Veterans throw back medals at NATO protest
Published: Monday, May 21, 2012
Updated: Monday, August 27, 2012 16:08
It’s 7 p.m. Sunday and Simone’s Bar in Pilsen is filled with Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans from across the country. Live music is playing over laughter and stories, but the air is bitter sweet as they honor and remember loved ones lost, wishing they could join them on this night of celebration.
“To making history,” toasts former Marine Matt Howard, raising his glass.
“To history!” his fellow veterans repeat.
These are the Iraq Veterans Against The War, an organization dedicated to mobilizing the military community to withdraw from wars overseas. A majority of the veterans are talking on the patio, and no one seems to mind as the rain starts to roll in, for they’ve just spent the entire day marching in military formation under the sun, leading a demonstration of approximately 3,000 protestors from Grant Park to McCormick place. There, on a pre-staged flatbed, they ceremoniously discarded their campaign medals, symbolizing their protest against the war.
“We were told these medals represented democracy, justice and change for the world,” said Chris Mays, who left the Army last year as a conscientious objector. “But these medals represent failure on the behalf of the leaders of NATO to do what’s right by the disenfranchised people of the world. Instead of helping them, they take advantage of them.”
Mays rips the medals off his uniform. “I will not be a part of that anymore,” he said. “These medals don’t mean anything to me and they can have them back.”
Aaron Hughes, lead organizer of the IVAW Chicago Chapter dedicated the first of his three medals to the late Anthony Wagner, an active member of the IVAW and close friend to Hughes. The second was dedicated to the women of the military sexually assaulted by their peers, an ongoing problem within the U.S. military.
“And this medal is because I’m sorry,” taking off his third medal, holding back tears. “I’m sorry to all of you. I’m just sorry.”
More than 40 veterans threw their medals, all stating their individual reasons why the U.S. should no longer be at war. In the military, the medals represent a commitment to service to military operations overseas. To IVAW, the medals represent a decade-long war for unjustified reasons which has caused more harm than good to both service members and the innocent lives of the country the U.S. occupies.
“War takes away a person’s ability to connect with their fellow human being,” May said. It teaches people to kill. And to be proud of it. That’s not how the human brain is programmed. We’re not meant to do that to each other.”
“[What we did in Iraq] was not all negative but the sum total of it was,” Howard added, explaining the misconception of military humanitarianism brought on by media portrayal. “But we’re looking at case rates of 100,000 civilian lives lost, but that’s not totally talked about.”
According to IVAW, 18 veterans commit suicide each day while 36 make the attempt. IVAW emphasizes how consistently sending soldiers to war without the necessary time to heal reflects the lack of concern from military leaders towards the well being of their soldiers.
“Less than 1% [ of the United States population] is serving at one time, I’m not saying a draft makes sense,” he said. “But there has to a be a better way than sending someone five times overseas just because we don’t have that many people to draw on.”
Through both hosting and taking part in panels throughout the week, and working alongside with other organizations that fight for U.S. withdrawal and for self-determination of the Afghan population, IVAW displays a worldview-perspective of how the issues within our own society are interdependent on the choices our leaders make regarding foreign affairs. The military spends $10.3 billion per month on funding the war. According to IVAW, it is funding which could be better spent on education, healthcare and to fight rising poverty levels.
“The people that go into the military to begin with are people that can’t afford college, people of color and people that come from working class communities,” Howard said. “It’s not the people that make a lot of money or people in politics. And their kids aren’t going. Their—sons and daughters—aren’t going.”
“I would just bring everyone home,” added Mays. “While I think there are things that need to be changed in the world—as much as I want to—it’s not my place to go change it for people. Change has to come from within to be real.”
Most people join the military because they want to do something good in the world. While the reasons of the individuals who discarded their medals may be easily understood by fellow veterans, after years of dedicating their lives in service to their country, it’s hard for some veterans to believe that what they were doing was not the right thing to do. And to others, it’s a view they will never come to agree with.
“I remember hearing a haiku once,” said Howard, explaining how it took him years after the military and educating himself to find the perspective he has today. “You can’t see the mountain when you’re standing on top of it.”