Memorial Day: Among post-9/11 veterans, deepening antiwar sentiment

This Memorial Day the Iraq war is over and the Afghanistan war is winding down, but they're weighing heavily on post-9/11 veterans, 33 percent of whom said they weren't worth the cost.

Adrees Latif/Reuters
U.S. war veterans raise their hands in solidarity after throwing their medals towards the site of the NATO Summit in Chicago May 20, 2012. Nearly 50 veterans threw service medals into the street near the summit site in protest.

Despite the end of the Iraq war and the scheduled drawdown in Afghanistan, this Memorial Day arrives against a backdrop of deepening – and some say more troublesome – antiwar sentiment among military veterans.

One of the most vivid and replayed images of protesters at the NATO summit last weekend in Chicago was a group of some 40 vets lined up to toss their war medals over the chain-link fence to protest what former naval officer Leah Bolger calls “the illegal wars of both NATO and America.”

According to a recent Pew Research Center study, 33 percent of post-9/11 veterans say that neither the war in Iraq nor the war in Afghanistan was "worth the cost,” and this among a highly motivated cohort who chose to serve.

What this means, says retired US Army Col. Ann Wright, who resigned from a State Department post in 2006 over US policies in Iraq, is that there is a widening gap between the government, military policies, and the soldiers that carry them out.

“Military personnel know America will always have a military, but there is growing concern over the way it is being used,” says the 29-year veteran, adding that an increasing list of concerns include “the use of torture, illegal detentions, and both soldiers and the public being lied to about the actual reasons for going into combat.”

But in contrast to the extremely vocal and visible antiwar movements of the Vietnam War era, many veterans in the all-volunteer military have found it harder to mobilize effective actions, says Cameron White, a former marine who served two tours in Iraq before joining “Iraq Veterans Against the War.”

The 32-year-old Pasadena City college student, who enlisted in 2000, says, “it’s harder to speak to fellow soldiers about their decision to join, as the onus is on us because we chose this.”

Many of the post-9/11 veterans who have served in what is now America’s longest-running military action, find that pressures that can fuel antiwar sentiment have ratcheted up with the all-volunteer Army.

According to the Pew study, only some one-half of 1 percent of Americans have served in the military in the past decade, the lowest rate in history. Even as an unprecedented number of Americans – some 80 percent – are therefore sheltered from the war’s hardships because none of their relatives are serving, the pressures of military service have increased.

In order to meet troop-level requirements, many soldiers have been deployed as many as six times – a level unheard-of prior to the all-volunteer military, points out Mike Hanie, an Air Force veteran and founder and executive director of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y.

This growing antiwar sentiment within the veteran community, he says, is easily traced back to the fact that “the men and women who have served are returning home to communities where they feel that their service doesn’t matter.”

The veterans’ “families, friends, neighbors, and colleagues do not understand, or seem to care about our all-volunteer military and the sacrifices they have made defending our freedom,” he adds.

Veterans returning to normal life are facing struggles that include uncertainty about possible redeployments, cutbacks in benefits, and an economy in recession. This has led to many troublesome results, including a suicide rate among post 9/11 veterans of some 18 veterans per day, says Dr. Harry Croft, a former Army doctor and a psychiatrist who has evaluated more than 7,000 veterans for combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and is author of the book “I Always Sit With My Back to The Wall.”

“It’s not clear anymore what the end result is of these wars,” he says, adding that in Iraq, for example, US troops are gone, but many vets wonder what happens now.

“We got rid of Saddam Hussein and put a democratic government in place, but the enemy still hasn’t gone away,” he notes. In addition, he says, many vets feel that we were told before the war in Iraq that oil money was going to pay for the war, “which of course didn’t happen.”

Afghanistan is even murkier, says Dr. Croft. “Our troops are over there risking their lives, and the Afghan people and government don’t even like us,” he says, adding, “our troops are facing suicide bombers and IEDs knowing that today might be their last day, but for what?”

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