Few but Organized, Iraq Veterans Turn War Critics

By NEELA BANERJEE

New York Times

January 23, 2005

Sean Huze enlisted in the Marine Corps right after the Sept. 11 attacks and was, in his own words, "red, white and blue all the way" when he deployed to Iraq 16 months later. Unquestioning in his support of the invasion, he grew irritated when his father, a former National Guardsman, expressed doubts about the war.

Today, all that has changed. Haunted by the civilian casualties he witnessed, Corporal Huze has become one of a small but increasing number of Iraq veterans who have formed or joined groups to oppose the war or to criticize the way it is being fought.

The two most visible organizations - Operation Truth, of which Corporal Huze is a member, and Iraq Veterans Against the War - were founded only last summer but are growing in membership and sophistication. The Internet has helped them spread their word and galvanize like-minded people in ways unimaginable to activist veterans of previous generations, who are also lending help.

"There's strength in numbers," Corporal Huze said. "By ourselves, we're lone voices, a whisper in a swarm of propaganda out there. Combined, we can become a roar and have an impact on the issues that we care about."

Those who turn to the groups are generally united in their disillusionment, though their responses to the war vary: Iraq Veterans seeks a quick withdrawal from Iraq; Operation Truth focuses on the day-to-day issues affecting troops and veterans.

Iraq Veterans Against the War, which started in July with 8 people, now has more than 150 members, including some still serving in Iraq, said Michael Hoffman, a former lance corporal in the Marines and a co-founder of the group.

Operation Truth, based in New York, began with 5 members and now has 300, with an e-mail list of more than 25,000 people. Its Web site is a compendium of soldiers and veterans' stories, a media digest on the war, and a rallying point on issues affecting troops.

Iraq veterans are keenly aware of the need to argue for their interests, given the struggles of veterans of Vietnam and the Persian Gulf war. The older veterans have offered a reservoir of knowledge and compassion to help Iraq veterans avoid the mistakes they made.

It took Vietnam Veterans of America almost 15 years to have an effect on government policy, said Steve Robinson, executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center, an advocacy group for gulf war veterans. Mr. Robinson said his group did not come into its own for about eight years, despite help from Vietnam Veterans of America.

Mr. Robinson is working closely with Operation Truth, which he said had already surpassed his operation in raising money.

For Corporal Huze, the transformation began when he returned home in fall 2003. Unable to forget the carnage he had seen in Iraq, he began to grapple with the justification for the war, he said.

"By sometime in December 2003, I came to the conclusion that W.M.D.'s weren't there and that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11, and now I'm left with all that I'd experienced in Iraq and nothing to balance it," Corporal Huze said, emphasizing that he was speaking as a citizen, not as a marine. "When I came to that conclusion, I felt this sense of betrayal. I was full of rage and depression."

That rage has since fueled Corporal Huze, a native of Baton Rouge, La., who is awaiting a medical discharge for a head injury. With the consent of his commanding officers at Camp Lejeune, he speaks regularly to the media and others as a representative for Operation Truth.

"Who I was before the war, who I was in Iraq and who I am now are three very different men," Corporal Huze said. "I don't think I can ever have the blind trust in the government like I had before. I think that my being over in Iraq as an active participant, I'm a bit more responsible than others for things there. And I think by speaking out now, it's my amends." He added, "I don't know if it will ever balance."

Operation Truth does not address the necessity of the war. David Chasteen of suburban Washington, a former Army captain in the Third Infantry Division and a member of the group's board, said Operation Truth hoped to stake out a nonpartisan position on aspects of the war that could realistically be changed, as opposed to tackling the administration's Middle East policy.

"Our attitude was 'Want to do something? Here's what you can do: get body armor to the guys on the ground, get interpreters to people on the ground, get people who know how to plan this stuff on the ground,' " said Mr. Chasteen, who said his experience in Iraq as an expert on unconventional weapons left him disillusioned about the war. "Maybe if we tell people what we saw, maybe some of these things can get fixed. I definitely think we added momentum to some issues."

Operation Truth points out that when Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld took questions from soldiers in Kuwait last month about equipment shortages, the Web site's readers sent 3,400 e-mail messages in 24 hours to members of Congress asking for hearings into the issue, which are to be held in the next few months.

Organizing those who have recently returned from Iraq is an uphill battle, older veterans and Iraq veterans agreed. The first priority for many is resuming their lives. And unlike most Vietnam veterans, many Iraq veterans have remained in the military after returning, limiting their ability to participate in groups critical of the government.

Despite their different focuses, Operation Truth and Iraq Veterans Against the War overlap on some issues, most notably with lobbying the government to address what is expected by many veterans of Iraq and previous wars to be a high incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder among those who served in Iraq.

Some who served in Vietnam, like Tim Origer of the Santa Fe, N.M., chapter of Veterans for Peace, have said Iraq veterans face a more intense version of the stresses they experienced: constant threats inherent to guerrilla war, inability to distinguish friend from foe, and profound despair that often accompanies taking a life, especially a civilian's.

In March 2003, reports of suicide-bombing attacks on American soldiers had reached Sgt. Rob Sarra's Marine Corps unit in an Iraqi town called al-Shatra. A short time later, soldiers saw an older woman walking toward them with a small bundle. The marines, fearing that she might be a bomber, called to her to stop, but she kept walking.

"I was looking at her, and I thought 'I have to stop this woman,' " Mr. Sarra said. "So I fired on her, and then the other marines fired on her."

"When we got to her, we saw that she was pulling out a white flag," he said. "She had tea and bread in her bag. I kept thinking, 'Was she a grandmother? Was she a mother?' "

Mr. Sarra, who has left the Marines after nine years, struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder in Iraq and at home in Chicago before seeking counseling and help from other veterans. Now he is one of the leaders of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

"When someone is wounded or goes through P.T.S.D., it brings what they went through to the forefront," Mr. Sarra said. "I knew when I joined the Marines that if I was going to be there for 20 years, I'd face combat. But the question is, why did we go?"

A grenade tossed into Robert Acosta's Humvee in Baghdad in July 2003 left him without his right hand and shattered his legs. Mr. Acosta, 21, spent months in hospitals surrounded by other young amputees, watching news about government commissions concluding that Iraq had no unconventional weapons.

He began reading, watching the news and talking to people, especially Vietnam veterans like Mr. Origer in Santa Fe. Last summer, his girlfriend heard Paul Rieckhoff, the founder of Operation Truth, speak on the radio. Mr. Acosta contacted him. By the fall, Mr. Acosta had become the organization's public face, appearing in a provocative television advertisement.

Mr. Acosta, who is attending community college in Southern California, said he hoped to bring friends from his old unit in the First Armored Division into Operation Truth as they leave the Army, because they might start to experience some of the problems he faced. For instance, he said, he once used duct tape to hold his prosthesis together because he could not get it repaired quickly at the local Veterans Affairs hospital. And people often asked about his injury.

"People would just come up to me and say, 'How'd you lose your arm?' " Mr. Acosta said. "And I'd say, 'In the war.' And they would be like, 'What war?' "