Winter soldiers

The Baltimore Sun

From testimony of Jason Hurd of the Army's 278th Regimental Combat Team: One day, Iraqi police got into an exchange of gunfire with some unknown individuals ... [and] some of the stray rounds ... hit the shield of one of our Hummers. The gunner atop that Hummer decided to open fire with his 50-caliber machine gun into that building. We fired indiscriminately and unnecessarily at this building. We never got a body count, we never got a casualty count afterward. ... Things like that happen every day in Iraq. We react out of fear, fear for our lives.

On the fifth anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq, my reflections go back much further - to the spring of 1969, when I entered basic training at Fort Sam Houston as a newly commissioned second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. I had volunteered to serve, but not really out of patriotic duty. I was young and naive, and somehow had begun to picture myself as an angel of mercy who would tend to wounded soldiers.

I knew little about why we were fighting in Vietnam. I hardly ever read the news and had little interest in politics.

For us nurses, basic training was less about nursing and more about acclimation to military life. We were taught how to wear the uniform, how to salute, how to read a map in the wilderness, how to shoot a firearm, how to put on a gas mask in a hurry.

Car bombs are a real danger in Iraq. But as time went on ... individuals from my platoon would fire into the grills of [civilians'] cars and then come back ... and brag about it. I remember ... how appalled I was that we were bragging, that we were laughing, but that's what you do in a combat zone. ... That is how you deal with that predicament.

What I recall best about basic training is the lecture on "Chain of Command and Esprit de Corps." We were told to visualize chain of command as authority that was linked, rank by rank, all the way from the commander in chief high above us to the last private in line below us. Orders were to descend along that chain. Moreover, concerns about carrying out orders were to be communicated back up the chain no further than the rank directly above.

The strength of the armed forces was lodged in that chain. To break it was a serious infraction.

As for esprit de corps, all these years I have not forgotten our instructors' fervor in speaking about the spirit in a military unit. We were to visualize the fighting strength as extending outward, like limbs on one body: Should the spirit of one member fail, so too would the spirit of the entire body. Perhaps because I was a nurse, that corporeal metaphor stuck with me. I saw failing esprit de corps as a sickness moving from the extremities toward the vital organs, threatening the life of the entire armed forces.

Those two concepts - chain of command and esprit de corps - were on my mind this past week as Iraq Veterans Against the War set up their microphones and began recording and broadcasting the disturbing testimony of soldiers who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq.

They called the event Winter Soldier, after an event by the same name organized decades ago by Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). Alluding to Thomas Paine's famous speech that described the "the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot" as withering at the time of moral crisis, VVAW considered themselves true patriots - "winter soldiers" who would speak the hard truth for the good of the country. Unfortunately, much of the American public didn't see the VVAW that way.

[A woman we met] began to tell us a story. ... Her husband had been shot and killed by a United States convoy, because he got too close ... A few weeks later [Special Forces] conducted a raid on her home ... detained [her son] and took him away. [Two weeks later,] the Special Forces team rolled up, dropped her son off and, without so much as an apology, drove off. It turns out they had found they had acted on bad intelligence.

Though soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq can expect to be honored and thanked in a way that those returning from Vietnam were not, this might not be true of Iraq's winter soldiers. Who wants to hear about American soldiers firing into the vehicles of innocent families or carrying around photos of Iraqis they have killed?

Kelly Dougherty, former sergeant in the Colorado Army National Guard and present executive director of IVAW, warned that it would not be easy to listen to these testimonials. "But we believe that the only way this war is going to end is if the American people truly understand what we have done in their name."

A certain kind of patriotism closes off a lot of otherwise good minds. It accepts the testimony of the decorated general without question but shuns the testimony of the ordinary soldier as seditious.

After my basic training in 1969, I was assigned to the burn ward at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. It was hard work, but I think I was a good nurse, maybe even a good officer. Our unit had an ironclad esprit de corps; all of us, regardless of rank, worked with one accord for the sake of those terribly wounded soldiers, alleviating their pain when we could, cheering on the remarkable survivors, trying to make the others comfortable until the end.

Meanwhile, beyond the gates of the post, veterans in beat-up uniforms were angrily protesting against the war. Their stories about atrocities and lies and failed policies were too much for me to take in. I still had no time to read the news. But with all my heart, I wanted the war to end as much as they did, so that the days of burned flesh and amputations would be over.

It was a very long time before those days were over.[An Iraqi] man looked at me straight in the eye, and he said, "Mister, we Iraqis know that you have good intentions here. But before America invaded, we didn't have to worry about car bombs in our neighborhoods, we didn't have to worry about the safety of our own children as they walked to school, and we didn't have to worry about U.S. soldiers shooting at us as we drive up and down our own streets."

As I write this in my comfortable office, the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq are following their orders, ever in danger, looking out for each other until they are allowed to come safely home.

I picture myself - a civilian now - as joined to these soldiers in a national esprit de corps. I picture my whole family and all the neighbors up and down the street as joined to them too.

If those good troops are stricken by what they have seen during their deployments, or by what they have done, isn't it vital that we pay attention? Their sickness with this war is a symptom we cannot ignore. We must carefully attend to them. The life spirit of the larger "corps" - of the nation itself - is at stake.

Madeleine Mysko, a Towson resident, is the author of the novel "Bringing Vincent Home." Her e-mail is

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