In Their Own Words: Iraq war veterans tell their stories.

Monday, March 20, 12 p.m. ET

In Their Own Words

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David Von Drehle and Mary Hadar
Washington Post staffers
Monday, March 20, 2006; 12:00 PM

Mary Hadar, the Post's military life coordinator, and Post staff writer David Von Drehle, were online Mon., March 20, at noon ET to take your questions about the 100 Iraq veterans project.

Transcript follows:

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Mary Hadar: Hi, thanks for joining us to talk about the Iraq veterans project. It was an effort that began more than a year ago and involved 24 reporters and a bunch more support staff. We were willing to put that much effort into it because we wanted to hear from the troops in their own words, and the only way to do that responsibly is to get a large sample.

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Rockville Centre, N.Y.: When I was in the military, from 1980 to 1989, I met everyone in my chain of command, from CINCPACFLEET to President Reagan. We were told, upon VIP arrival, NOT to discuss anything that would oppose any views on administration policy, or live to regret it. Is this still the case?

Mary Hadar: I don't know what the official policies are, but we had no luck going through official channels in getting these interviews.

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Carson City, Nev.: After many decades of experience, and a great deal of study of the issue, I believe most field commanders would say that the maximum time most soldiers can be stationed in harm's way, without long-term mental effect, is about 6 months; for some, it is less. It seems that many units are staying in Iraq/Afganistan for longer periods, and it is not uncommon for many to have done 2 tours already. What steps is the military taking, if any, to mitigate this damage? How many soldiers will come back, but not "all the way back"? The numbers are not trending well on this, and I'm starting to hear alot of personal stories.... real personal stories....and they aren't good.

Mary Hadar: We will be publishing other stories based on the interviews, and the first one will be about reentry issues. The Post published a story on March 1 reporting that a third of returning vets have sought help after Iraq. Still, the Marines continue to cycle in again and again, many are on their third tour, and they are there for longer than 6 months.

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Bethesda, Md.: Was it difficult finding veterans who wanted to talk on the record about their experiences?

Mary Hadar: It was hardest when dealing with active-duty personnel; they wanted to run everything through a public affairs officer. The ones who are out of the service were eager to share their experiences.

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washingtonpost.com: Link for Shankar Vedantam's March 1 story: Veterans Report Mental Distress

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Washington, D.C.: There a real social demand that people in the USA vocalize support for our troops in Iraq even if there's disagreement over the war policy. This is a backlash over how people who are now 55 years of age and older treated Vietnam veterans when they were returning from war. Vietnam veterans were largely drafted, while everyone who is in Iraq today is there by choice, upholding their end of a legal contract. Requiring that Americans laud these soldiers of petit fortunes as if they were citizen draftees only enables the war-makers in the Pentagon and Federal Government to perpetuate the violence, doesn't it?

David Von Drehle: No one is "required" to say anything they don't want to say or believe. Constitutionally, in the United States the responsibility for making war lies with the civilians in Congress and the Executive branch, so it seems to me people who disagree with the war ought to train their fire on those folks. I'm not sure we want a military that picks and chooses which orders to follow and which decisions to honor. My guess is that if a situation arose in which you felt war was the right choice, you would want the men and women of the armed forces to fight bravely and purposefully, as they are doing in Iraq.

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washingtonpost.com:

Iraq veterans project: In Their Own Words

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Arlington, Va.: Have any of the reporters working on this project compared the responses they got this time around, to responses from veterans of past wars (Vietnam, WWII, etc.) And if so, how are the soldier's reactions during this war different? Or do you think their voices could really describe the life of any soldier no matter what the war or time period?

David Von Drehle: There was an enormous post-war study done of World War II veterans, known as the Army Service Experience Questionnaire and I did look at some of the overview of that in the course of writing this piece. My sense is that the most important elements of the experience of war remain the same over time. Obviously, some of the details change: housing, food, idle-time diversions and so on.

For example, officers will always tend to be more gung-ho than enlisted troops, as a rule. Veterans always report intense bonds with comrades--bonds that come to provide a main motive for fighting. The shadow of doubt seems to fall across most troops on the eve of battle, and whether they end up mastering their fears comes to be a pivotal moment in their lives. A person after that test feels profoundly changed by it, even though most say they can't really put that change into words.

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Gettysburg, Pa: I am so proud to be the Marine Mom to Cpl. Brian W. Onieal, one of the featured veterans in your front page column, "Voices of 100 Veterans: The War in Their Words". To see the photograph of Brian and three Iraqi civilians on page 14 brought me back to the time two years ago when he was deployed to Iraq. A parent's anxiety, fear, and intense pride pales in comparison to a son's Marine pride & willingness to serve. Brian would just say he had a job to do. Thank you for sharing so many stories. Janice Besecker Onieal

David Von Drehle: Thanks for joining us. This project would not have been possible without the cooperation of veterans like your son. I had the chance to read all of the interviews--enough to fill a fat book. I was humbled not only by the sacrifices made for our country, but also by the honesty and the amount of time so many veterans devoted to helping us understand their experience.

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Washington D.C.: Do you feel like there is a level of "war saturation" among the public? Seems like there is a great divide between Americans directly affected by the war (whose loved ones have served) and those who see it as just another crawl across the evening news. Do you find that many soldiers/veterans feel this?

Mary Hadar: That is their universal reaction: they come home and no one seems to realize there's a war going on.

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Washington, D.C.: My old boss was a diehard Republican before going to Iraq and a diehard Democrat, liberal even, after coming back. Is that common? I don't want to talk to him about what he saw, but it must have been rough for him to completely change his worldview.

Mary Hadar: Some of our respondents had the same reaction, but this is not a scientific sample so we can't draw any conclusions. I would say that the majority we interviewed support the war.

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Arlington, Va.: Thanks for the work that you have done in bringing the voices of the troops to us. There really isn't anything like speaking with them directly -- they are a very diverse group (moreso than many people realize) and they provide their own unique perspective. For the last two years, I've talked with many deployed troops as a result of sending care packages to them through www.booksforsoldiers.com. Whether we as individuals support the war or not, I personally feel an obligation to connect with those who are tasked with fighting it -- to keep them on my own "front page." It's simply unfair that all of the sacrifices are being made by just a few; the further we separate ourselves from them, the easier it is to send them into harm's way. I'm looking forward to reading the piece that you put together about reentry issues; for so many of them, the war doesn't really end when they come home. Thanks!

David Von Drehle: Thank you for that. You are absolutely correct about the diversity of the troops--we certainly found that among our 100 participants. Every type you might meet on the subway, you could find in this group. That made it a real, and bracing, challenge to try to find the common strands in their experiences.

I also appreciate this thing you said: "It's simply unfair that all of the sacrifices are being made by just a few; the further we separate ourselves from them, the easier it is to send them into harm's way." I guess as a reporter I am not supposed to hold beliefs about stories, but if I did I think this might be one of them!

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Falls Church, Va.: Hi,

What a great article. I look forward to more articles using the interviews.

My question is this: my boyfriend is about to be stationed in Baghdad for a year. He's not a soldier but will still be living and working in Baghdad and several other major cities. Did any of the soldiers mention the types of support from home which really helped and raised spirits? (besides gummy candies instead of chocolate) Thanks.

David Von Drehle: Well, one of my favorite quotes, which I couldn't get into the story, came from an officer who said the best stuff to receive from home caem from his wife--and that's all he was gonna say! So use your imagination.

On a more serious note, let me underline something I mentioned in the story. Again and again, veterans described to us how worried they were about their loved ones at home. They worry about you worrying about them. So I imagine you are going to have to be patient with that, and understand that he might hold some details back from you--because he is trying to protect you.

Good luck!

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Arlington, Va.: How then did you get these people to talk, and did any of them fear repercussions for speaking so openly?

Mary Hadar: When people referred us to a public affairs officer, we never heard back. So instead we tried to find veterans without going through the military. One is a Marine I sat next to on a plane, for instance. One of our reporters went to BWI Airport, which is an entry point for many troops. There's a military lounge there, and although they wouldn't let him in, he was able to talk with returning veterans on their way in and out, and to get their contact numbers.

We asked no political questions on our survey, but lots of the troops volunteered their thoughts. We printed some of these in the paper - a couple who talked about how the Iraqis deserved freedom, and one who said he thought the U.S. had lost the "hearts and minds" of Iraqis during his year there, 2004.

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Washington, D.C.: The behavior of the solders is a problem. I believe that the forces in Iraq are not representative of America. Through recruiting practices, they are selected out of the population based on extreme patriotism, which means they are more capable of things like abuse and torture and less capable of resisting illegal orders.

Beyond the fact that they're making a lot of enemies, wasting a lot of money, and killing a lot of civilians, I have no beef with what they're doing -- except that they're doing it in the name of my country.

David Von Drehle: If you really believe that, shouldn't you be over there in place of one of them? "The behavior of the soldiers is a problem." It's true that the behavior of SOME soldiers is a problem, but your statement is so sweeping that I doubt you will persuade anyone who doesn't already share your strong point of view.

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Fairfax, Va.: With so much talk about PTSD in returning soldiers, what is the military's policy on counseling returning soldiers? Is there/has there ever been mention of requiring counseling for returning soldiers? Surely many of those who need help are not asking for it for various reasons.

Mary Hadar: I understand that the regular military is very much aware of PTSD and screens for it. Officers are required to identify people they think are at special risk, and all returning regular troops are supposed to get some counseling. The greater problem is with reservists, who are eager to get home and resume their normal lives. Unfortunately they have no support system for PTSD at home and they are far from the military centers where it is available.

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Cincinnati, Ohio: My son's in an ROTC college program....gung-ho about what lies ahead. What advice do you have for young men like him who hear only what their supervisors tell them, believe only what the "official" military line is? I'm proud of him for his decision (it's what he's always wanted to do), but after seeing the "Why We Fight" documentary over the weekend, am afraid he's just being sucked into a military contracting scheme to wage war no matter what. Comments?

David Von Drehle: I haven't seen "Why We Fight," and I am loath to give advice on parenting.

I will say that people who disrespect military service should try to meet some actual servicemen and women. I think the more your son's experience brings you into contact with this culture, the better you will feel. I grew up in a military community and now live in an area full of people working at the Pentagon and related facilities. I would be proud to have my son work alongside most of the troops and officers I have known.

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Petoskey, Mich.: The dorms I live in have several people back from serving in Iraq, two directly served in Bahgdad. In talking with them I seem to get the general response that at least the people are free from Saddam's rule. It seems to me, at least to these soldiers, they feel what they did was important because of the people they helped. The ties to terrorism and WMDs don't seem to be the real issue to them. Understandable since they were over there with the Iraqis. Does this seem to be a common theme? That the soldiers feel the mission is acceptable more because of the people helped there then the original pretext offered by the administration?

Mary Hadar: A great majority of the veterans interviewed spoke positively of the Iraqi people and how they are now free. Only a handful made any reference to WMDs or the other stated reasons for going to war (but the ones who did were negative.)

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Washington, D.C.: Were you able to track these people? Are most still in the military

David Von Drehle: We have a spreadsheet somewhere, but my sense was that about half of the people we interviewed remain on duty, either active or reserve.

And I didn't notice any great difference in terms of who spoke candidly. Because our prupose was to learn about the experience of serving in Iraq--and not get deeply into each person's views of the war, etc.--I think even active duty troops who participated felt free to answer our questions.

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Baltimore, MD: What were the big differences you saw (if any) between soilders who appeared to be "ok" after serving from those who appeared to be upset or suffering from their service.

Mary Hadar: My experience from the interviews I did myself was that if you pressed, nearly everyone had reentry issues. One soldier I interviewed was talking about how great everything was going but when I asked him if he had any nightmares or flashbacks, he said, basically, all the time, but he wouldn't allow himself to focus on them because he would go nuts if he did.

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David Von Drehle: Thanks to everyone for joining us, and for reading!

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