War Stories Echo an Earlier Winter
Saturday, March 15, 2008
Grim-faced and sorrowful, former soldiers and Marines sat before an audience of several hundred yesterday in Silver Spring and shared their recollections of their service in Iraq.
The stories spilled out, sometimes haltingly, sometimes in a rush: soldiers firing indiscriminately on Iraqi vehicles, an apartment building filled with Iraqi families devastated by an American gunship. Some descriptions were agonized, some vague; others offered specific dates and locations. All were recorded and streamed live to the Web.
The four-day event, "Winter Soldier: Iraq & Afghanistan -- Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations," is sponsored by Iraq Veterans Against the War and is expected to draw more than 200 veterans of the two wars through tomorrow. Timed for the eve of the fifth anniversary of the war's start next week, organizers hope the soldiers' accounts will galvanize public opposition.
For some of the veterans speaking yesterday, the experience was catharsis.
Former Marine Jon Turner began his presentation by ripping his service medals off his shirt and tossing them into the first row. He then narrated a series of graphic photographs showing bloody victims and destruction, bringing gasps from the audience. In a matter-of-fact voice, he described episodes in which he and fellow Marines shot people out of fear or retribution.
"I'm sorry for the hate and destruction I've inflicted upon innocent people," Turner said. "Until people hear about what is happening in this war, it will continue."
Winter Soldier is modeled after a well-known and controversial 1971 gathering of the same name at which veterans of the Vietnam War gathered to describe alleged atrocities. John Kerry, then a young veteran, spoke at the Detroit event, which brought him to prominence. The soldiers' claims sparked lasting enmity, which resurfaced during Kerry's run for president in 2004.
The 2008 Winter Soldier will probably be no different. The event drew dozens of counter-protesters who were kept from the conference site at the National Labor College by a contingent of Montgomery County police. Although entrance to the event was limited to participants and the media, one protester managed to slip in and walked toward the stage, interrupting a speaker.
"Kerry lied while good men died, and you guys are betraying good men," the man yelled. The protester was roughly hustled from the room by several men in red knit shirts and jeans -- members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, who are providing security for the event.
Counter-protesters outside derided the event and were deeply skeptical of the claims being made inside. "We want absolute specifics," said Harry Riley, a retired Army colonel who leads Eagles Up!. "This is too important to our nation. The credibility of our nation and the credibility of our soldiers are involved."
Riley said those making allegations against the U.S. military should have to give sworn testimony instead of speaking at an antiwar conference.
Organizers said they have sought to verify the records of all soldiers speaking, including reviewing their service records and talking to other members of units. Some soldiers had videos and photographs, which were displayed yesterday on a large screen in the auditorium.