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Kelly Dougherty: "Our lives weren't important compared to profits"

February 16, 2007 | Pages 8 and 9

AFTER THE huge antiwar demonstration in Washington, D.C., on January 27, several hundred people packed into the back room of Busboys and Poets bookstore for a spirited, standing-room-only forum featuring author Anthony Arnove and Kelly Dougherty of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

Kelly served in Iraq immediately after the U.S. invasion as a member of the Colorado Army National Guard. After her return, she co-founded Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). She is now IVAW's executive director.

Read Anthony Arnove: "The character of our movement is changing"

See and hear this event

The Traprock Peace Center has posted video and sound recordings of the forum at Busboys and Poets--along with a lot of crucial information for activists on the struggle against war and empire.


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I'LL TELL a little about my story in the military and in Iraq. I've told it a lot, so I feel like I shouldn't keep telling it, but I'm sure there are probably a lot of people who haven't heard stories from me or other veterans who served in the military since September 11.

I think it's good to get an idea of who the men and women of the military are--to hear their stories. I think for a lot of people, the way that the military are portrayed in the media is that we're just faceless, patriotic drones who go along and do whatever we're ordered to do.

I know a reporter asked the president, "What do you think of this troop surge, a lot of these people who you're calling into this 21,000 have already been once or twice or three times?" And he said, "Well, I talked to a young man who's going back for his third time, and he said his family was behind him, and he had to carry out the mission."

I think that's such a simplistic and untrue way to gloss over the situation. The fact is that the men and women in the military are real human beings. They have families, they have children, a lot of us are going to school and have careers, and we're not just blindly patriotic.

I think most of the people in Iraq right now in the U.S. military are there fighting for the people to their left and their right. They're fighting for their brothers and sisters, who are really like their second family. That's why they go over there, and that's why they go back again and again. We have members in Iraq Veterans Against the War who are very opposed to the war, and they're thinking of reenlisting--because they feel like their friends are going back, and they can't let them go by themselves.

People ask me: If the war is wrong, and soldiers know it, why don't they just not go? I think that leads to the bigger issue of war resisters. We were joking in the Iraq Veterans Against the War office that February and March are the two court-martial months, because Lt. Ehren Watada is being court-martialed at Fort Lewis on February 5, Spc. Mark Wilkerson at Fort Hood on February 22, and Specialist Agustín Aguayo in Germany on March 6.

What you can do

Go to the Iraq Veterans Against the War Web site for news and updates about war resisters and other initiatives. Active-duty soldiers can register their discontent by signing the Appeal for Redress. Troops who need advice about their rights should go to GI Rights Hotline Web site or call 800-394-9544 from the U.S. or 510-465-1472 from outside the U.S.

Anthony Arnove's Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal is essential reading for every antiwar activist. Anthony is also the coauthor with Howard Zinn of Voices of a People's History of the United States, and editor of Iraq Under Siege.

For an excellent history of the GI rebellion during the U.S. war on Vietnam, read David Cortright's Soldiers in Revolt, newly republished by Haymarket Books. David Zeiger's Sir! No Sir! is an inspiring documentary about the Vietnam soldiers' revolt, and is available on DVD, along with many other supplemental materials.


There are all these public war resisters, taking the lead, following those who came before them, and standing up and saying no--and putting themselves and their families at a big risk, because people are getting sentenced to prison.

Lt. Watada faces six years in prison, and the judge said that he couldn't use his defense, which is that the war is illegal. So basically, he has no defense. He's facing six years for refusing to go. Other men and women have spent up to a year in prison.

When people say that they support the war resisters, I think they really need to do more than just say, "Oh, that's great." Because these are men and women who are poised to lose everything. They can lose the people they care about, because a lot of their friends and family may not agree with their stance. And there's a huge financial drain as well, because attorneys are hugely expensive.

So I think this is really one of the crucial things--to encourage GI resistance. We need for us all to put our money where our mouth is, so to speak--and really show that we're in solidarity with war resisters. We're going to be there.

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AS FOR myself, I joined the National Guard in 1996. I was 17 years old, getting ready to graduate from high school, and I was looking for a way to pay for college. I wasn't quite sure how that was going to happen, and my stepfather kept encouraging me to talk to the National Guard recruiter--because the National Guard just stays home, trains one week a month, drinks coffee, sits around the armory, and if there's ever a blizzard or something, you'll be called out.

I was very reluctant, but I spoke to the recruiter finally, and I thought, this doesn't sound too bad. I told my best friend Elizabeth about it, and first, she made fun of me, but after a while, she said, "Wait, what were they telling you about college money, maybe I should talk to them." And of course, I said please talk to them, you should go in with me--because I was so nervous about joining the military.

So we signed up in high school as medics and started out going to college studying biology. I served one seven-month tour in the Balkans in 1999-2000, came back, continued going to school and was in a medical unit in Denver.

Then I got a phone call early in January 2003 from one of my sergeants, and he said, "I'm so sorry, but you've been involuntarily transferred to the 220th military police company. They're getting deployed, you're no longer a medic, now you're an MP, and you have to report tomorrow night."

I was in a state of shock. Every year I was in the military, I kept thinking that when I joined, I was really naïve, but now nothing can shock me. But then, lo and behold, something would happen, and I'd say, "Wow, that really shocked me." It's still happening by the way--getting calls in the office from people in the military and veterans and family members, and you say, wow, I didn't expect that.

So I went to the unit, and in February, we were deployed to Kuwait. And shortly after the war started, we moved into Iraq and spent about 10 months in southern Iraq, near the city of Nasiriya.

We were military police, so we did a lot of patrols and a lot of convoy escorts for fuel tankers and flatbed trucks--mostly for Kellogg Brown & Root, which is part of Halliburton. We would go up and down, north and south, from one military base to the other, basically supplying the U.S. military so that the occupation would continue.

There were hundreds, if not thousands, of these vehicles driving on the road, plus all the military vehicles, going past Iraqi village after village and cities that are completely destroyed by the bombing and the occupation. People are unemployed and don't have electricity. They're living in buildings that are halfway crumbling into the ground, there's no medical care, they can't go to school or work in safety--and we're taking tons and tons of trucks full of equipment to continue the occupation while people are sitting in squalor.

I really didn't know what to expect. I didn't agree with the war, but I felt like I was in a kind of impossible situation. We had left Kuwait, which is a very lavish, very wealthy small country. When you drive around in Kuwait City, it kind of reminds me of Vegas, because everything's brand new and well manicured, and everyone's driving Lamborghinis and Mercedes, and they have beautiful Gucci and Prada clothes on.

Then you go just a couple hours north and cross into Iraq, and the first sight you're greeted with as you drive over the border are scores of little children dressed in rags and covered in dirt, with bare feet, begging for food and water.

When we first went into Iraq, it wasn't very long after the war had started, and we were told to be prepared to fire your weapon and be attacked, because you're going into a war zone. But when we went in there, we didn't get attacked, and we didn't get shot at. Instead, we were having poverty-stricken children begging for food.

I think it kind of surprised us in a way, but it was so surreal that you just didn't really think about everything you were seeing--you just took it in and moved on.

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WE WERE stationed outside Nasiriya, at Tallil air base, which is right next to a very ancient archeological site, the Ziggurat at Ur, which is a 4,000-year-old pyramid where Abraham from the Bible was from. It was a very good illustration of the fact that this land we had invaded and occupied after years of sanctions and two previous wars was really the cradle of civilization.

One time, a couple National Geographic reporters and photographers came to try to get on the base so they could go and see the ziggurat, and do a story about the ancient archeological sites of Iraq. It was an interesting juxtaposition between ancient archeology, and then seeing the U.S. occupation and all our military might.

With all the weapons we have, all of the training and all of the money, the U.S. military couldn't fix the problem of Iraqis not having security, not having food or water or electricity. For all the good that we can do theoretically, we weren't doing that, and we can't do that as a military occupation, because that's not what militaries do. Militaries fight wars; they don't rebuild countries.

I think when we went in, there were a lot of people in my unit who thought we have to go do this because Saddam Hussein's going to attack us--we just know it. On my first day with the military police company, I was late, and when I got there, one of the officers was addressing the company. She was talking about September 11, when those towers went down, and she was getting really emotional, and people were, I think, standing there feeling very patriotic--like, yes, that's why I have to go fight.

But then, a couple months later, when I was in Iraq, at that point, you just continue to do your job every day, hoping that you stay safe, hoping that no one in your unit gets hurt and hoping that you're going to come home soon.

We were very lucky, because no one in our company got attacked or killed, and we all came home, though there were some accidental injuries. But for a lot of my friends who I've met through Iraq Veterans Against the War, they didn't have that experience. They lost friends, they were injured themselves, they saw innocent people killed.

That really takes a toll on someone's soul to know they've been part of such a destructive force as a war. Even for us, while we may not have had anyone killed, it was definitely a daily risk we were taking--driving up and down those highways in Iraq, pulling people over, doing home raids, doing traffic stops, doing convoy escorts, chasing hijackers across the desert.

For every car we stopped to look for terrorist contraband or weapons, the only thing we found in the area we were in was maybe one gun, because a Shepard was using it to protect his flock of camels or sheep. I'm not trying to downplay the seriousness of the situation, because there is a lot of violence in Iraq.

But for us, in the area we were in, it seemed like our purpose wasn't to help the Iraqi people--because we basically had no interaction with them, apart from when we'd stop, and they'd come over and stand around our vehicles.

We had no translators, so when something would happen, and we'd be sent off to investigate, it was really pantomiming to someone who has no idea what you're talking about, and whose culture and language are really so far from ours, so there's really no way to have a conversation with them. And if we'd call for translators, it would take probably three hours, and we'd finally be told they can't make it--just deal with this situation.

A lot of times, the trucks we escorted were actually empty or just had a few things on them. I never really thought about it when I was in Iraq. I just assumed that if we were taking them north, they were going to pick something up, or if we were taking them south, they've dropped off their load.

It's only after I got back and started reading more about it that I found out that a lot of people working for the contractors, acting as whistleblowers, said, "Actually, we just drove north and south empty, or with one pallet on our truck." Because Halliburton doesn't get paid by how much cargo they deliver, they get paid by how many trucks are on the road.

That was kind of another realization for me, which I did understand in Iraq to a certain extent--that our lives were really not important when compared to corporate profits and the U.S. gaining dominance in the Middle East.

In the convoy escorts, a lot of times, trucks would break down on the side of the road, or get stuck in the mud, or get into an accident. So the driver would go on with the convoy, and leave the vehicle. Almost every time, it was near where there were Iraqi people. They would come around and try to take something from the trucks, because they were living in poverty and could probably sell it or use it somehow.

So we would have to go and act as crowd control and keep them back. We had rubber bullets, concussion grenades and beanbag shotgun shells. And we used those to keep the Iraqi people from the supposed U.S. asset.

These are unarmed civilians. Of course, every day that I went out, I thought maybe this is the day that someone's going to bring their AK-47 and shoot at one of us--and then, I knew, all hell would break loose. Luckily, in my experience, that never happened. But we did shoot civilians with rubber bullets, which are supposedly nonfatal, but can really hurt and even kill if it's an old person or a child.

We'd call Kellogg Brown & Root and say, "Could you please send a tow truck because your vehicle's broken down. This is an asset, and we've been ordered to guard it." And they'd say, okay, stand by. And then, after waiting there, guarding it and keeping these hundreds of Iraqis back for hours, we'd be told that they're not going to send anyone, so go ahead and abandon the vehicle.

The irony is that the people back at home--your family, your friends--are being told by the media and by the government that we're over there to help the Iraqi people and to promote freedom and democracy. And what you're doing really is using violence against a crowd of civilians to keep them away from a corporate asset--which really isn't even an asset because you're risking your life for three hours protecting it, and then you just abandon it, after all.

A lot of times, before we abandoned the trucks, we would be ordered to destroy them--whether that meant destroying the engine blocks so the vehicle couldn't be driven, or setting fire to the diesel fuel in the tanker truck. This would be a mile from a gas station with miles-long lines just for people to fill up their cars with gas, and we were burning fuel tankers full of diesel fuel.

In one instance, we pulled over because a flatbed truck was broken down, and there were pallets of food in the back. It was produce, and so, of course, they were going to spoil, because this was Iraq, and it was hot. There was a crowd of people, and myself and some of other soldiers were asking if we could let the people get the food, and destroy the trucks after that. And it was decided it was just going to be too hectic to let the people come in and get food, and then move them back again.

So we just sat there and burned produce, in front of people who are struggling to get by every day--not only under the occupation, but without jobs, without health care, without a lot of things that we take for granted.

It was hard--for me, at least--to drive around or do patrols and look the Iraqi people in the eye, because I felt very ashamed of what I was doing, and the part I had in the occupation. Maybe I didn't set fire to the fuel, but I stood and pointed a gun at people so that my colleagues could set fire to these vehicles.

I definitely questioned it every day, but at the time, you're in this situation where you can't just quit, and you also have an obligation to other people.

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ANOTHER SITUATION that happened a lot was traffic accidents, caused either by the contracted semi trucks or by U.S. military vehicles. They would cause accidents with civilians, either on foot or in vehicles, because a lot of the areas they were driving through are heavily populated, and the U.S. military contracted convoys had orders to drive--you get to point A to point B as fast as possible, and you don't stop, because if you stop, you become a target.

In one situation that we responded to, a small boy--probably about 10 years old, I would say--had been crossing the highway, riding on one of his donkeys, with two more of his donkeys in tow, and a U.S. military transportation convoy headed north hit him and his donkeys, and they were all killed.

When we got there with the investigative team, there was this little body lying on the side of the road, covered with a sheet. There was his family sitting around him, just in shock. His grandfather was walking from across the desert, and when he saw what had happened, he just started wailing, and throwing his hands in the air, and then throwing his body on the ground, again and again. He came over, and his family had to restrain him, because he was trying to come over to us. Finally, he was sent away.

It seems really callous--you're driving a truck, and you hit a little boy, and you don't even stop. But at the same time, those are our orders. Also, even more importantly, I never knew who was driving the truck that killed that little boy, but I'm sure it was a lower enlisted person, probably in his or her twenties, who was in Iraq because that's where they were ordered to be. They didn't wake up that morning thinking, "Gee, I really want to kill an Iraqi child."

One of my friends who's in Iraq Veterans Against the War was driving through a town in a transportation convoy in one of those big trucks, and on the back, they had a pallet of MREs, which is the packaged food. And little kids were around, begging for food.

One little kid jumped up on the back of his truck to get an MRE and slipped. He fell between the tires, and my friend ran him over and killed him. He said that was one of the worst days of his life, and he cannot get it out of his mind. He has nightmares about it all the time.

So, I think when we look at the victims of war, there are the veterans. And, of course, far more Iraqis are suffering under this occupation every day that it continues.

I think it's also important to realize that almost four years of occupation was preceded by crippling sanctions that left over half a million children under the age of 5 dead. And the first Gulf War, and the lengthy Iran-Iraq War, which was really fueled by weapons and intelligence from the United States.

Some people say--and this is kind of a sentiment I got from some of the soldiers over there--why don't the Iraqis just understand we're here to help them? We're trying to give them freedom and democracy like we have in the United States. Why are they so stupid and so lazy and dirty and poor?

The Iraqi people aren't stupid, and they know much better than probably any of us in this room or in this country just what the effects of U.S. involvement in their country are. Of course they want the occupation to end.

For those of us in Iraq Veterans Against the War, we really feel that where we can have the most impact as far as organizing to end this war immediately and bring our brothers and sisters home is by targeting the military itself. Because we've been part of the military at one point or another, and some of us still are.

We're the veterans and troops, so the people we can reach the best are the veterans and troops--to encourage them to resist, to encourage them to educate themselves, and to pass that knowledge on to other people, and really challenge the military's ability to continue conducting this war.

I think another key thing to focus on is the fact that if Congress stopped funding this war, the war would be over. I was with people from the Appeal for Redress when they came down to Washington to turn in their appeal, and we were going to congresspeople's and senators' offices, saying, "Here's a list of your constituents who are in the military, and they want the war to end. They signed this appeal."

Of course, what we heard a lot on the media about the response from the politicians was that we can't vote against the funding, because that's voting against our troops. Not only that, but they would have the audacity to get very offended and say, "Well, don't you know the congressperson has been against this war from the beginning?"

We were told by one aide, "Don't you know that if we cut off funding, your friends in the military aren't going to get paid?" You can't pull the wool over eyes. I'm sorry, but we were getting paid in the military before the war started, and maybe we weren't making as much as a Halliburton contractor, but there was a paycheck. So if Congress cut off the money for this war, there's enough to bring the troops home, quickly and safely and now.

I think this march today was really great. I was really pleased with the IVAW, the people from the Appeal for Redress and all the military and the family members--although we really thought we should be at the front of the march.

We showed them that we're organized, we have a voice, and we want people to listen to us. We're going to make it very hard to ignore--that we're the veterans, we're the troops, we're against this war, and we want it to end. We want our brothers and sisters brought home now, we want them taken care of when they get here, and we want reparations and assistance for the Iraqi people so they can rebuild their country.

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