|Combat Paper art show (photo: Jan Barry)|
The distance from the Roosevelt Room at the White House to Lorton, Virginia is 20 miles and traverses several eras of American history. I made that journey recently after attending a meeting of war veterans and military family members at the White House to discuss waging diplomacy instead of war and boosting programs for healing war wounds.
The next day, Paula Rogovin and I went to the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton to see an art show and poetry reading by soldiers who had just completed a post-traumatic stress program at Ft. Belvoir. The event in a prison complex that previously housed women jailed for demanding the right to vote, Vietnam War protesters, and all sorts of people held for petty offenses, was the culmination of a series of workshops conducted by Combat Paper NJ and Warrior Writers at Ft. Belvoir and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland.
Teddy Roosevelt, whose Progressive Era enthusiasms still animate the current occupants of the White House, might well have approved the transformation of the infamous Washington, DC prison farm in Lorton into an arts center assisting wounded warriors.
“A lot of our wounds are not from the enemy but from our commands and our hospitals,” said a woman Army veteran who served at the Guantanamo Bay military prison facility where POWs from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been kept for more than a decade.
Teddy Roosevelt, who led US troops in battle to free Cuba from Spanish military abuses, surely would have bellowed a bull moose roar over such behavior by American troops. In a poem she read, the woman described abuses directed at her by a commander at Guantanamo that “evoke fear and terror.”
Struggling Back from War
“It’s been a 12-year struggle,” said a soldier named Vinnie, noting that his injuries include traumatic brain injury as well as post-traumatic stress disorder. Added a stocky young man who said he’d been a Marine for 12 years: “It’s a struggle to admit that I’ve been broken.”
A woman who referred to herself as a Walter Reed patient read a poem titled “Dear Doctor.” It included this angry indictment: “Dear doctors who didn’t have time to/ listen to my symptoms…who preferred to prescribe/ pills rather than run tests…who made me feel like/giving up on myself…I got my diagnosis today.”
A dozen or so young men and women showed their artwork and read selections from their journals—which included reflections on surviving high speed car crashes in suicide attempts, disastrous battles in war zones, mistreatment in military hospitals, drug abuse compounded by disorienting medications, domestic abuse and other traumatic events. I wished that government officials who oversee our nation’s military policies were there to hear it.
The previous afternoon, in a very different setting, representatives of Military Families Speak Out, Veterans For Peace and Iraq Veterans Against the War met across a conference table in the history-laden Roosevelt Room with White House staff members who oversee outreach programs for veterans and family members.
It was the third such meeting at the White House since President Obama took office. Nothing came of the previous meetings, in 2009 and 2014. The Obama administration’s negotiated deal with Iran over nuclear weapons, however, gave hope that arguments for expanding diplomacy to the war zones bracketing Iran—that is, in Iraq and Afghanistan—might finally be seriously discussed. We felt that this time we were listened to.
“As a veteran of what is called the Persian Gulf War in 1990, I want to remind you that the U.S. has engaged in military operations in Iraq for 25 years,” said Michael McPherson, executive director of Veterans For Peace, based in St. Louis. “By any measure of success other than perhaps creating chaos in the lives of the average Iraqi and maintaining U.S. presence there, U.S. foreign policy in Iraq has been a failure. … The underlying problems in Iraq are political and cannot be solved through military means.”
On behalf of the delegation, McPherson presented a list of steps to take to wind down US military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I spoke briefly about the need to involve the American people in grassroots citizen diplomacy. “We are alive today because of the urgent diplomacy of the Kennedy administration with Soviet leaders to avert nuclear war” during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I noted. “We’re also alive today because of citizen diplomacy by civic and religious groups in the US and USSR that opened doors for Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev to end the Cold War and its constant danger of nuclear war breaking out in crisis after crisis. The Reagan administration called the people-to-people citizen exchanges ‘track II diplomacy.’
“Diplomacy, not war, is vital regarding Iran. It is also vital in Iraq and Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Civic groups that do peaceful programs in those war zones need to feel confident that when they open doors, Washington sends in seasoned diplomats, not special operations assault teams or missile-firing drones,” I concluded.
Struggling with Ending a War
Military Families Speak Out members described the stresses on soldiers and families of soul-wrenching, often multiple deployments to combat zones.
“If we could not accomplish our goals with over 100,000 troops, why would anyone think we can do it with just 9,800 troops?” asked Mary Hladky, who lives in Kansas City. Her son served with an Army unit during the height of Obama’s surge of combat troops in Afghanistan. “The Afghanistan war is an abysmal failure. We need to change course, stop military intervention and support a political solution that doesn’t favor one side. As long as there are U.S. forces in Afghanistan there will be no peace. As President Obama has said, a lasting solution will depend on Afghans and their neighbors reaching a political settlement.”
Our delegation also presented a list of recommended improvements to government programs for assisting soldiers in making the transition to civilian life and in getting assistance along with veterans of previous wars for hidden ailments such as PTSD, as well as physical wounds.
The recommendations included moving quickly to fill the reported 41,000 job openings in the VA system, provide timely information to vets and families on where to find appropriate assistance, and create an oversight system to track and correct problems in VA care.
Within hours of the White House meeting seeking increased attention to aiding injured troops and ailing veterans, the Military Families Speak Out phone tree lit up: a son of one of the group’s members, an active duty soldier, had killed himself during the night.