Force jet mistakenly dropped a laser-guided bomb on his unit last year.

As for the war, John told the Miami Herald last month that he knows there were "politics involved," but that he hopes "Iraqis will be better off in the future." John's parents are more blunt. "The other day I went to my son's house, and he crawled to the window and yelled that he couldn't get to the door till he put his legs on,'' his father, also named John Fernandez, told the Herald. "Things like this break my heart. I keep asking myself, 'For what?'"

Mary Fernandez, John's mother, added: "The people who say this war is okay don't see the dead and wounded. They don't know how it affects their families." John is just one of more than 18,000 medical evacuations of troops from Iraq since the beginning of the war--some for minor illnesses, but thousands for serious injuries like John's.

And for every physical injury, there are untold psychological horrors for U.S. soldiers. At least 24 soldiers are known to have taken their own lives in Iraq since the war began--though the number is expected to be much higher.

After a rash of five suicides in July of last year, the Pentagon sent a psychiatric assessment team into the war zone. Of the 756 soldiers they interviewed, Pentagon investigators found that 72 percent said their units suffered from low morale--and that nearly 75 percent said officers "showed little concern for their wellbeing."

Specialist Jason Gunn knows what it means for the Army to show "little concern" for his wellbeing. In November, Gunn, who served with the 137th Armored Battalion, was severely injured when his humvee hit a roadside bomb. His sergeant was torn to pieces a few feet away, and two other GIs were injured.

Yet after he was treated at a military hospital in Germany and spent a few weeks on medical leave at home with his family, the Pentagon ordered Gunn back to Iraq--despite the fact that Army doctors said the 24-year-old was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. When Gunn got back to his unit in Baghdad, he was forced to sign parpers saying that he was medically fit--and that he wanted to go back to his old job patrolling the streets!

"They don't care what condition soldiers are in," Pat Gunn, Jason's mother, told Socialist Worker. "They just need a body to fill a quota, and they don't care what they send back from Iraq either."

Pham Binh contributed to this report. Working with Military Families Speak Out, Pat Gunn has begun a campaign to get her son out of harm's way as soon as possible--letters of support can be sent to [email protected].

The Pentagon's body armor scandal

THE U.S. military puts U.S. soldiers in harm's way for oil and empire--and then lets them pay to try to protect themselves. Reports have circulated since the beginning of the war on Iraq that the Pentagon was failing to provide U.S. soldiers with proper body armor.

As of October, nearly one-quarter of U.S. troops serving in Iraq reportedly did not have ceramic-plated body armor, which can stop bullets fired from assault rifles and shrapnel. The Army promised months ago to fix the problem. But according to an Associated Press report from late March, "Soldiers headed for Iraq are still buying their own body armor--and in many cases, their families are buying it for them."

Nancy Durst told a reporter last month that her husband, a soldier with an Army reserve unit from Maine serving in Iraq, spent four months without body armor. According to Durst, her husband says that reservists have not been given the same equipment as active duty soldiers. "They're so sick of being treated as second-class soldiers," she said.

Maybe one reason the military wants to keep quiet about the problem is because the Pentagon's sole supplier of body armor--Point Blank Body Armor--is swimming in scandal. Point Blank is owned by DHB Industries--which stands for "David H. Brooks."

Brooks is a corporate crook of the highest order. In 1992, he was implicated in an insider-trading scam, and since then, he's racked up several Securities and Exchange Commission complaints for shady deals. DHB is also known for union-busting. Last year, it was found guilty of labor law violations for firing, locking out and threatening employees at its Fort Lauderdale, Fla., plant.

But none of that stopped the Pentagon last month from awarding DHB a $77 million contract to supply troops overseas--the largest order for body armor in Defense Department history--just months after it had handed DHB a $60 million contract. Specifically, the new Pentagon contract is for thousands of Interceptor vests--a heavier version of the type of vests that DHB has supplied to the New York Police Department.

In 2002, DHB was forced to settle out of court with the NYPD--after it was revealed that as many as 5,000 of the vests that the company supplied were defective. Former Point Blank employees have reportedly come forward to say that they were ordered to place updated labels on out-of-date body armor, that vest sizes were mislabeled, and that vest shells were mismatched with their ballistic liners.

Tom Barton contributed to this report.

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