Occupy Veterans Day

If only Marine Scott Olsen had behaved himself. If only he had been a “good” Marine, believing in the “correct” universal truths and keeping his mouth shut.

He may not have gotten shot.

The right-wing blogomob, not to be outdone by its past displays of repulsive reasoning — like saying humanitarian aid worker Marla Ruzicka, a 22-year-old American who was counting Iraqi civilian deaths (her work was later validated in a 2010 trove of WikiLeaks documents) was a “traitor” who deserved to die in a 2005 suicide bomb attack — is now saying Olsen wasn’t a real Marine, that “he got what was coming to him” when he sustained brain injuries during the Oakland Occupy protests two weeks ago.

All these weenies screaming about the big bad police enforcing the law on them do not cause me any grief whatsoever. It’s time these children learned there are consequences for misbehaving, a lesson they obviously didn’t learn at home — from Gateway Pundit commenter “Glad the USMC is here”

Once a Marine, always a Marine? Oh really? Not in his case. My dad always use to say, “When there’s nothing in the head, the whole body has to suffer.” This punk has nothing in his head, so let him suffer — “Randall L. Kneiss”

He does not represent the Good Veterans in the US. Sorry he was hurt, but he got what was coming to him! — “Jimmy”

Veterans from coast to coast are finding out there are lots of people in this country who believe the validity of one’s First Amendment rights to free speech and peaceful assembly are tied to whether they are approved by the rest of us. This flies in the face of why all those Gadsen-flagged “revolutionaries” were marching around calling themselves “tea partyers” and “patriots” last year, but the ironies on this tri-cornered hat cohort must have been lost somewhere between Glenn Beck’s “Restore Honor” rally and the cancellation of Sarah Palin’s Alaska on TLC.

Scott Olsen, who as of press time was still hospitalized, conscious but unable to speak, has been vilified for publicly criticizing the U.S. Marine Corps and the war policy in Iraq, for which he served two tours. The Oakland police have admitted to using tear gas and bean bag bullets to disperse protesters but have denied using the rubber bullets that Olsen’s friends say were responsible for his injury. Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan has said he is still investigating what other munitions may have been used by outside law enforcement agencies called in to assist Oakland during the protests.

Meanwhile, as reported by bloggers and writers all over the country, police continue to employ “non-lethal” crowd control measures, including pepper spray, batons, and flash-bang grenades. Journalists have been systematically arrested, and officials are passing new laws and regulations to retroactively restrict demonstrators’ right to gather. There have been reports of violence against police, particularly in Oakland, but demonstrators say it is the work of a small group, perhaps agents provocateurs.

On Friday, the Associated Press reported that a second Iraq war veteran, Kayvan Sabeghi, 32, was hospitalized with injuries he sustained during the protests. He told friends he was beaten by Oakland cops, hauled off to jail, and left writhing in the fetal position before being taken to the hospital, where friends say he is suffering from a lacerated spleen and internal bleeding. Police, whose records show he was booked on “suspicion of resisting arrest,” say they are “investigating.”

Sounds and looks like a war zone, one in which one side is much more heavily armed than the other. This appears to have emboldened other veterans who are supporting and even coming out to the Occupy protests in greater numbers every day, if myriad reports and interviews with veterans across the country are correct.

“It’s amazing to me all this energy that’s coming on,” said Matt Southworth, 27, who tells Antiwar.com he served a tour in Iraq in 2004 as an Army intelligence analyst. He left the military and joined Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), which has been front and center at the Occupy protests, including an impressive demonstration at Occupy Wall Street that drew national media attention.

“It’s interesting to me that people who are not normally in our campaign are getting so energized,” he added, “particularly because of Scott Olsen.”

“A lot of us have lost buddies overseas … we’ve seen this kind of loss and violence before,” added Southworth, who is also a legislative associate on foreign policy for the Friends Committee on National Legislation. “Here we are at home and here is a guy who is exercising his First Amendment right to peaceful assembly and he gets shot. … I think this strikes veterans as really messed up.”

For the first time since the wars began 10 years ago, Veterans Day will be observed publicly with a new veteran in mind: the veteran marching — against unemployment and homelessness and bureaucratic fatigue, against a society and a system that is as politically charged and polarized as it is disconnected and apathetic. Unlike the idealized soldiers for whom the right wing reserves its yellow ribbons, many of these new veterans are questioning why they fought overseas and railing against a Washington establishment — as always, bolstered by the fat-cat defense contracting industry — that sent them there in the first place.

“A lot of veterans feel that while they are not in the military anymore, they have a responsibility to their country. But they realize, too, that their voices are not being heard by the government, that ‘freedom of speech’ doesn’t really mean much when the government is not accountable or responsible to the people,” said veteran Joseph Carter, 27, also with IVAW. He pointed out that vets from all corners, not just liberal urbanites who have been against the war for years, are coming forward to lend their support.

“The banks and the corporations and the people who run them have a disproportionate voice in the government and influence on the government. I think veterans who are even from rural [parts of the country], or poor, or are people of color, are seeing the same things and are saying, ‘I want a voice in our government, too.’”

Last month, retired Marines calling themselves OccupyMARINES started showing up at the protests in an act of solidarity. “We will support demonstrators with organization, direction, supply and logistics, and leadership,” the group says in its profile on Twitter, for which it’s garnered some 7,112 followers as of Monday afternoon.

One might say this movement-within-a-movement was inspired by Sgt. Shamar Thomas, 24, a Marine veteran and New York resident who served two tours in Iraq and drew national attention when he exploded into a street-side fulmination against the New York City police on Oct. 16

Later, on Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Thomas explained what was on his mind that night.

Well, I’ve been to Iraq twice. I have been in — I was in a riot in Ar Rutba, Iraq, in 2004, where we had rocks thrown at us, and after the rocks were thrown we didn’t go beating up people and arresting people, you know what I mean? We kind of treated it with a level of humility. You know what I mean? And to have the cops beating — I saw, you know, a cop punching a woman in the face, you know, to see that in my own country, you know — my family fought for this country, for people to have a right, and these people are peaceful. I haven’t seen a video yet where I have seen them try to hurt the cops. Why are they using batons and sticks? Why are they in riot gear when nobody is trying to riot, you know?

Thomas, whose mother also served in Iraq, his father in Afghanistan, his grandfather in Vietnam, and his great-grandfather in World War II, said he went to the protests as early as Oct. 5 “and saw the police brutality.”

“And it made me want to get involved even more to, you know, the understanding that, you know — we have young men and women out here who are trying to inspire, you know, change — and so, why wouldn’t I not want to be a part of that? That’s my goal in life, is to inspire a generation, you know.”

Thomas later traveled with a small contingent of veterans to Oakland to show support for Olsen. Between Thomas and Olsen, veterans have been moved, said the vets who have talked with Antiwar.com in the last week.

“The outpouring of support from the veteran community in terms of helping Scott Olsen — I mean there are places like rural communities, too, we’re hearing from,” said Carter. “I just got an email from an Army vet from Henry, Tenn. He wants to go to Occupy Clarksville. Occupy Clarksville, Tenn.? Really? That’s where Fort Campbell [U.S. Army Base] is.”

If the right-wing blogomob is doing its best to diminish the significance of the Occupy protests, it’s been ferocious in trying to discredit the veterans joining them. Tying Olsen, who papers say was given an “administrative discharge” from the Marines, to an antiwar website, criticisms of Israel, and a fondness for cannabis, has had them near apoplectic. From “Publius,” at Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government blog:

The Occupy Wall Street movement and its institutional patrons are using the incident to rally support, declaring: “We Are Scott Olsen!” …

Anti-military, anti-Israel, antisemitic — pro-drugs. Apparently.

“We Are All Scott Olsen.”

You said it…

The comments afterward are fairly predictable — in the worst way. “WE PULLED HIS MARINE CARD because he is a LEFTIST P*SSY and an ANTI AMERICAN scumbag!” spat one “GunnyG.”

The precise reasons for Olsen’s discharge from the service are not clear, but in interviews with Reuters, friends said Olsen was a computer geek who joined the military as an alternative to college, spent two tours as a technician in Iraq, and eventually “soured on military life.”

Around two years ago, he received an “administrative discharge” from the military, and, although the exact reasons for this are unclear, it is obvious that, after his discharge, Olsen found himself becoming first of all “a critic of America’s wars,” and then an “anti-establishment activist,” not because of any “specific searing experience in Iraq, but rather from a more subtle evolution in the way he saw the world.”

Some might think that Olsen and others who’ve changed their minds about the war, or are now questioning an earlier worldview, had earned the privilege. Others, especially those hailing from the righteous 101st Keyboarders Brigade, seem to think men and women in the service are part of some heroic monolithic organism — superhuman even — that transcends the rest of us flawed “civilians.” Those active-duty service members and veterans who exhibit any signs of independent movement or thought, however, are most certainly a kind of dangerous bacteria threatening the host and need to be treated accordingly, without mercy.

“To say these veterans are just outliers is just incorrect,” retorted Carter, a Seattle resident who said he served two tours in Iraq, in 2003 and 2005, and left the military with the rank of sergeant.

“I call it BS, in other words. The majority of veterans aren’t going to be standing with us [at the protests], but the majority of them are giving their support,” insisted Carter, who said IVAW is now trying to raise enough money to hire a communications specialist to broaden the reach of the organization.

Not every veteran emerging as a supporter of Occupy does it with an animus toward the military. While someone like Olsen obviously has clear views about American foreign policy and his service, vets like Thomas see the protests as a way to draw attention to veterans who were lost to the system once they got home. They are finding kindred souls among those middle- and lower-class Americans who feel disaffected and neglected while the gap between the country’s “winners” and “losers” seems to be widening.

“Only one half of one percent of Americans are serving in the military at one time,” pointed out Carter. But, veterans “are disproportionately affected by unemployment, homelessness, mental health issues, and substance abuse. And now suicide is on the rise among the ranks. So you combine all of this and you have a relatively small group of people who are incredibly angry and see the ‘99 percent’ movement encompassing the grievances of all of us.”

Veterans now showing up at Occupy protests are angry with Wall Street and with Washington, which they see as reneging on promises of care and compensation after their service. Too often, they say, those promises began and ended with the government getting its pound of flesh to fight its conflicts. From the Revolutionary War to the Bonus Army marchers to today, it is the same sad tale.

“The bureaucracy is very harmful to veterans,” said Paul Sullivan, who recently left Veterans for Common Sense to work as executive director of the National Organization for Veterans’ Advocates (NOVA). “Veterans deserve prompt access to health care and their benefits, and veterans deserve adequate legal representation to obtain their health care and benefits. That’s what we do.”

Sullivan and others have been complaining for years about the “excruciatingly painful and unreasonably lengthy” process for veterans to get their due. Right now, despite a $133.9 billion dollar Veterans Administration budget, there is a backlog of 1 million disability claims — about 850,000 initial filings and 250,000 appeals still pending — while vets wait months if not years for their payments to come through.

Meanwhile, a government audit released in July found excessive wait times for veterans seeking mental health services (some 367,749 have been treated since 2002). A short wait time can be the difference between life and death for a vet, one of whom commits suicide every 80 minutes.

Still the number of new veterans coming into the VA health care system is on the rise, with an average of 10,000 every month.

“We have these huge issues of veterans not getting the care they need,” said Southworth. “Veterans are wondering what it was all for.”

Certainly, many of them are wondering, with one in three declaring that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not worth fighting, according to a recent Pew Poll.

Southworth said the veterans of 2011 — whether they have been part of the antiwar movement for years or were just recently outraged by their fiscal and social condition — have taken on a new mission, as activists and, yes, defenders of freedom, in the most basic sense of the phrase. Furthermore, the “civilians” in the movement are embracing them, and the media is finally taking notice.

“We bring a unique voice because we have this very profound, shared experience,” said Southworth, who has already traveled to several Occupy sites, including Washington, D.C., New York, and Oakland. “The benefit, more than anything else, is that we can appeal to people who are not normally part of this sort of thing.”

As for Occupy and the veterans finding a place in it, he added, “I think we’re here to stay.”

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for FoxNews.com and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.