Dissent on the home front:
families of US soldiers in Iraq lead anti-war protests
Troops' relatives speak out as death toll rises and morale falls
Suzanne Goldenberg in Washington, The Guardian (UK), Saturday October 25, 2003,

News of the death of Jane Bright's son, Evan, arrived with the US military's greatest triumph in Iraq since the fall of Baghdad. In Mosul, the 101st Airborne cornered and killed Saddam Hussein's sons, Uday and Qusay. Outside town, a US patrol came under attack, and Ms Bright's son, an infantryman, was killed along with two other soldiers.

That was on July 24. Her anger has not abated. "There are some terrible things going on there," she says.

Yesterday, other American families waited for official confirmation of death, after reports arrived of one soldier from the 101st Airborne killed near Mosul and two members of the 4th Infantry Division killed in a mortar attack near Samara. This brought to 108 the number of US troops to die under hostile fire since May 1, when President George W Bush declared an end to major combat.

The growing toll and reports of poor conditions and low morale among troops have produced an undercurrent of dissent among US military families. The Guardian has found that 75% of the 478 troops removed from the Iraqi theatre because of mental health issues have been reservists.

In researching this story, we received more than 70 emails and phone calls from relatives of US forces overseas. All but two were negative - about the treatment of soldiers, the reasons for the Iraq war, the pain of family separation and the insensitivity of the military bureaucracy.

The criticisms - a breach of military culture - is viewed with concern at the Pentagon, which sent a team to Iraq this week to investigate 13 cases of suicide in recent months. It has also promised better treatment of sick soldiers, and has vowed to expand the programme of 15-day furloughs introduced last month - despite the failure of about 30 soldiers to catch their flights back to Iraq. But many on the home front remain furious, and today's anti-war protests in Washington and others US cities will kick off with candlelight vigils by families of soldiers serving in Iraq.


Ms Bright's unease set in soon after her son arrived in Iraq, and grew deeper with calls and emails home in the months before he was killed. "He had lost 25 pounds from dysentery. My daughter-in-law told me he called one day and he sounded very upbeat. She said, 'Why are you so happy?' He said he had just got food and water.

"I don't care what the administration says about flag-waving and children throwing flowers. It is just not true. The stories coming back are horrific. All he told me was that he had seen and done some horrible things, that they had all done and seen some terrible things."

The stories coming back from Iraq have helped to chip away at the culture of stoicism. So have the circumstances of the deployment. An underclass that grew up to view military services as a ticket to advancement or a college education now finds itself going off to two distant wars - in Afghanistan and Iraq - in less than two years.

It is still uncommon for families of soldiers to voice criticism. Some are afraid of retaliation against their relative serving in Iraq. But there are signs of growing outspokenness, in part because of the Bush administration's decision to rely heavily on reservists and National Guard members to fights its wars.

Almost half of the 130,000 US troops on the ground are drawn from these sources - weekend warriors now serving overseas tours of duty that were recently extended to 12 or 15 months. The Pentagon is planning to send another 30,000 reservists to Iraq next year.

On the home front, families may be less than understanding of having their lives interrupted. Not knowing how long their relatives will stay in Iraq has fuelled resentment and deepened anxieties about losing jobs, falling behind on mortgage payments, and family separation.

For Barbara Willis, whose son is a reservist serving in a postal unit at Baghdad airport, it is the idea that he was pulled out of college in his final term of study for a degree in business education, only to sit at Fort Dix, New Jersey, for three months, waiting to be sent to Iraq. "If only they'd have said, 'Stay at home until you finish your education,'" she said. "I am not against President Bush but it gets very aggravating the way he is ruining all these young people's lives."

The families of reservists have taken the separations harder than those on active duty, who are used to military life. The experience of war, with its mix of tedium, brutality and the capriciousness of the US military bureaucracy, also appears harder for the reservists and National Guard members to bear.


Reservists are beginning to speak out, saying they are made to do the "grunt work", and are treated unfairly in provision of supplies - especially of bulletproof vests for which there are shortages - and of military furloughs. "The equipment they tried to hand us was items that were bound for the trash pile," Nicholas Ramey, a reservist from Indiana working in a public affairs unit, writes in an email.

"Vietnam-era flack vests held together by dental floss and a prayer would keep us safe ... It was like pulling teeth trying to get the things we needed. As 'dirty reservists', we didn't deserve the same respect, even though we're supposed to watch the active duty's backs."

Such stories are increasingly common among reservists, and circulated among family members at home. The friction, combined with growing confusion about their mission in Iraq, has rattled even longstanding members of the reserves.

None of the people the Guardian contacted said their family member would re-enlist. Some have taken a decision to get out - even those who have devoted their lives to the reserves. "My husband has 20 years in the military, and loved every minute of it," says Candance Gordon, the wife of a reservist from Texas. "He will be resigning his commission the minute he steps foot on American soil, and he says almost everyone he knows is doing the same. The only ones staying in are those who have long contracts, or no family, or make more money being in the reserves than in their civilian life."

The biggest complaint is the one most difficult for the Pentagon to remedy: that service personnel are under strain from long deployments in Iraq. Families described the slow agony waiting for details about each fallen soldier. They are also thinking about homecoming. Several said they feared their children or spouses would be unrecognisable.

Others said they detected anger and depression in their emails that would be difficult to fix when they returned. "They're changing. They have dehumanised the Iraqis. They call them 'hajji' now - that's like 'gook'. I am old enough to remember the Vietnam war, and I remember," says Adele Kubein, whose daughter is a National Guard mechanic serving in Iraq.

On one occasion, her daughter telephoned her, sobbing. "She said, 'Mom, I have shot people. I am never going to be able to come home and live a normal life again. How can I come home and live a normal life when every second I am trying to be alert to see if I will be shot?'" `

Dear Mom... Emails from the war zone

From a female member of the National Guard serving in northern Iraq

"I don't see anything wrong with doing whatever it takes to stay alive. There is nothing sacred about kids with guns. There is nothing sacred about anybody trying to kill anybody else, it don't matter how old they are. I hate this shit ... I don't mind Iraq, I don't mind war, but I absolutely hate the situation I'm in, and I'm beginning to hate most of the people I'm surrounded by."

From a reservist serving as a mechanic near Baquba

"I was offered to go on a convoy today but I did not go. They came back late tonight, and it turns out that the Iraqi people opened fire on them from a rooftop in a small town. We returned, but did not kill any of them, no one was hurt. This happens all the time. No one really aimed at the enemy. You just get scared and pull the trigger and open up in the direction you think they are firing from."

From an artilleryman's wife

"The morning they shipped out they handed them their papers and things were missing that were supposed to be in there. Now I talk to him via the computer because the phones are never working. I'm on anti-depressants and sleeping pills. I try to make it through the day without crying but lately that's impossible. I never thought that this would be so hard. I wake wondering if my husband is still alive and I turn on the news to see more soldiers dead in Iraq."

From a reservist from Indiana

"Everyone hears that morale is high and it is a bold-faced lie. The only people they ever talk to are these commanders. The reserve soldiers never get to speak their mind. We are the pawns of this war. We watch the active duty retire, and move to new assignments. We watch their tours end as we are still trapped because of poor post-war planning."