The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday hosted a hearing of compelling politics and historical parallels, as an Afghan war veteran offered critical testimony of that war in front of a committee chairman who had done the same during Vietnam.
The similarities between the situation that retired Marine Corporal Rick Reyes finds himself in today and that which confronted Sen. John Kerry in April 1971 are obvious. At 28 and a few years removed from combat, Reyes has chosen to go public with reservations about the scope and direction of the military strategy his government is pursuing in a difficult terrain. Having supported Barack Obama in the 2008 election, he now is deeply skeptical about the president's decision to send 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan.
"We were basically destroying innocent lives and creating more enemies," he said in an interview with the Huffington Post. "That is exactly what is happening. The escalation and occupation in Afghanistan is counterproductive to what we want to accomplish and the Senate and the president should to rethink Afghanistan."
Nearly 38 years earlier, John Forbes Kerry was in a similar spot. Called before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the three-time recipient of the Purple Heart declared that an "attempt to justify the loss of one American life in Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos by linking such loss to the preservation of freedom, which those misfits supposedly abuse, is to us the height of criminal hypocrisy."
It was a scathing rebuke from an experienced soldier, one that thrust Kerry into the political spotlight. And, as the cause-and-effect of history goes, it led in a way to his current position as chair of the foreign relations where he oversaw Thursday's "Afghanistan War Experiences" hearing and Reyes' testimony.
Afghanistan now and Vietnam then, of course, are different theaters. When Kerry returned home from the latter in 1969, more than 540,000 U.S. troops were still deployed and some 33,400 had been killed. Today there are roughly 32,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, where U.S. fatalities have been under 700. Politically, as well, Vietnam was far more toxic than Afghanistan, which remains a largely accepted foreign policy venture for the United States. Several of Reye's co-panelists, indeed, warned against an abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan, defining the mission as winnable.
But the symmetry between the wars and the objectors are certainly present. The progressive film company Brave New Films touted Reyes as "the New Young Kerry." Code Pink protestors, meanwhile, held up signs opposing an escalation of the war in Afghanistan by evoking the same line Kerry famously used to criticize Vietnam: "Last One To Die For This Mistake?"
Even Reyes himself did not shy away from the connection. "I want to thank Senator Kerry for giving me the inspiration of being here today. I sit here 38 years after you were in this same position," he said in his opening statement. "And similarly want to express my opinions about this occupation."
The story of how Reyes ended up in the armed forces is itself decidedly non Kerry-esque. Growing up in East Los Angeles, he was involved with gangs during his youth before signing up with the military as a means to getting order to his life. He joined the Marine Corps in 2000 as an infantry rifleman and was stationed in Australia on September 11, 2001. "I was sitting in port and out at the bars and all of the sudden the music stopped and over the loud speaker we hear, all the sudden, 'America is under attack,'" he recalled. "We were rushed to the ships and we were told we were possibly going to go to war in Afghanistan. The next morning all the ships pulled out of port and headed to the Indian Ocean."
Reyes did a stint in Afghanistan before being sent to Iraq in 2003. His experience was like those of others, filled with chaos, violence, and undefined purpose. "Our mission was to locate terrorists," he said, "but there was no real way to locate these terrorists and tell them apart from civilians... Without any way to locate them we just had to treat everyone as a terrorist."
By 2004, having experienced both theaters, Reyes was out of the Marine Corps. The adjustment to life back at home was a difficult one for him to make. He suppressed his emotions and hid any discussion or evidence of his service from others. "When you are in a combat situation or a life or death situation, an extended life or death situation you tend to shut down your emotions in order to stay focused and complete the mission," he explained. "What happens is that when you leave the situation you can't just turn that back on. It becomes difficult to adjust to a population that really has not been through the same situation."
After some reflection, the frustration only grew. "I felt my patriotism was exploited," he said. And it bubbled over when Obama -- the candidate he voted for in 2008 in part because of his approach to foreign policy -- laid out a proposal to send more troops to Afghanistan. "We need to have a realistic view of what is happening on the ground in order to create a strategy that will make sense," he said. "That is not what we are trained to do. We are not trained to rebuild countries."
His decision to speak out and appear at hearings like the one on Thursday are a function and means of dealing with that frustration. "I feel that I am on the path to being liberated," Reyes said. "I feel I am on that road where I need to do whatever I can to make the administration rethink its decision."