THE BLOG
03/21/2008 07:44 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Vermont Vets Put Themselves on the Line for the Sake

"I can't go back in time and take back what I've
done... At one point I was a monster, and I created hate
and destruction amongst many people. I am sorry for
doing so and I will never turn back into the monster I
once was." These were the closing remarks of John
Turner, former Marine returned from Iraq, testifying
in early March with three other former members of the
armed forces, to students at the University of
Vermont. His Marine dress uniform jacket, with seven
shiny medals lined up across his chest contrasted
sharply with the bandanna tied around his head, the
soft beard that has grown in since his discharge from
the service, and the palpable sadness in his
countenance as he spoke, an unbearably painful ordeal
of confession and revelation.

Turner, former Marine Matt Howard, and Army veterans
Drew Cameron and Adrienne Kinne all spoke about their
personal experiences in the military during the
invasion and occupation of Iraq. Members of Iraq
Veterans Against the War, they are determined that
their fellow Vermonters, be they students or
neighbors, are fully aware of the criminal nature of
the war policies of Bush/Cheney.

While the two hundred students who attended that
evening may have been irrevocably changed by what they
heard, those outside the room were destined to remain
unaware, because no one from the press was there to
cover the event. Indeed, the press release promised
"testimonies from U.S. veterans who have served in the
global war on terror -- find out what is really
happening on the ground," and referencing the Winter
Soldier testimony from the Vietnam era that "exposed
the criminal nature of the Vietnam War...today vets from
the current occupations assume the same
responsibilities as their predecessors." But neither
the U.V.M student paper, curiously named the Vermont
Cynic
, nor the Gannet owned Burlington Free Press sent
a reporter to listen. Nor did the Vermont Cynic
respond to several queries requesting comment; and
Patrick Garrity, Metro editor for the Free Press
explained that "tough decisions are made every day on
what to cover or not." As to this particular event, he
said, "What led to our particular reason why we didn't
cover it - I couldn't say." After being apprised of
what they may have missed, he responded "Just because
we didn't pick up a story on one day doesn't mean that
we won't go back to cover it."

As to this event's newsworthiness, the testimony
speaks for itself, morphing from the bad to the truly
horrific.

Drew Cameron, who served as an army artilleryman,
told disturbing if not surprising stories about his
duties in gathering and destroying captured munitions.
When tank munitions fell off the back of his truck, he
was ordered to leave them be, even though there would
be children playing among them the next day. When a
convoy truck crashed into an Iraqi civilian car,
severely wounding several members of a family, he was
again ordered to leave them to their fate without any
medical help from the troops who caused them harm. And
when the captured munitions reached the destination
for destruction, they were exploded in open pits in
close proximity to villages and agricultural lands,
which were then covered with the fallout from the
blasts.

Adrienne Kinne, a ten-year army veteran and Arab
linguist who worked in military intelligence,
testified to the different intelligence rules of
conduct that she experienced pre and post 9/11. From
1994 to 1998, she worked under rules that made sure
that no American would be the subject of any of the
military intelligence intercepts. She cited one
instance where an American diplomat was referenced in
an intercepted phone call. The intelligence officials
destroyed the tape even though he was referenced only
in passing, honoring the principle that the government
does not spy on Americans.

When called back to active duty from 2001-2001, she
discovered that the pragmatic methods, if not the
written rules governing them, had changed. She told of
routinely monitoring phone transmissions of
humanitarian organizations, NGOs and journalists. She
listened in to journalists at the Palestine Hotel in
Baghdad reassuring each other that they were safe from
American missile or artillery strikes. Then when she
learned that this hotel was considered fair game as a
target, she saw a chance for some good to come out of
the illegal spying and acted. "I told my superiors
that the journalists there thought they were safe. [I
asked] should we warn them? My concerns were ignored."

It was when she participated in translating a fax
provided by the Iraqi National Congress, an unreliable
faction headed by Ahmad Chalabi, which made claims of
WMD in Iraq that she crossed her personal Rubicon. The
fax, which made unsubstantiated claims dovetailing
with the desires of the Bush/Cheney administration,
was given top priority and was rushed directly to the
White House after translation, a procedure that was
completely at odds with normal protocol. She
considered the source of the information - Chalabi was
a known liar and fugitive from justice for bank fraud
in Jordan. She approached her superiors and asked
whether they shouldn't have take this into
consideration before giving it to the White House as
conclusive evidence, but was told to mind her own
business, and her patriotism was questioned. "I knew
that this war was based on lies" Kinne concluded, "and
that I had helped spread these lies. I wish that I had
taken my concerns to someone outside of the military."

Matt Howard's testimony told about the use of
internationally banned cluster bombs, illegal
declarations of "weapons free" zones, Marines shooting
civilians for sport and the reprehensible devastation
of Nasariah by a division of Marines seeking revenge
for fallen comrades. He could not remain silent about
what he saw. "I raised concerns with my chain of
command. I wrote an extensive letter outlining all
that I had been told by those in the tank commands
when I was delivering to them.... Because of my letter,
they had to conduct a war crime investigation, but
they found no cause for charges. I was taken aside by
the officer in charge of the investigation and he told
me off the record that as a father he shared my
concerns. But as a Marine, he would never implicate
his fellow Marines and jeopardize their careers." This
officer also told Matt that if he mentioned any of
these charges again, he would face a court martial.

None of this testimony could have prepared the
audience for what they were to hear next. The first
words spoken by John Turner, veteran of the third
Battalion, Eighth Marines set the tone. "On April 18,
2006, I murdered an innocent man with no weapons. He
was walking back to his house." For this act, Turner
was commended by his chain of command including
personal congratulations from his captain.

He showed a short video in which his Lieutenant is
saying, "I just shot half the fucking population of
fucking Ramada, fuck the red tape." He explained that
rules of engagement were completely dropped.
"Collateral damage was not an issue for us, most was
covered up and stayed at the lowest post level. Our
sergeant said shoot first and worry about it later."
He added, "When we were bored, we would take out
people."

He also explained that marines routinely took out
their aggressions on civilians whose houses were
routinely raided in the middle of the night. "During
the 3 a.m. raids, we would take the man into a separate
room from his wife and children. If we decided that we
didn't like him, we would choke him or beat his head
against the wall. If we decided to detain him, we
would destroy all the contents of the house. Or if he
really pissed us off, we would burn it down with
incendiary grenades."

He showed other video footage of machine gun and tank
fire being directed at a minaret of a mosque -- not
because of any shooting coming from the mosque, but
because his fellow soldiers were in a position of
power and wanted to let off steam. He recounted how
one day two fellow soldiers had killed a couple of
civilians, and knowing that John had not yet had a
kill for the day, told him that they had saved him
one. They pointed out a man riding a bicycle and he
calmly shot him dead.

To provide cover for these crimes, his unit kept a
supply of "drop weapons," AK47s and other weapons that
might be used by Iraqi insurgents. These were placed
on or near the murder victim to provide an alibi of
self-defense.

Turner detailed the use of white phosphorous gas by
his unit, explaining, "It completely destroys
everything. You can't put out the fire." While the
Pentagon claims that white phosphorous is used only to
illuminate a battlefield at night an unknown number of
Iraqis have joined the ranks of collateral damage and
perished by burning to death.

In conclusion Matt Howard emphasized to the students
that these crimes that he and his fellow veterans were
describing were not simply the work of a few bad
apples. "This is policy," he flatly stated, adding,
"1.2 million individuals have cycled through Iraq and
Afghanistan. This is happening military-wide. [It's]
part of something much bigger." He also told the
audience that they should not think of Afghanistan as
the "good" war compared with Iraq. He said that
everything that they heard about atrocities in Iraq
was true for Afghanistan as well. He explained that
the most revered military minds agree that "Without
strategy war is mindless. Mindless killing can only be
criminal." He pointed out that the shifting rationales
for invasion and occupation provided by the
Bush/Cheney administration prove that they have had no
strategy from the beginning. Recent Pentagon studies
also confirm this fact.

These veterans decided to speak out as victims of an
administration's gross negligence and deceit. Their
testimony places some of them at grave risk being
charged with war crimes or ignoring security
restrictions. If they had chosen to remain silent,
they could have been protected by a wall of denial and
suppression provided by the military that they served.
By deciding to clear their consciences and to try to
do what they can do repair the damage they have helped
the American military to cause, the have unalterably
changed the trajectory of their futures. Whether they
alone will bear the awful cost of what they witnessed,
as well as the possible costs of speaking out --
depends on what those who hear their stories decide to
do. If their audiences decide that their own silence
would make them complicit, and if the press decides
that war crimes being committed today, in our names
are front page news, then these veterans will at least
have taken a first step beyond their own personal
redemption.

The Bush/Cheney administration has established a new
paradigm of criminal and immoral actions as public
policy. Congress has countenanced these actions, and
the courts have failed to check them. It remains to be
seen whether the nation can match these veterans'
courage to stand tall and say "not now and never
again."