Five Iraq veterans talk about war.

The artwork accompanying this article was made by Aaron Hughes, a 24-year-old student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who served three tours of duty in Iraq with 1244th Transportation Company. The side-by-side images are from a series called

Dust Memories

. "This series of personal

war images are my effort to deconstruct the nostalgic war epic (which informs much of how war is interpreted by mass media) in order to convey the over-complex, monotonous anxiety of my personal war narrative," Hughes writes. (The whole series can be viewed online at

.) The poem below is the title Hughes gives to this painting:

This is how I wanted to see my self...

This

is what I thought we would do in Iraq

That's

what I always thought we were about...

Barefoot,

little kids...I remember that one there...

he

couldn't have been five years old

Just

a damn little kid, you know?

Little,

black, cracked, bare...

Dust

covered feet.

Tiny

little kid...Tuff as hell. His brother too.

The

sand must've been 150 degrees, fuck'n hotter then that!

Everything

was so damn hot; the heat

Would

come up through my boots like standing on a stove.

The

kid had baby toes that were like coarse callused black elephant leather.

That

kid had the craziest ruff ass skin

I

gave the kid an MRE and some other food.

A

bunch of crap I was sick of eating...

Kids

would stand on the roads every damn day asking for that crap.

There

was nothing else...bleak dead dust days,

powdered

sand-lands of nothing for miles and miles.

There

was nothing but a unattainable horizon and a damn long ass road.

But

the fucking little ass kids would come out of no ware...

Nothing

around! Not a damn thing!

But

these damn kids would just appear.

I

thought we were going over to help these damn kids that would come out of nothing and go back into it.

Feed

the hungry, help the oppressed, give relief from day in day out pain.

That

is what I wanted to think I was there for.

Barefoot,

all day long

All

they wanted was food from us...

Like

damn kids on the 4th of July...

we

were a spectacle, a parade of crazy floats passing out food.

But

then we hit one you know...That was it! It all changed

We

were told not to stop...Don't stop not in the towns.

Keep

the truck moving and don't stop. Forget the kids!

Now,

now I can't forget the kids. Damn kid. I'm not even there.

Hundred

thousand miles away and its still in my fucking head.

Ah

fuck'm they were just a part of the damn landscape anyway.


HEROLD NOEL

Herold was in the Army Expeditionary Unit 3/7 and served in the Iraq war. His assignment was to deliver tank fuel, one of the more dangerous tasks. When he returned home from the war, Herold was homeless. He is now attending school and lives in the Bronx, New York.

I was living in Brooklyn, New York,

and I joined the service mainly to support my children. I served as a "fueler" in Iraq for almost eight months. It was an experience. I saw the Iraqi people as pretty intelligent; they understood what they were doing. I saw them as people like us. They were regular people…

I did receive a couple of overseas medals. But, there was a mistake while I was in Iraq. The Army confused me with someone and they thought that I was AWOL [absent without leave]. As a result, I did not receive my paychecks for some time. There was also a situation when I returned home from Iraq. Soldiers who had traffic tickets and misdemeanor tickets before they deployed had their names called and the police were waiting. "Well, this is America," I said to myself. I sometimes feel a whole bunch of regret. I used to be very mad after I returned home. I kept asking myself, "What the hell did I fight for?" I was on the street now. I was mad at everybody, but I learned to tell myself that this is how America is. I just gave my life for something and nobody showed any respect. They try to make you blend in like you weren't doing anything, like you weren't just over there killing fucking people for the last six months…When you come home, America throws you out like a piece of trash.

You train a soldier to fight for your country. They feel so proud at what they did; they felt that their life is worth something. When they returned, they feel like it wasn't worth anything. Not every returning soldier is as stable as I was. The soldier is angry, and

I am not calling the returning soldier crazy-people called me crazy when I returned. But some of them are angry and might end up blowing some shit up

or snapping. I was just looking for respect or some honor. I was first angry at everybody. But I understand now and am not angry at them anymore. The government is blindfolding them.

I know that people are mad at the president, but I am not mad at him, that's just the kind of soldier that I am. People are mad because the question on why we went to war in the first place was not answered. We got three or four different answers and I lost track of the reasons why we went to war…

Wouldn't you feel angry if you went to war and did what I did and you were sleeping in a car? I was homeless. You would feel like your government is killing you. I felt like my whole government turned its back on me. It was very difficult. There are actually soldiers who took their lives, and they call us crazy. But I call America crazy…

What happened in Iraq may have been a mistake, but the president started something and he's going to have to clean it up. We can't just back out. We went over there and made another country three times as bad than before we arrived. I saw nice schools and other things, we destroyed all that. We destroyed their way of living. Now there is no government, or something they call a government, and people running around on a rampage. We made it three times worse. I saw what we did to the people. We need to fix it before we move out.

Bush is going to leave it for the next president. I see all these soldiers running for Congress and the Senate, I would vote for any of them: Republican or Democrat. They are probably the only people

that could run the government correctly. But I don't vote. They are going to put who they want to put in office. I know that my people fought hard for the right to vote, but now it is a commercial game.

I am not against the war and I am not for the war. The government should have fixed the mistakes before they happened. If people came into my neighborhood with tanks, what would I do? Would I sit back and watch it happen or would I take out my AK and shoot? I would do the same thing if people attacked my neighborhood. I went to Iraq with orders to do a job, so I had to defend my country. I do not look at it in a political way. All the government is doing is playing with our lives.

Today I have my own place. Not because of the government, but because of a private donation. If I did not go to the media, I would never have received my VA disability checks.


MICHAEL HARMON

Michael Harmon served as a combat medic in the US Army 4th Infantry Division and was deployed to Iraq in April 2003. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is a college student studying respiratory therapy.

I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. I was not sure what I was going to do after high school and I took a year off. I met with an Army recruiter, who only told me the great things about the military and I joined. As a New Yorker, I was also affected by 9/11 and felt that joining the Army made sense. I was shipped to Fort Benning, Georgia in May 2002 for basic training, then to Texas for medical training.

On Martin Luther King Day in 2003, we were told that we were going to war against Iraq. I did not see any tie between Iraq and 9/11. But I was a fresh, young, inexperienced soldier and I did what I was told. My division originally planned to invade through Turkey, but they refused to allow the US entry for the invasion.

…I remember my first taste of combat. I was driving in a Humvee smoking a cigarette and all of a sudden I heard machine gun fire, small arms fire and RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] exploding around us. We returned fire. Another day we were doing vehicle checks and my sergeant and I were enjoying an MRE [meal ready to eat]. We didn't get to eat all that much. We were limited to one MRE and two bottles of water a day. The scout Humvee was fired on and it had a Javelin [portable anti-tank weapon] inside, so it exploded. I remember one guy who was literally split open. It was crazy. It was surreal. After such scenes, I would smoke five cigarettes in a row. It felt like I was watching a movie; it was pretty scary and sick. I saw shot children and dead children as well as dead soldiers.

While I was there stuck doing this, I thought I might as well try to help whoever I can. I offered medical services to my fellow soldiers and they appreciated it. This kept me going.

My first sergeant was really scared, he wouldn't leave the base. He used the generator for himself while the soldiers had no lights. My captain, however, was decent and treated us fairly.

I talked with the Iraqi people. They wanted to know what we were doing there. One Iraqi said, "Fuck America." But we were in his country; he had a right to say it. The people really didn't want us there. They were glad Saddam was gone, but they didn't want us there. Poverty in Iraq was unbelievable.

I don't trust my government anymore. The whole war was a lie-based on the false WMD claim. I just

read a news story about Tony Blair and George Bush having a meeting where Bush made it clear that he was going to war no matter what. Bush proposed painting a spy plane in United Nations' colors to create an incident where Saddam might fire on it. More and more evidence is coming out against Bush. The whole Bush regime can't be trusted. And a poll [Zogby International, February 2006] showed that over 70 percent of US soldiers want the US to leave Iraq.

The US should withdraw from Iraq immediately. Iraqi polls show that the violence will be less if we leave. The division between the Shiites and Sunnis is largely because of the invasion. Remember Bush divided the US, saying, "You are either with us or with the terrorists." He drew a massive rift in this country and he drew a massive rift in Iraq. When I was there early on, I didn't see this Sunni/Shiite tension.

Another thing Bush says is that he wants democracy. But when it doesn't go his way, he has a fit. For example, Hamas was elected by their people, then Bush said, "Oh, no, this is not allowed." He is a terrible leader, who is out for "white" America. By this I mean rich, corporate America: Halliburton and the oil companies. He is not looking out for the average person.

Soldiers who return from war are starting to question it. It takes a while to process what happened. When soldiers first return, they are very angry. People should notice this and ask, "Why are these people coming back messed up?" Why support something that is destroying soldiers and families in Iraq? I ask people directly: "How would you feel if your child was just blown up?" You can say "support the troops" all you want, and put yellow ribbons on your gas-guzzling SUV to feel better about yourself. I say let's wake up. The Bush regime is wrong.

People have accused me of being a traitor for saying these things. I am not a traitor. I was a soldier who served in Iraq and I say immediate withdrawal is the way to support the troops.

When I returned home, I did not know what was wrong with me. Your body is so pumped up after being on high alert for so long; you no longer know how to relax. I didn't shower or shave. I was diagnosed with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and took pills, which did not help. There was talk of redeployment after I just returned. I had about a year and a half left on my contract and it was made clear to me that I was going to get stop-loss [service extended beyond discharge date]. I told the military to let me out. There was a fight, they gave me a field grade Article 15 [nonjudicial punishment] and stripped my rank. I told them I will not do it anymore. They let me go. I guess they didn't want a problem soldier infecting the ranks.


TINA GARNANEZ

Tina is a Navajo woman who was raised on the Navajo reservation in northwestern New Mexico. She is the daughter of a single mother and joined the US Army right out of high school for college money. She served for five years although she only signed up for four. She was not told about the Army's policy of involuntary extensions known as a stop-loss. Tina served in Tikrit, Iraq from July to December 2004 with the 557th Medical Company.

One day in Iraq I was delivering supplies and was nearly killed by a roadside bomb that exploded in front of my vehicle. I was so upset and angry. I was not angry at the Iraqi people, but angry that I was there. I asked myself, "What am I here for?" I decided that I was finished. I was not going to fight for anyone's oil agenda. A lot of soldiers would ask the sergeants, "What are we doing in Iraq?" Eventually when no one higher-ranking than they were was around, a few of them would say that it is for oil. I guess to make seven rich men richer. But no one in the Army can say things like that publicly for fear of punishment.

The things I saw as a medic were terrible-godawful things that I can't get out of my head. To be so young, sent to war and to return home expecting to be the same is near impossible. War changes you and there is not a day that goes by that my life is not affected by it. I sit and talk with fellow Iraq veterans and the stories we share are heartbreaking, tragic and are still happening every day in Iraq. It saddens me to know that we have our whole lives left to live with all this guilt, pain, anger and confusion.

On the third anniversary of the Iraq War, I participated in the Veterans Gulf March, "Walking to New Orleans." We marched from Mobile, Alabama to New Orleans and it was unbelievable…There is trash, debris, rubble everywhere. They fixed New Orleans's heavy tourist areas but St. Bernard Parish and the Ninth Ward are still completely destroyed. I noticed poor whites and minorities were so glad to see us and supported us, but rich white folks flipped us off and screamed, "Go Bush!" as we walked. Some called us Iraq veterans "traitors." It was unreal; I thought there was no one more patriotic than a soldier.

As a Native American, it made me think of our communities that have also been neglected on the reservation just as Iraqi communities are being neglected. The US government wrote our laws and made treaties with us that were broken time and time again. Now the US wrote the Iraqis' new constitution, which does not seem at all to be in their best interest. I will take the spirit from this experience back to my people. The reservations are like the Gulf Coast: devastated. I want to ask young Native Americans, "If the government truly cared about you, they would fix the reservations. Roads are falling apart, houses are falling apart. Why would you want to fight for them when they don't care about you?"


KEVIN M BENDERMAN

Kevin served in the 4th Infantry, 1-10 Calvary, and was deployed to Iraq from March to September 2003. In December 2004, he applied for conscientious objector status, which was denied. He refused to redeploy in January 2005 and was charged with intentionally missing movement. Kevin was sentenced to 15 months in prison. He wrote the following statement during his incarceration at the Regional Correctional Facility in Fort Lewis, Washington. Amnesty International has declared Kevin a prisoner of conscience.

I was in the US Army for nearly 10 years. I served a term from January 1987 to March 1991 and another term from June 2000 to July 2005. I had a strong sense of patriotism and I still believe in being a responsible citizen, but I have learned that war is not the only way to serve one's country. My family has a service background, which has been traced back to the American Revolution.

My first duty station was Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Fort Leavenworth is an officer training post where the Command and General Staff College is located. I was stationed there from 1987 to 1991 until I got out of the Army after the first Persian Gulf war. The strangest thing I saw at Fort Leavenworth were Iraqi army officers being trained at the war college that was there in 1988. The Army was training them because Iraq was a US ally against Iran from 1980 to 1988. I was surprised when we went to war against them not quite two years later.

My second duty station was Fort Hood, Texas, and I was in the 4th Infantry Division. This is the unit that I went to Iraq with in 2003, as it was a heavy armored division. Heavy armored means that you have tanks and other tracked combat vehicles. I was assigned to the C Troop, 1st Squadron, 10th Cavalry Regiment. I was deployed to Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom from March 2003 to August 2003 and it was the most unusual experience I have ever had. It is difficult to express how it really was. You feel fear, but not overwhelming fear because if you did you could not function properly. You feel fear for the people that you are there with because you know that some of them will not return home alive. You feel for the soldiers that you are responsible for…

War is mankind at its collective, absolute worst, but it also can be an individual at his/her best. It can sometimes make a very indecisive person find strength that they did not know they possessed. At its worst, you are there to kill other human beings who have done nothing to you personally and you see how it affects some people.

When you stand at the edge of a mass grave site and see the rotting bodies of women, children and old men, you think to yourself, "Why the hell are we still participating in war in this day and age?" I remember wild dogs at this mass grave digging into them and eating the remains. When you see a young girl standing along the road and she needs immediate medical attention for severe burns and you have to just drive away because you are at war, it leaves you feeling extremely angry at the stupidity of war. When you see the men that you serve with start behaving in ways that they do not normally do because they are trying to cope with the insanity of war themselves, you realize that there is nothing glorious about war.

Two of our mortar platoon soldiers were injured by shrapnel because of an order from our first sergeant. I remember the executive officer getting killed because of a computer malfunction on two of the fighting vehicles. Another incident that I remember is our squadron CSM [command sergeant major] shooting wild dogs with a nine-millimeter pistol from his Humvee in our area of operations. He was bragging as if he had done something great.

Some individuals made sound decisions, but overall they were not exactly a competent, professional force. For example, we were in the process of getting a new battalion and company commander while in Iraq. The word initially went out that we would perform a formal command ceremony at the soccer field in Khanaquin. A change-in-command ceremony requires the battalion of roughly 1,000 soldiers to stand in formation for about two hours in the Stateside version, and this is what they wanted to do, in the middle of a war zone.

After our new company commander took over and settled in, he started to issue orders as he saw fit. He wanted us to retrieve a bronze statue of a horse and bring it back to our maintenance area so that we could remove the anatomically correct penis and testicles from the statue. He wanted to bring it back to the States and deliver it as an "award" to the vehicle crew who shot the worst during firing exercises.

I met many different types of Iraqi people: vendors, construction workers, school teachers, electricians, plumbers, educated, uneducated, administrators and so on. A Mr. Sadullah was an elementary school teacher and he was a very friendly and generous man. He provided a living for himself, his brother and sister and her children on a $40-a-month salary. Mr. Sadullah always wanted to invite many of us to his home for dinner, which amazed me because I felt that I should be doing something for him instead. He was showering us with hospitality on a very meager budget.

We met a man named Mahmoud, who was a heavy equipment operator. We got him to do some cleaning up of the compound that we set up for our vehicle maintenance. One day Mahmoud's boss came by and we all ate lunch together. We learned that his boss was a very good dominos player and he also performed some very good card tricks. There was another young man named Asouah, who started a vending service at our compound. He would go to the market area of Khanaquin and bring back sodas, candy and ice cream. He eventually made enough profit from us to afford a secondhand truck.

There are some fanatics just as there are fanatics in any place. I would say that the people of Iraq want the same thing that the American people want: to earn a living, to provide for a family and to be able to live in their country free from war. I believe that they want to determine how they are going to live without interference from the outside.

Our military presence is now fueling the problems we see in Iraq. We need to withdraw US forces so that Iraqi forces can start to provide their own protection. There are many infrastructure problems facing Iraq, such as the power grid, the potable water supply, effective sanitation disposal, security, highway construction, etc. The government of Iraq must find solutions, not Halliburton. Some US corporations might be allowed to offer technical assistance, but they should not be allowed to take over and rebuild the country. There are many intelligent and hardworking Iraqis who are very eager to work and take responsibility for repairing the nation.

The US should withdraw its forces gradually over a six-month period, while negotiating with other Arab nations to provide assistance to Iraq. The mineral resources of Iraq should be used to benefit the people of Iraq and not to benefit individuals or corporations elsewhere in the world. Now that evidence proves that the administration had information that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction at the time of the invasion, it must be held accountable.

People should also be aware that a number of people in this confinement facility should have received rehabilitative treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder or other stress factors in their life. Many of these guys went to combat for this country and a lot of them are here due to their inability to cope with the readjustment. There should be better rehab programs for the people serving time here. They have only one program for people serving over two years; it is a woodworking program. Most of these guys made mistakes which should not be used to beat them down the way this system does. There are rapists and child molesters who deserve to be incarcerated, but their sentences are somehow shorter than those who went AWOL.


PATRICK RESTA

Patrick was an Army medic with the 30th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry. He served in Iraq from March to November 2004 in the Diyala Province, roughly 100 miles northeast of Baghdad.

I joined the military after high school in 1996. My main motivation was always money for college and to get some training in the medical field. My parents had made it clear that they were not in a position to assist me with college tuition. I think that many people that join the military do it for the educational benefits.

My aunt and uncle worked in the World Trade Center and were killed on September 11. My National Guard unit was called up a few weeks after the September 11 tragedy. I was sent to Fort Jackson, South Carolina. When we arrived, they brought us off the buses and into a movie theater. They showed us a slide show of the World Trade Center attacks. They made comments throughout the slide show about getting revenge, etc. The whole idea of attacking nations and the Middle East in retaliation did not make sense to me. It is one thing to go after the people behind the attacks, but to go after the whole Middle East is pretty ridiculous.

In October or November of 2001, I started to hear rumors at Fort Jackson that we were going to invade Iraq no matter what. I dismissed it at first. But, the talk became more and more intense as time went on. My unit eventually deployed to Iraq about a year after the war started, so it was clear to us that there were no weapons of mass destruction. When I was over there,

Stars and Stripes

was running letters to the editor from soldiers who served in Iraq and nearby that were very critical of the war. So, in my own experience and in these letters, there are certainly soldiers who are against the war.

Daily life as a soldier varies greatly by where you are in Iraq. Soldiers at the bigger camps have better amenities than I ever did, such as movie theaters, swimming pools and fast food restaurants. I myself lived in a trailer with three other medics. If you can picture one of the metal shipping containers at a port you have a good idea of the size. It was slightly smaller. It had fluorescent lights, air conditioning and several power outlets. I rarely, if ever, had a day off for the entire time that I was over there. My days consisted of working in our clinic, going on patrols or missions or going on convoys to other camps.

When I was in Iraq, I did not want somebody simply sending me stale brownies. I wanted them to demand answers and hold the leadership of this nation accountable. Why was a 28-year-old kid in my unit killed because the only protection he had on his Humvee was plywood? Why did I have to buy my own body armor?

We were attacked for the first time soon after arriving in our camp on the first night. About four or five insurgents were in the field in front of our camp firing rockets and AK-47s 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 was pitch black outside 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…A lieutenant 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. When the machine gunner started firing so did many other people. The car stopped after it was hit about 20 times.

A team of soldiers was then sent out to get the occupants of the vehicle…innocent civilians. The victims were brought into our treatment facility and we quickly began rendering care. It was a father in his 40s, his son who was about 12 and the father's brother. The 12-year-old boy was okay because his father jumped on top of him when the shooting started. His father had been shot six times…None of these wounds were life-threatening, but would require extensive surgery. His brother had also been hit twice in the chest…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.

Anyway, I was told I was going there to help the Iraqi people. Once I arrived in Iraq, I discovered that I could not treat them unless they were about to die and the injury had been caused either directly or indirectly by US forces. I do not believe that this is conducive to getting people on your side. One evening a local Iraqi arrived at the gate of our camp. He had been beaten up and pistol-whipped, and the people in town told him that if he came back to town they would kill him. He came up to our gate begging for help. I went out to dress his wounds and take care of him. He was begging me to save his life and he was basically turned away and told, "Go to the Iraqi police and they will help you."

It was after nightfall and the police were not functioning. It was that kind of callous disregard that really set in what is really going on over there for me. The US occupation does not have the support of the overwhelming majority of Iraqis. A US State Department poll indicated that 75 percent of Iraqis want the US to leave the country.

If it was wrong of us to go into Iraq, it is wrong of us to stay. The administration sent us to war without equipment, without a plan and without a mission. I will continue to speak out until the last soldier leaves Iraq.