A US Army soldier who served as a military journalist in Afghanistan, Japan, Europe and the Philippines announced Thursday his intent to refuse orders to deploy to Iraq.
"As an Army journalist whose job it was to collect and filter service members’ stories, I heard many stomach-churning testimonies of the horrors of the crimes taking place in Iraq," said Sergeant Matthis Chiroux, 24, in an announcement under the rotunda of the House of Representative’s Cannon Office Building.
"For fear of retaliation from the military, I failed to report these crimes, but never again will I allow fear to silence me. Never again will I fail to stand," he said.
Chiroux said he’s aware he will likely face prosecution for refusing the deployment, but said, "I choose to remain in the United States to defend myself from charges brought by the Army if they are willing to pursue them. I refuse to participate in the occupation of Iraq."
Chiroux is a victim of stop-loss, a controversial wartime power that the George W. Bush administration has used to keep soldiers from leaving the military when their term of service expires. Critics call the policy a "back-door draft". More than 50,000 troops have been stop-lossed since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
In an interview shortly before his announcement, Chiroux told IPS the stop-loss order sent him into a downward spiral of depression.
"I became borderline suicidal," he said. "I just went into my room and shut the door and barely emerged for close to a month. I just sat in my room reading news about Iraq and feeling completely hopeless, like I would be forced to go and no one would ever know how I felt. I was getting looped into participating in a crime against humanity and all with the realization that I never wanted to be there in the first place."
The turning point, Chiroux said, came when one of his professors at Brooklyn College in New York suggested he listen to the Winter Soldier hearings. The hearings, which were organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War, took place in March in Washington, DC.
Iraq Veterans Against the War argues that well-publicized incidents of US brutality like the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the massacre of an entire family of Iraqis in the town of Haditha are not isolated incidents perpetrated by "a few bad apples", but part of a pattern, the group says, of "an increasingly bloody occupation".
For four days, dozens of Iraq war veterans testified about the horrors they’d seen and the actions they carried out while deployed. As Chiroux listened to their testimony, he realized he was not alone.
"Here’s an organization of soldiers and veterans who feel like me," he said. "All this alienation and depression that I feel started to ease. I found them and I’ve been speaking out with them ever since."
Chiroux timed his announcement to coincide with a Congressional forum meant to highlight testimony offered at Winter Soldier within the halls of Congress.
Nine veterans spoke at the hearing, which was organized by the Congressional Progressive Caucus. They talked about extremely lax rules of engagement handed down by commanding officers, which they said virtually guaranteed atrocities would be committed — which in turn would create a violent backlash among Iraqi people and a continued cycle of violence.
"On several occasions our convoys came upon bodies that been lying on the road, sometimes for weeks," said Marine Corps veteran Vincent Emmanuele, who served in al-Qaim near the Syrian border in 2004 and 2005.
"When encountering these bodies standard procedure was to run over the corpses, sometimes even stopping and taking pictures, which was also standard practice when encountering the dead in Iraq," he told the Progressive Caucus.
"On one specific occasion, after I had shot a man trying to flee while planting a roadside bomb, we dragged his body out of the ditch he was laying in and we subsequently left this man to rot in a field where we saw this man up to a week later," Emmanuele said.
Members of Iraq Veterans Against the War hope Thursday’s Progressive Caucus hearing will spark an investigation by a full Congressional committee and speed the end of the wars. But with the House of Representatives moving toward approving another 186 billion dollars in war funding, these former soldiers and Marines will have to satisfy themselves with the sentiments of liberal Congresspeople like Maxine Waters, who praised the veterans for speaking out.
"I want to thank you for having more courage than many members of Congress have for coming here in defiance of what you have been instructed and taught to do," she said. "They attempted to tell you that you should be satisfied by everything that you saw and everything that you did and everything you witnessed, but you’re not. I praise and honor you for that."
(Inter Press Service)