"I Will Continue To Speak Out Until the Last Soldier Leaves Iraq": Interview with Antiwar Veteran of the Iraq War
Patrick Resta, Specialist/E4
Interviewed by Derek Seidman
Patrick Resta, Specialist/E4, served as an Army medic in Iraq with the 30th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division. He was stationed in Iraq for eight months in 2004, returning home just about two months ago. He has recently begun speaking out against the war and occupation, and he is involved with Iraq Veterans Against the War. Left Hook's Derek Seidman was recently able to catch up with Patrick Resta to ask him some questions about his experiences in Iraq, his reasons for making vocal his opposition to the war and occupation, his current activism, and his thoughts on several other topics.
Patrick Resta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also see a gallery of his photographs from Iraq.
Thank you for doing this interview Patrick. Can you begin by telling us when you were in Iraq? Where were you and what were you doing?
Thanks for giving me the opportunity to have my voice heard. I think it's vital that veterans of this conflict speak out about what it's really like out there.
I was at my camp in northeastern Iraq from March 12, 2004 to November 15, 2004. My camp was located in the Diyala province, the capital of which is Baqubah. To make that a little more understandable, we were about 100 miles northeast of Baghdad and roughly 30 miles from the Iranian border.
I was a medic, so that was my main focus. I would work shifts in our 3 bed ER sometimes, where we would see everything from the common cold to gun shot wounds and shrapnel injuries. I also accompanied patrols into towns and convoys to get supplies in case anyone was injured during the accomplishment of the mission.
When did you enter the military, and why did you join?
I joined the military shortly after high school. My main motivation was always money for college and to get some training in the medical field. I was in a position where my parents had made it clear that they were not in a position to assist me with college tuition. I think that the vast majority of people that enter the military do it for the educational benefits.
You said that you think it's very important that vets speak out about what it's really like over there in Iraq. I'd like to ask you a few questions about this. First, speaking from your own experience, what's daily life like for most soldiers over there? What do you want people here to know about what's really going on?
Your daily life as a soldier varies greatly by where you are in Iraq. Soldiers at the bigger camps have better and more numerous amenities than I ever did. These range from movie theaters, to swimming pools, to fast food restaurants, and stores. Living conditions also vary widely from barracks (almost like one would see here in the States), to trailers, and even tents. Daily activities also vary wildly depending on what your job is and what kind of unit you are in.
I myself lived in a trailer with three other medics. If you can picture one of the metal shipping containers at a port you have a good idea of the size. It was slightly smaller. It had fluorescent lights, air conditioning, and several power outlets. I rarely, if ever, had a day off for the entire time that I was over there. As I mentioned earlier, my days consisted of working in our clinic, going on patrols or missions, or going on convoys to other camps.
The thing that is most troubling to me about what is going on in Iraq is the public's reaction, or lack thereof, to it. It seems to me that the public is a little too accepting of whatever the media feeds them and unwilling to research things for themselves. I think the misconceptions harbored by the public about how things are going in Iraq are dangerous. By this I refer to the following ideas: that the Iraqi people want us there, that we are rebuilding the country, that we are helping the Iraqi people, that the Iraqi security forces are anywhere near capable of taking over, and the list goes on and on. I cover each of these topics extensively in my comments I have readied for public speaking engagements. (Contact Patrick Resta at email@example.com).
There are also the troubling ideas the American public still harbors about soldiers in Iraq. A huge one is that most soldiers support the war and are happy to be there. During my time in Iraq, "The Stars and Stripes", which is a military newspaper, released a poll that showed a clear majority of soldiers in Iraq as unsupportive of the policies. The paper also ran many letters to the editor that were critical of the administration and the war in general. The lack of armor on vehicles continues to be a problem that costs soldiers their lives and limbs. My unit had a huge problem with this issue. I have plenty of pictures of our vehicles with plywood "armor" being sent into combat.
You said that it was troubling to you that most Americans still believe that a most soldiers still support the policies our government is carrying out in Iraq. Soldiers' opinions on the war vary, naturally. You were in Iraq for several months, and now you're involved with Iraq Veterans Against the War. Are a good number of soldiers questioning the war and occupation and getting fed up with what's going on?
I feel that plenty of soldiers don't see the point of the efforts they're making in Iraq. As my time wore on in Iraq more and more people were getting increasingly frustrated with being there. It becomes even more frustrating when you're getting attacked pretty frequently, having people get injured, and even members of other units get killed. For a while after I first got there I would try to think of a reason for being in Iraq before I went to bed every night. I couldn't think of one. I finally saw two pictures in National Geographic that made it pretty clear why I was there, and I taped them above my cot as a reminder. The first picture shows about 30 Marines guarding the Ministry of Oil in Baghdad. The second picture shows Navy personnel escorting an oil tanker through the Persian Gulf.
Being placed in that situation is only made worse by the lack of equipment. I realized rather quickly what my life was worth to this administration and to the American public. That being said, we all took our mission seriously and tried to have some positive impact to make our time in Iraq worth something. However, this was made pretty difficult with the rules that were put in place, such as only being allowed to treat Iraqis that were in danger of losing life or limb. It's depressing to realize that for the next several months or even year of your life you will be risking your life for nothing. Any rocket or mortar coming in could take your life, or arms, or legs and there is little point to it. The vast majority of the Iraqi people don't want you there, the reasons given for the war have proven false, and your continued presence only inflames the situation.
You mentioned the issue of the armor on your vehicles (or lack of). This has become a more
prominent issue after Donald Rumsfeld's visit to Iraq several weeks ago, when he was confronted on it by a soldier. I read about this issue well before the Rumsfeld event-- soldiers and their families had been complaining about this for a while, to little avail. What's really going on? How do soldiers feel about all this, and why do you think the government has been so neglectful?
The lack of armor continues to be a problem that soldiers are paying for with their lives and limbs. It all goes back to this administration only listening to people that tell it what it wants to hear. Like Ahmed Chalabi's continuing assertions that Americans would be greeted as if they had just liberated Paris. Part of it was wanting to keep the already ridiculous cost of this war down. Part of it was wanting to make sure as much money as possible went directly to corporations. Part of it was this administration sticking its head in the sand. To this day they still have not admitted or addressed the total lack of pre war, post war, and exit strategy planning. Truthfully, this administration never wanted an exit strategy. A long occupation of Iraq had been planned from the get go. This administration has already drawn up plans to occupy Iraq that go beyond the summer of 2006.
About a week after the story broke, one of the companies that makes the armor came forward and said that they hadn't even been asked to increase production. As I said, this administration and the American public largely don't care, they don't have kids in Iraq facing RPG's with plywood armor. When the draft returns it will be interesting to compare how well soldiers are equipped then to how they were pre-draft. I have included some pictures detailing the problem. My unit of 4,000 people rolled into Iraq with between 75% to 90% of our vehicles unarmored. To give you a rough idea of the number, it would be in the range of 500 to 700.
Once inside Iraq we slowly started to receive armored doors only for our vehicles. Even when I left after 8 months in Iraq we still had vehicles that were unarmored. My brigade lost its first soldier during the drive north from Kuwait. He was in an unarmored vehicle that was hit by a roadside bomb. My camp had a soldier lose part of his arm from riding in an unarmored vehicle that was hit by a roadside bomb. His arm was saved and after numerous surgeries he was told it would be a year before he would get most movement and sensation in his arm back. Situations like these are repeated daily through out Iraq.
You said "when the draft returns". You think that this will happen? What are your thoughts on it?
I don't have a doubt in my mind that the draft will return. The general that runs the Army Reserve wrote a memo, which was subsequently leaked to the media, in which he described the Army Reserve as "a broken force". The numbers that the National Guard and Reserve have on paper don't add up. They are in a position now where they can no longer hide the problem. In the memo the general describes having 46,500 members on the books who are either untrained or unaccounted for. This makes no mention of the number on stop loss, non deployable due to illness or injury, and those awaiting discharge. I see the draft returning in the next two to three years, perhaps sooner.
The recruiting and retention problems the National Guard and Reserve have had over the years are only exacerbated by the situation in Iraq. The frequent call ups, lack of equipment that I described, and the lack of benefits when you compare what the full time military receives for the same work only serve to force people out. It reaches a point where it's clearly not worth it. I was called to active duty for two years in a three year period. Each time I had to leave school, leave my job, and leave my wife. And for what? Like I said earlier, having to put your life on hold repeatedly for no good reason gets old pretty quick. The National Guard and Reserve will begin to dwindle in the next few years and it's impossible to continue these types of occupations without them. The draft isn't a question of "if", it's a question of "when". We passed the "if" time frame a long time ago.
What about the relationship between US soldiers and Iraqis? From your experience, what type of relationship exists? How were you and your fellow soldiers told to deal with people?
Most Iraqi's are not overtly confrontational with American soldiers. However, if you engage them in conversation and ask their opinion (as I often did) they will not hesitate to tell you that you are not wanted in Iraq by anyone. After the WMD story turned out to be a hoax the war was then sold as a humanitarian mission. Shortly after arriving in Iraq we were instructed that we could not treat Iraqi's unless they were in danger of losing life or limb. Basically, the local nationals had to be in danger of dying before we could treat them. This was the official guidance that we received in writing, repeatedly, from way up the chain of command. The excuses ranged from not having the money/supplies to wanting the Iraqi's to get used to using their own healthcare infrastructure. Why were we there then? It was little things like this that served to quickly turn our opinion about what this war was really about.
Most of the sentiment voiced publicly by the local nationals all focused on the same few ideas. The war was sold to them as a way to get rid of Saddam, which they favored. But, it quickly became evident that that's not what this war was really about. They were lied to by this administration too. They are now being occupied and they know the war is all about oil.
Not only are they being occupied, but they still have no security. I was told again and again that at least under Saddam they didn't have roadside bombs littering the country and gangs of insurgents roving and ravaging the country with impunity. Again, I could talk about this for hours. I will leave my contact information (firstname.lastname@example.org) and people can contact me with individual questions and/or requests to speak about my opinions and experiences in Iraq.
One thing that doesn't get enough honest attention is the number of soldiers wounded in Iraq, and what this really means. So far, well over 10,000 soldiers have been "wounded". You worked as a medic, so you have a good idea of what this means.
One thing I want to make absolutely clear is my skepticism that this number is anywhere near accurate. An injury can be anything from eardrums ruptured in an explosion, gunshot wounds, shrapnel injuries, blast injuries, and on and on. Obviously, this number makes no accounting for those that are mentally traumatized by what they have seen, and the numbers that have substance abuse problems or even end up taking their own lives. Just as in Vietnam it will take years before the true effects of this conflict are known. They will continue to manifest themselves in increasing numbers of individuals as more people return home. Or more importantly, return home for the second or third time from Iraq. The VA was under manned and under funded well before September 11th, and is simply not equipped to deal with what is coming in the next few years.
This interview is going to be read both by soldiers and civilians who support what you are doing-- speaking out against the war and occupation-- and by people who strongly oppose your actions. One of the arguments that your would-be opponents have is that antiwar soldiers joined the military with the knowledge that they might have to go to war even if they strongly disagreed with it-- you signed on for the job, and so you should stop complaining. This argument has come up a lot, and as the antiwar veteran and GI movement grows, it will surely go on. What's your response?
This war was sold to the American public the exact same way that Vietnam was. It's the same domino theory, except instead of stopping the spread of communism we're spreading democracy. Yeah, right. Vietnam somehow posed a threat to the US, much as Iraq somehow did. A quick history lesson if I may-- Iraq was involved in a brutal trench war with Iran from 1980-1988. Then the Persian Gulf War in 1991 was followed by twelve years of crippling sanctions and pretty regular bombing. A threat? Hardly. Vietnam had Agent Orange, Iraq has depleted uranium. Vietnam veterans returned and were not cared for properly by the VA; it's already happening to Iraq veterans. The only thing missing is the draft, and it won't be for much longer.
It's always those with the least to lose that speak out the loudest and beat their chests the hardest. You clearly saw that during the run up to this war, the initial invasion, and it continues to this day. We stayed the course in Vietnam until 58,000 US soldiers were dead, countless others were scarred for life, and three million Southeast Asians were dead. I don't hear too many people still preaching about our virtuous rationale for invading that country. Sadly, the draft is what ended Vietnam and I think it is the only thing that will end this war. While the American public seems to sleep fine at night while other's children are killed in Iraq, I doubt they will sleep as soundly when they are their own.
When I joined the military I took an oath that I took seriously. I just wish that my elected officials took it as seriously as I did. But, why should they? Few if any of them have ever taken it before themselves. In my oath I swore to defend the Constitution and the people of America, clearly that is not what I did in Iraq. In fact, if the Constitution needs defending anywhere it is in Washington, DC.
No one in the military signs up to die for nothing, I know I surely didn't. Soldiers aren't assembled at the Pentagon, they are real people with real families. Most come from poor and working class families and I believe that has something to do with the public's sick view that the life of a soldier is worth inherently less than the life of an average American citizen.
If you're going to commit hundreds of thousands of troops for something this ridiculous, at least equip them so they have a fighting chance of surviving and keeping all of their limbs. Supporting our troops? Hardly. Let me break it down for you real easy: most of the kids dying in Iraq, and they are kids, are between 18 and 22. These kids will never go to college, never get married, never have kids, never have grandchildren, never retire, and never get to enjoy life. They leave behind children that will never know their fathers and widows that will never know peace.
Too many people have suffered way too much already. I will continue to speak out until the last soldier leaves Iraq and the last veteran gets the care they are owed. Not another Vietnam.
What made you decide to become active in opposing the war and occupation?
I think this will be my shortest answer. I don't want to see anymore of my fellow soldiers get killed, get maimed, or be mentally traumatized for nothing. I don't want to see anymore Iraqi civilians get killed or injured for nothing. This administration is just creating a new generation of insurgents. Mostly, I want to point out what our soldiers are being asked to do over there and how they are being asked to do it. I want to make it clear to the public that they aren't getting the full scope of what's going on in Iraq. Most of the reporters in Iraq are scared to leave the large camps they're in. They only report what they see from the camps or what the military reports to them. None of the attacks in my area where ever reported.
Can you briefly tell us about the organization your involved with, Iraq Veterans Against the War? Is the group growing? What type of activities do you do, and do you have any new future plans?
Iraq Veterans Against the War is a group of people who have been in Iraq since the current war began. The group is growing and in the process of setting up local chapters through out the country. The main focus of the group is to end the occupation of Iraq and make sure that the veterans of the conflict receive the care that they were promised and have earned. My main focus will be doing as many public speaking events as I can to get our message out to the public. I invite people to check out the web site, www.ivaw.net.
There's an organization of military family members who oppose the war and occupation, Military Families Speak Out (www.mfso.org). How has this group helped or affected you, and why do you think it's important?
My wife was involved with MFSO while I was in Iraq. They are actually the way that I first heard of IVAW. I think they are extremely important because they put a human face on what is happening in Iraq. They also point out that military members and families are not being taken care of the way they should be. Supporting our troops means a lot more than buying a $2 yellow magnet for your car and waving the flag. It means demanding answers and holding people accountable.
I want to finish up by asking you the same questions I asked Jim Talib, another antiwar vet I recently interviewed. What kind of role do you think antiwar soldiers and veterans can play in the broader antiwar movement? What can antiwar civilians and soldiers/vets do to build a healthy relationship, and how can the civilian antiwar movement make itself more welcoming to soldiers who want to speak out against the war and occupation?
I think that obviously as veterans of this war we are the most qualified to speak out about the conditions in Iraq. We were in Iraq and we lived it. We were at places other than the hand picked sites that reporters and Congressmen are shown. We talked to lots of soldiers and not just those that pre rehearsed interviews so they'd tell the media what the military and this administration wants the public to hear. We let the public know that lots of soldiers don't agree with this war. They don't agree with the reasons that this war was sold on, the lack of equipment, the lack of planning, and the continuing lies about conditions in Iraq put forth by this administration.
The second part of the question is harder to answer. Personally, I'm not a pacifist and I've
never felt I belong in the various peace groups. I'm just a veteran who understands all too well the sacrifices that are made. I can't sit and let it continue. Too many soldiers have suffered and will continue to suffer for years to come. Most of us just want to end this suffering.
I can't tell you how many times I'm asked ridiculous questions about Iraq. If a veteran wants to speak about the war they will, when they are ready and able to do so. The public can't possibly ever imagine what some people go through in Iraq. Start by just introducing yourself and thanking them for coming out just like you would anyone else. A lot of veterans will never speak out against the war because they can be punished for doing so under military law. Other veterans don't want to admit that friends or family have been injured or even given their lives in an unnecessary war. They simply don't want to see it and will never admit it. I think that it is these veterans that have it the hardest.
Patrick Resta can be reached at email@example.com. The website for Iraq Veterans Against the War is www.ivaw.net.
Derek Seidman is co-editor of Left Hook (www.lefthook.org). He lives in Providence, Rhode Island, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.