Iraq war veteran speaks out
Patrick Resta, a National Guard member who was deployed in Iraq for most of 2004, spoke in Gainesville on February 26 at an event organized by the North Central Florida GI Rights Hotline and Veterans for Peace. What follows is part of his talk.
Patrick Resta: I think it's extremely important that veterans of the Iraq conflict get out there and try to present a true picture of what's going on in Iraq. We were at places other than the hand picked camps shown to senators and reporters. We talked to people who hadn't pre-rehearsed interviews so they'd say what the military and this administration wanted people to hear.
I'm 26 years old. I have been a member of the military since shortly after graduating high school in 1996. Since September 11th I have spent 2 years on active duty as a National Guardsman. I served from October 2001 to October 2002 as part of Operation Noble Eagle at Ft Jackson, which is located in Columbia, SC. I then served from January 2004 to December 2004 as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom II, [as a medic].
... Our first night at our camp, just several hours after arriving, we were attacked for the first time. About 4 or 5 insurgents were in the field in front of our camp firing rockets and AK-47's at us. While this attack was going on a car was flying down the road towards our camp. The road dead-ended into our camp and the local nationals knew this and rarely if ever were seen on the road. It's pitch black out and this car has pieces of scrap metal tied to the roof so long that they are running over the hood and trunk and dragging on the ground creating showers of sparks that look similar to the rockets being fired very close by. At the time there were a lot of soldiers standing at the perimeter of our camp. The unit we were replacing was giving a tour of the guard towers. A Lt. ordered a machine gunner to fire a few rounds in front of the car as a warning shot to get them to stop. Most of the guys out there had been told for months that warning shots were not allowed. So, when the machine gunner started firing so did many other people. The car stopped after it was hit approximately 22 times.
A team of soldiers was then sent out to get the occupants of the vehicle. The military personnel quickly saw the metal on the car and saw that they were innocent civilians. The victims were brought into our treatment facility and we quickly began rendering care. It was a father in his 40's or so, his son who was about 12, and the father's brother (also in his 40's). The 12-year-old boy was untouched because his father dove on top of him when the shooting started. His father, however, had been shot six times. Four rounds had entered the side of his pelvis and shattered his femur, or thighbone. The other two rounds had entered his left upper chest. None of these wounds were life threatening, but would require extensive surgery. His brother had also been hit twice in the chest, these wounds were also not life threatening. After stabilizing these two men they were quickly flown by helicopter from our camp to a field hospital outside Baghdad. I have plenty of other stories of Iraqis getting caught in the crossfire.
Our camp continued to be attacked on average 2 or 3 times a week by rockets and mortars for the duration of my time there. We also continually encountered roadside bombs in our area of operations. I have encountered roadside bombs and we had many people in my unit who had been hit by several. About a month after arriving at our camp we had a large convoy get hit by a massive string of roadside bombs. An engineer lost a portion of his upper arm in the blast... he was riding in an unarmored vehicle. They were able to save his arm after several surgeries and he was told he would have most movement and sensation back after about a year.
By far, most of the casualties that we treated were members of the Iraqi Police (IP) and Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (ICDC), which was later changed to the Iraqi National Guard (ING). We quickly developed clever interpretations for these acronyms. They referred to their lack of training and reputation for not standing and fighting. While I can't repeat what IP stood for, ICDC stood for I Can't Defend Crap, which we felt fit pretty well. When they changed the name to ING it quickly became simply I'm No Good.
These guys were mostly young kids from 18 to the early 20's with little if any police or military training. They mostly did it for the money. The job paid well, which was necessary to attract anyone to such a dangerous job. A lot of them weren't interested in getting involved or certainly not in giving their lives. Corruption and bribe taking were rampant. They would let insurgents bring weapons and explosives through checkpoints for a bribe.
On numerous occasions I would drive up to checkpoints and see either no one outside, the guards asleep outside, or just one man out there by himself. The IP and ING were even taking part in the uprisings in Fallujah, after they had worked their shift of course. They would shoot at soldiers while still in uniform. They would be caught in uniform planting roadside bombs. Often they would get tipped off about an upcoming attack and not show up to work. The US has no way to conduct background checks on any of these guys. You're often left taking the word of someone you can't really trust in the first place.
In the town just outside my camp there was a large ING barracks. They had confiscated a large amount of weapons and explosives recently and were storing them there. The insurgents found this out and attacked one night. The ING members quickly dropped their weapons and ran. So, not only did the insurgents get everything that was being stored there, they also escaped with all of the ING's weapons and ammunition. I remember a Special Forces team coming to our camp to train these guys after they were getting routed repeatedly. The second day they were in our clinic getting eye tests because not one of them could shoot straight after being trained repeatedly. ...
A huge public misconception about the war is that the Iraqi people want US troops in Iraq. Well, I'm here to tell you that nothing could be further from the truth. During my time in Iraq very few of the local nationals were directly confrontational. They all wanted things from us like food, medicine, and clothing. However, if you actually asked the people what they thought about the US being in Iraq they would speak pretty bluntly. The comments that I heard most frequently always began with them being glad that Saddam was gone. They were then quickly followed up with comments stating that while Saddam was bad, at least under him they had security. Most people are fed up with the lack of security, lack of infrastructure, lack of jobs, and the lack of things just looking like they're going to get better any time soon. Things in Iraq will not change until the US dramatically reduces its presence in Iraq. The voting changed nothing in Iraq if the US doesn't stand way in the background and start to only provide assistance. Specifically, I refer to training. Why isn't every service member in Iraq doing that? I'll tell you why, because they're too busy beating back people trying to get them out. This only fuels the insurgency. Iraqis won't view their government as fully legitimate until the US backs off. The perfect example of this is that only 2% of the people in Anbar province voted.
I feel that most Iraqis would have been comfortable with a small US presence if it focused on purely humanitarian aspects. Several of our interpreters would tell me that if we wanted to help the Iraqi people we should have just stuck to guarding relief agencies. One of our interpreters said (and I quote), "If you wanted to help the Iraqi people medically you should have come as a medic and a teacher, not as a medic and a soldier."
This administration has repeatedly assured that we're just about to turn the corner in Iraq. First, we would be greeted like we had just liberated Paris and the war and reconstruction would be paid for with Iraqi oil money. Then, when that didn't pan out once Baghdad fell the mission was accomplished. Nope, well when Saddam is captured it's definitely over. Well, when we turn over the government things will change quickly. Sorry, when the Iraqis vote the attacks will end. And now we hear that of course things aren't going well, we still have to train the security forces. This exact line of thinking was used to rationalize our ever-expanding commitment in Vietnam just 35 years ago. It's a shame those lessons have been forgotten so quickly.
This war was sold to the American public the exact same way that Vietnam was. It's the same domino theory, except instead of stopping the spread of communism we're spreading democracy. Vietnam somehow posed a threat to the US, much as Iraq somehow did. Iraq was involved in a brutal trench war with Iran from 1980-1988. Then the Persian Gulf War in 1991 was followed by twelve years of crippling sanctions and pretty regular bombing. Vietnam had Agent Orange, Iraq has depleted uranium. Vietnam veterans returned and were not cared for properly by the VA, it's already happening to Iraq veterans. You had the shenanigans in Cambodia and Laos; soon you'll have the death squads in Iran and Syria. Vietnam had "gooks" and Iraq has "hadjis." Vietnam had widespread torture of prisoners and innocents alike, Iraq has Abu Ghraib and thousands and thousands of civilians killed. Vietnam had fortunate sons that dodged the draft and did everything the could to avoid going to fight that unwinnable war, now they fill the halls of Congress, the Cabinet, and the White House and again send others to die in another unwinnable war with the same flawed policy. The only thing missing from Iraq that Vietnam had is the draft and it won't be for much longer.
Let me make it perfectly clear that we do not have the support of the overwhelming majority of Iraqis. US State Department polls show that 75% of Iraqis want us out of the country now. From 1991 until the current war on Iraq the country underwent crippling sanctions. Under these US-authored sanctions at least 1.5 million Iraqis died. They died from medical neglect, malnutrition, and bad sanitation. Over half a million of these Iraqis were children. Could this be why we don't have there help and support? Could this be why we weren't greeted like liberators? I bet that you would be pretty mad if you were an Iraqi. I bet that you would do what ever you could do to defend your family, home, and your country. And that's what most of the Iraqis fighting US troops believe they're doing.
You can't have success in an environment like Iraq without the support of the people. Most of the attacks on my camp came from the two towns that were less than a quarter of a mile away. People firing rockets and mortars from back yards or rooftops carried out the attacks. Mortars and rockets are very loud things; you can hear them from far away, especially when you're in an enclosed area like a town. However, we would never get any assistance from the townspeople even though it was obvious that they knew who was doing it.
It takes time to dig, wire, and bury roadside bombs. People were obviously seen doing these things but were never reported. The same village that had just had its women and children treated by us would have bombs waiting for us the next time we drove by. Even the ING and IP would get tipped off about roadside bombs and not let us know.
I will never forget my most demoralizing moment in Iraq. I had stopped at another camp on my trip back to Kuwait to go home for my two-week leave. I learned that the next leg of the trip had been canceled because a patrol had been ambushed in Baqubah and four soldiers had been killed. My convoy would have to go through Baqubah and the city was still very much in insurgent hands with frequent hit and run attacks.
I started to walk over to a convenience store on the camp that was run by local nationals. I knew that the store had satellite TV. As I approached the store I saw the men that ran it outside in the parking lot singing and dancing. I wondered why until I went inside and saw footage of the attack playing on Al Jazeera. Plastered on the TV screen was footage of burning humvees, blood, and the dead bodies of soldiers that were being pulled from the vehicles. I can easily say that that is the angriest I have ever been in my life. I walked out of the store and loaded my pistol. They'll take your money, your medicine, your clothes, but they're really not interested in keeping you alive or in helping stabilize the country. So why are we? Why were we in Iraq? I looked at these Iraqis and seriously contemplated what would happen to me if I killed them. Would anyone blame me? Here my brothers and sisters were dying brutal deaths to supposedly help the people of Iraq and these people were dancing in the streets like it was New Years Eve when they were killed. Would anyone care if I killed them? We were the law. We were judge, jury, and executioner. I stood there for about five minutes thinking it over before I wondered to myself what the hell had happened to me. I went to Iraq with a strong belief in the sanctity of life, and I had completely lost it my first day in country.
In some ways I was more amazed at what I was prepared to do than what I actually did. It was so out of line with my beliefs and the values that I had held. You can lose your humanity quickly in Iraq and a lot of people do. I honestly believed that there was no such thing as a good Iraqi. My time in Iraq turned into just surviving no matter what I had to do. I told myself that if I was fired at I would just empty my magazine at wherever I thought it was coming from. As long as I survived I really didn't care who died in the process. It would just mean fewer Iraqis to rocket us, mortar us, and plant roadside bombs. I was ashamed of what I had become. But mostly I was angry. I was angry that I had been put in a position where I had to make those choices for absolutely no reason.
I remember another time that I was on foot patrol with my platoon. We had spent several hours after the sun went down in the area not far outside of our camp. We had been getting attacked pretty frequently and people had been seen in the fields with binoculars and AK 47s. We didn't find anyone or anything that night and were headed back into our camp. We were walking through a huge field dotted with streams, steep embankments, and large rocks. It was difficult to walk on the terrain at times. It was very dark out and the only light was a dim moon and a few stars. The majority of my patrol was well in front of me. It was just myself and two other soldiers that were covering the rear. I was walking with a large medical backpack on, my left arm was slid through the straps of a collapsible litter, and in my right hand was my pistol.
I caught something out of the corner of my eye and before I could react it was upon me. A man was riding a ten-speed bike on this terrain that I could barely walk on at 3 AM. He hits me with the bike and flies up onto the handlebars. I immediately pointed my pistol at him and told him to put his hands up. The two other guys with me were also pointing their rifles at him. We had formed a triangle around him. My mind was swimming with thoughts of what he was doing at this hour in this place, of him being a suicide bomber, of him drawing us into an ambush, and on and on. He had two large baskets on the back of the bike that he kept reaching for. The baskets were full of something, but it was too dark out to tell what. One of the other guys with me was struggling with him trying to keep him away from the baskets. The other guy moved in to help and a struggle ensued. I started thinking to myself that I had to get this guy before he got me, or even worse, one of my men. I re aimed my pistol at this man and aimed to kill him. As I started to pull back the trigger I steadied myself as well as I could since I was firing with only one hand.
A funny thing happened in the next second or two. What seemed like thousands of thoughts raced through my head. I thought to myself, "Well you knew it was going to come sooner or later. You knew you would have to kill someone." I aimed for his nose. "You can't let this guy live, then you'll have to treat him. You won't be able to handle that. If you kill him you won't have to touch him. You can just walk away and tell yourself it never happened. If you don't kill him you'll have to carry him out to the road and call a helicopter to fly him to the hospital. You'll get his blood all over you and won't be able to deny what happened. If you kill him you'll never have to find out that he was innocent. Dead people are guilty or they wouldn't have been shot. You feel threatened, no one will even question you for taking this man's life", I said. I remembered what I had been told countless times. When you shoot you shoot to kill. Dead people can't talk, they don't need medical care, they don't have to be paid off for their trouble, and they can't go on Al Jazeera. Finally, the two guys with me wrestled him to the ground. The Lt with us came running back to where we were at this point and ordered us to let him go. We told him we hadn't searched him yet. We could tell he was up to something. It was time for us to go in though and go to bed. It would take hours to process a prisoner. We were again ordered to just let him go. So, we did. The man flashed a big grin to us, got back on his bike, and pedaled away.
American lives, limbs, and dollars are being wasted when they could be so much better spent. If we really had the support of the Iraqi people the situation would not be what it is. This lack of support of most Iraqis is also evident by the existence of foreign fighters. Someone has to meet these people once they get in the country, someone has to shelter them, someone has to feed them, people know when someone from another country moves into the neighborhood; especially if they don't speak the language.
This all goes on and people look the other way not wanting to get involved. Democracy is literally "the will of the people," and as such you can't force it on people. Every day that this country spends in Iraq trying to convince the Iraqis to embrace our form of democracy, (or whatever the current rationale for occupying the country happens to be), 150 million dollars is spent, an average of two soldiers are killed, and an average of 15 are psychically wounded. Countless others are mentally traumatized by what they must see and do. Why are we in Iraq?
Those heading the insurgency are capitalizing on the basic nonexistence of employment for most Iraqis. Here's how they do it: they simply hire Iraqis to plant roadside bombs; or even just remotely detonate them with a cell phone, garage door opener, car alarm remote, walkie-talkie, or whatever they have rigged up; just transporting weapons from point A to point B will often net people more than they would earn in a year, to fire mortars and rockets at US camps or just set up on their land, and even to be part of standing armies. These people need to feed their families and this administration's plan in Iraq isn't making that possible, especially in the larger cities.
Another huge public misconception is that we are helping the people of Iraq. During my time in Iraq we were instructed that we could only treat Iraqis who were in danger of losing life or limb. The excuses ranged from not having the money to give out medicine to wanting to get the Iraqis used to using their own healthcare infrastructure. When we first found this out it was a slap in the face. Why were we in Iraq? Where's all the money going?
During my eight months inside Iraq my unit did three medical assessments. This is where we'd go to a local hospital and clinic and see whoever showed up. These were purely for PR purposes and Al Jazeera was even invited to show up to one of them. At these medical assessments mostly basic over the counter medicine was handed out. Things like two days worth of Tylenol, Pepto-Bismol, and athlete's foot cream.
When we did find someone sick and in need of medicine we treated them as best we could with what we had. Again, unless they were in danger of losing life and limb the direction we got in writing repeatedly was to not treat them. Most of us found a way around this policy and treated the Iraqis as best we could with what we could get our hands on. I treated many Iraqis for minor injuries and illnesses, especially children.
The next misconception is that all over Iraq there are these massive public works projects going on. Absolutely not true. I think some roads being repaved was the extent of the massive construction I saw while I was there. People from my camp went out and got plenty of estimates of what it would cost to rebuild something or properly equip a hospital or school. The country isn't safe enough for contractors to operate. Anyone who is seen helping or is even believed to be helping the US has his family's life threatened. One of our interpreters was assassinated while driving home from our camp. We had a huge turnover among the local nationals who worked at our camp because of this. The contractors aren't really fixing anything that is Iraqi. They are using that money to build new things. Specifically, new military bases for the US, and lots of them. The money that is supposedly being spent to reconstruct Iraq is being used to construct permanent US military bases in Iraq.
Almost every day I would think to myself how I was in another country risking my life to supposedly give the people of Iraq the right to vote when MY vote didn't even count in my own country. The problem with soldiers not being able to vote in the presidential election was enormous. Our soldiers were dying and being maimed so the people of Iraq could have free education and universal healthcare and we don't even have those things in America. Why are we in Iraq? ...
Peace and stability will not come to Iraq until US troops dramatically reduce their presence and finally leave. If peace and stability were the true goals of our occupation this administration would step back and listen to what the interim government needs. Iraq is not America; there are huge cultural differences. Let the Iraqi people decide what kind of government they want to represent them.
Patrick Resta is a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War. The group can be reached at 215-241-7123 or www.ivaw.net or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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