By Josh Rushing
The invasion of Afghanistan’s ninth anniversary passed in DC this week with hardly a notice.
Media desperate to illustrate the story flocked to a small demonstration of less than two dozen veterans of the so-called global wars on terror. A rag-tag group of angry, disillusioned and, most of all, disappointed vets gathered in front of Walter Reed Army Medical Center where thousands upon thousands of service members have returned from war to treat their wounds.
The veterans there for the demonstration held a ceremony at the gates of the iconic hospital and placed nine yellow roses - one for each year of the war in Afghanistan - with almost military precision, the occasional salute replaced with a peace sign, before setting off on a six-mile march to Capitol Hill.
The occasion marked the first salvo in Operation Recovery, an effort by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Against the War to urge the United States to stop redeploying soldiers who have been identified as suffering trauma - either post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, military sexual trauma, or others.
It’s a sensitive topic for the military these days as five soldiers are on trial at Fort Lewis, Washington, for being part of what many are calling a hit squad that killed Afghans for sport. One of the soldiers, whose confession tape was leaked to the media, was prescribed and presumably taking a cocktail of psychotropic drugs for repeated concussions at the time of the alleged murders.
Said Ethan McCord, who served in Iraq in 2007:
“This is what happens to the traumatised soldiers that have gone on multiple deployments and we send them to Afghanistan into the same environment that traumatised them to begin with and you place them on psychotropic drugs and then you hand a weapon to them and turn them loose on the streets. What do you expect?”
McCord was famously captured in a video released by Wikileaks earlier this year trying to rescue two children from a van which had been struck by a missile from a US helicopter. Also during his tour, his spine was shattered by an IED.
He bears the physical and emotional scars of the war with metal rods in his back and a sorrowful gaze in his eyes. He was discharged from the military without benefits because they determined his medical condition was pre-existing. In other words, the military’s official position is that he somehow went to bootcamp and made it through infantry school with a shattered lower spine.
It’s a jaw-dropping declaration for which, as McCord explained, there is no appeals process. So McCord receives no medical coverage from the military for the injuries that rendered him unable to walk with others to the Capitol.
While it was disheartening to hear McCord’s story, and those of his comrades, saddest of all is that no one, save the handful of reporters looking for a story on the anniversary of the war, was there to listen. That is, except for the Capitol Police who threatened to arrest the veterans as they stood on the steps of the Russell Senate Office Building. Not that any senators were present as congress is in recess.
As a female marine stepped to the mic and began a slow and painful account of how the military treated her after she was raped by a fellow marine in Iraq, Officer Dan Turner of the Capitol Police was busy threatening representatives from the group that he was about to arrest everyone, including the media.
Turner, who refused to comment for this piece, told organisers that a gathering of more than 20 people on Capitol grounds constitutes a demonstration and the group lacked the proper permit to demonstrate. Pleas from the veterans that their gathering consisted of a mere 15 members on the steps did little to change Turner’s mind as a police paddy wagon pulled up to the sidewalk.
It seems he considered media part of the demonstration. This inclusion was surprising and went a long way toward explaining why he was so hostile to my request for a statement. Turner’s threats to arrest reporters for standing on a public sidewalk observing and recording the incident felt like a shortsighted attempt to halt coverage of an unsightly event for the US.
I contacted the US Capitol Police in an effort to seek clarity on their demonstration policy. Turner was correct, a permit is required for groups of 20 or more. However, the woman I spoke with explained that reporters are not included in the headcount unless they become actively involved in the event. I would love to share her name with you as a source, but she refused to give it.
The disappointing dissolution of this gathering of veterans seemed almost fated. No one really wanted to hear what they had to say. Their proclamations were meant for a crowd that wasn’t there.
The enormous throng of the fed-up and angry that filled the National Mall to hear Glen Beck was missing on this occasion. Passersby kept passing by, no one lingered. And all too quietly, Capitol Police marked the solemn anniversary by shoeing the vets from the very steps of government they volunteered to serve.
Josh Rushing is a long-form correspondent and the host of the show Fault Lines.
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