American warrior and IVAW Vet Tomas Young died today. I spent a couple of the heaviest days of my life with him in Washington D.C. in 2008, learning so much about what the costs of war truly are. I'm re-running the story of those days today, in his honor. Rest In Peace, Tomas.
Also, his letter to filthy Cheney and Bush is a must-read:
Iraq Veterans Against The War. Of all the organizations we've worked with thus far on the Justice Tour 2008, this is the one that I now wish we had held the show the second day. Because we met a bunch of the guys at The Black Cat in Washington D.C. at the show, but we had not yet visited the Walter Reed Hospital, which we did today. Had we seen what we saw today by show time ... I think it would've been an even more powerful celebration of these fine men, and definitely more angry.
I met Garett Reppenhagen at the show, the first active duty member of IVAW. He told me then that he had started an anti-war blog while still in Iraq, even though that was a risky thing to do in the current military. He was investigated, of course, and wound up being honorably discharged - probably just to shut him up - but I can tell you, that will not work on this guy. He's very well spoken and tells his and his comrades stories quite readily. When interviewing him after the show, I was intrigued when he said the first time he felt "support for the troops was when he heard about the peace movement. According to him, the best way we can "Support Our Troops" (a nice bumper sticker, but what is that driver really doing about it?) is to do all we can to get them home.
For us, that began by joining them this morning to visit the Walter Reed VA Hospital in Washington D.C. We met in the lobby of our hotel, and when I said yesterday about the show that the tone of it was heavier, I had no idea what I was talking about yet. Today would be one of the heaviest of our lives.
The Nightwatchman and friends (Breckin Meyer, Wayne Kramer, Dave Gibbs, Ryan Harvey, myself and my brother, Paul, plus Deyden, our charity organizer) joined Tomas Young, the subject of the gripping documentary, "Body Of War", as well as Garett and Geoff Millard from IVAW on a bus ride to the hospital. Passing through the beautiful Georgetown neighborhood is very misleading in D.C. ... they say the crime rate in D.C. is astronomical in the areas surrounding the groomed perfection of the tourist areas, but I'd say our nation's very WORST crimes are master-minded dead center - in The White House. Today confirmed that to be spot-on.
Garett gave us a bit of a briefing on the bus ride, saying no cameras or journalists were allowed inside still (Why? What are they hiding? Or are they just nervous of the American people seeing the many horrific injuries and searing pain, both physical and mental, that festers inside, and RIOTING to put an end to this insidious war for profit? I suspect that to be the case). I wasn't worried about not being allowed to take notes ... what I saw is burned on my brain forever, and we only saw what we were allowed to see. Garett said we should expect to see burn victims, amputees, and that some people may have just arrived a day before, fresh from the Hell hole our President created. We would not be seeing the ICU, and they won't even let the kidney patients in there, because the rats, roaches and mold previously found there would be too large an infection risk. The hospital did not know that IVAW guys were coming, they just knew that Tom Morello from Rage Against The Machine was coming by with some friends to visit with our brave soldiers wounded in the line of duty. I'd think RAGE vs. the MACHINE would give them some pause, but nope.
We were met at the entry to the gigantic complex by a very cheerful guard who smiled big and said, "Welcome to Walter Reed, Home of Warrior Care!", and after checking our i.d.'s, we were waved through. We passed a sign that said "Kid's Fest, This Sunday!" and "Staff Appreciation Day - Yay Staff" or something like that. Frosting on a shit cake. We met our guide, a pretty, smiling woman who greeted us with p.r. perfection, and went inside. You enter the lobby and are immediately surrounded by all the usual corporate suspects: Subway, Dunkin' Donuts, etc .. in a food court. There are big flags and pictures of high-up military general guys all over the place, because you know, it's a really patriotic place. As sanitized and normal-seeming as it was, I found myself glancing around for buzzards. Because of all we know (and may never know) and feel about this war, the place feels sinister in your gut.
We all crammed on an elevator together to head to the 6th floor, where it had been prepared for us to visit. This is normally a very chatty bunch, but not today. All we could do is give each other furtive glances and tight, uneasy smiles of support. I was wondering how Tomas felt, as this was his first visit back to Walter Reed since he was a patient here, on the same floor. He revealed nothing on his face, and I continued to admire his strength. The elevator door opened and we went to the nursing station to introduce ourselves. They had been expecting us, and had that air of excitement when people know they're talking to someone famous. They all wear fatigues and address each other with "Lieutenant" and "Major" and "Sir". Our guide told us we could go in three or four at a time to the rooms, and that each time we would put "goop" on our hands to sanitize them and lessen infection risk. We gooped up and Tom, Wayne, Tomas and I entered, pretty much holding our breaths.
I'm not going to use names, because I don't know that they would want me to, but the first room we entered was tiny and squished in the corner on a little hospital bed was an older man, with a sweet smile and ears that stuck out, making him seem like a little boy in an 47 year old's body. He had a bandaged stump on his right leg, which would raise in the air whenever he moved a little. He did not recognize the guys, and just seemed happy to have any visitors at all. He'd been a career military man, got out and became a mortician, missed the military so signed up for the National Guard, never thinking he'd be sent to Iraq. But he was. He was involved in an explosion, but outwardly was fine, so they told him to take some Motrin and he'd be fine. They didn't look closely enough though, because a blood vessel was pinched behind his knee-cap and his was in constant and excruciating pain. 5 years of this, and 15 surgeries later, they took his leg this past January. He went back and forth between "Why me?" and "It could've been worse, I could've been blown up" and back to "Why me? The Lord must have his reasons". He said, "It's Staff Appreciation Day here, but none of them is here appreciating me." He has family, but never talks to them about his mental anguish, because he doesn't want to worry them, and no one can possibly understand anyway. Tears rolled down his cheeks (and mine), and Tomas told him that HE understood, he'd been a patient right down the hall. The man's eyes widened up, and they shared stories of Sadr City and Kirkuk. Tomas told gently told him about IVAW and gave him his personal phone number, saying that if he ever needed to talk to someone, to please call anytime. "Well, I sure appreciate that ... it's hard. It's hard." It was hard just to witness, so I can only imagine what he's struggling with internally. Tom gave him a t-shirt and a c.d., Wayne thanked him for his service, I tried not to openly cry in front of him, and we all shook hands and headed out for the next room. Our friends were waiting in the hall with wide eyes, and I couldn't even speak yet, just shake my head and regroup for the next one.
All gooped up, our next visit was with a young man who had been a medic in Iraq. He looked pretty good, in gym shorts and shirt. Until he pulled up his shirt and showed us his open shrapnel wound in his belly that looked to be held together with a kind of black duct tape. His team had been walking and a suicide bomber went off. He was able to stay conscious just long enough to tell his buddy where his morphine and bandages were, and then woke up two weeks later with a gaping hole in his gut. He said, "It's bad over there, and it's only getting worse. The first time I went, they were happy to see us. The next time they had more sophisticated bombs. The last time they weren't happy to see us at all". Yep, the surge sure is working. We really can't believe a THING the government is saying about this War, that much is clear as a bell. He knew Tom and gladly accepted a signed shirt and c.d., saying he loved music, and had been listening to a lot of reggae lately, as it makes him feel happier. Tomas rolled in and told him that he was the subject of the film soundtrack we'd just given him, "Body Of War", and that he was now working with a group of Iraq Vets Against the War. With not a second of hesitation, the guy said, "Sign me up!" Geoff Millard came in and gave him an IVAW poster and a copy of their newsletter, but The Medic seemed nervous to take that. He said he'd read it and put it under his mattress. Geoff invited him to come and hang out at the IVAW House not far away, and the guy said "I'll definitely call. We can get lunch, I've been wanting to go to this Tex Mex place" ... and I have a good feeling that lunch will happen soon. I hope it's soon, because as soon as he's fully PHYSICALLY recovered, he's supposed to ship back out, to Afghanistan this time. A reminder that the clock is ticking and we need to step up efforts to get this War over with, before it takes back the already unbelievably suffering young men who have given enough already!
Goop. The Medic had been pretty chipper, aside from wincing in pain periodically. The next guy was not. He was laid out in bed, with his Mom and Wife hovering around him with concern in their eyes. He had been hit by an IED (Improvised Explosive Device), and shattered his femur and a bunch of other stuff. He had a big metal bolt like thing sticking out from under the covers, and seemed very doped up and tired. He recognized Tom and Breckin, who had joined us. Apparently "Road Trip" is very big in the barracks. Once again we were told how bad it is over there, and how he has no idea how it could get any better. He said all sorts of trouble and support is coming out of Pakistan, but you never hear anything about that. Frankly, you never hear anything in the news about any of it. Corporate media, in cahoots with this administration, don't want you to see the faces and maimed bodies, or hear about the horror movies that are these guys lives, because then we as a people wouldn't put up with it anymore. So much for free speech. I took a photo of Tom and Breckin with the young (almost all were 25 or younger), and it hurt just to see the guy attempt a grimace of a smile, while his wife and Mom tried their best to appear normal and happy. He and his then girlfriend, now wife, had a fight and broke up, and that's when he joined the military. I bet his wife will regret that fight the rest of her life, and it's a reminder that this war is hurting so many people on the periphery as well.
The strong medicinal smell of the hand sanitizer and the sickish smell of pain and suffering did not leave us all day. The bright fluorescent lighting everywhere made it all the more garish and exposed. We were about to head to another floor, when the guide said a guy was waiting who was very excited about Tom.
We entered a room where a crinkly-eyed smiling Samoan guy was, surrounded by his wife and little daughters. His face lit up when he saw Tom, who had no way to shake his hand, because they were all bandaged up. He was very covered up, so we're not sure what all was wrong with him, but he looked very scrambled, with black wounds peeking out of his bandages. Ugh. He had been in the military since the 80's and said that American Samoa is heavily recruited by our military, and he had, ironically, joined to get the "good health benefits" and be able to provide for his family. He kept saying, "It's really, really bad over there, really really bad". He did not have to elaborate, when you saw the grief on his face and totally messed up body. But his smile was wide, especially when Tom signed a shirt for him. Tom asked him what he would do about it all if he was the President. He said, and he was very well spoken, "Well, I'd have used diplomacy first, and tried politics ... but it's too late for that now. We need to pull out all the troops, and just leave some to protect our base. The Iraqis need to sort it out themselves, because they just think of us as invaders now, so it's only going to stay bad as long as we're there." General Petraeus must have forgotten that part in his recent testimony. He was a hard one to leave, since as bad as it was, he just wanted to be a good guy, you could tell. Watching the young daughters be silent and well-behaved as they looked at their beat up Hero of a Daddy was tough. And it just got worse from there.
Before we left the floor to head down to another one, the nurses had Tom sign some paper for them, and then handed a stack of printed out Google photos of Breckin to him to sign. Both of them were happy to do it, but I think it all felt a little silly signing things for laughing nurses when there was so much pain and anger and wrongness about the place. It was hard to lighten up.
Taking the elevator down a few floors, we got out, greeted some workers and then were led down a hall to a room where they told Tom a huge fan of his was. A big strapping blond mohawked man sat in a wheelchair, grinning when Tom came in. He had been in a Humvee accident just the 13th of April, the beginning of this tour! It had flipped over (they were speeding, and it sounded like it was their own fault) and he was in the gunner's seat on top. The way he talked, slow and searching, and the way he'd change the subject out of the blue, led you to believe there was some brain damage, which he confirmed. Of all the guys we met, he was the only one who thought things were getting better in Iraq, but he also came off as one of the reckless, gung-ho guys that got into it all for the adrenalin. And he had a brain injury, so that might also explain that (really the only good excuse these days). He was a big fan of Rage and Audioslave, and loved Breckin and "Road Trip" too, wanting to know about Tom Green and if he's really that crazy. His wife was there, clutching a picture of their four year old playing "Guitar Hero 3" for Tom to sign. They were thrilled to meet Tom, and had a photo taken with him and Breckin. This guy echoed the sentiment that many did, that you feel guilty, and kind of want to go back to Iraq just to check that your buddies will be ok. After this heavy-metal guy, things felt a little lighter, but that was not to last long.
We met back up with Wayne, Dave, Paul and the others in the hallway, and were told we had one more guy to visit with what our time permitted. Paul, knowing me and my being prone to tears said, "You might not want to go in there", which made me nervous. Tom, Tomas, Breckin and I went into this young man's room (only 24) and said hello. He talked very slow and lethargically, so it was hard to hear him clearly, but I thought he said something about an IED blowing up and injuring his femur. I thought he was in a recliner or something underneath his covers because I didn't see his legs. It slowly dawned on us that he had been blown in half, and had nothing below his belly button, from what we could tell. He pulled down the covers a bit, and showed us how his hip was at an outward angle AND he had a spinal injury. He told us that "to tell you the truth, I kind of feel like they're experimenting on me here, since they've never seen anyone with all three injuries". His Mother and cousin were there, and you realized that they'd all be dealing with this the rest of their lives ... including his baby who was to be baptized the next day. He was supposed to be fitted for something called "Shorties" that afternoon (prosthetic slip on legs that make you like a little person height) but wasn't looking forward to it since it hurt so bad the last time they tried. He looked at Tomas in his wheelchair and asked what he was doing now, as if to wonder what there could be left in life for him. Tomas told him he worked with IVAW and there was a documentary he was the subject of ... and the kid, though heavily drugged, said, "Oh, yeah?" You saw a little light go on, like maybe there would be something left for him after all, if this guy who'd shared the same floor at Walter Reed was now rolling with rock stars and movie actors. Tomas told him about IV AGAINST the War, and you could tell the kid was mixed about talking about that. Maybe it was too fresh, or he wasn't comfortable talking about that under the nose of the military, but when Tomas said, "I'm usually up all night and I can't sleep, so I'm going to give you my number and you can call anytime." The kid said, "Yeah, isn't that weird? I can't sleep either. But Mandy Moore was here last week and gave me her number, so I'll probably call her. You want it?" We all laughed at that gallows humor, but that was about the only thing to laugh at all day long, and just then to break the tension. He was injured when his crew was clearing a road to make sure it was clear and safe for some visiting diplomats. His buddy was decapitated in front of him, so he felt lucky. He was torn in half to protect the very guys who put him in that situation! I was shaking. We gave him the shirt, c.d. and signed poster, plus the info on IVAW and thanked him for his sacrifice. I just wanted to get out of there before I screamed out in rage. Tears were running down my face and when we got out in the hallway, I saw Kid Lightning and he was in the same shape. We walked down the hall arm in arm along with the rest of the gang, and Garett asked if I was ok. I don't feel like ANY of us are ok! How can we as a nation be at all ok when our young men and women are over there being split in two or worse for NOTHING?! For PROFIT?!?! That IS what's happening, whatever you want to say or think about it ... and that IS also what the soldiers feel is happening. Tomas signed up for the military two days after 9/11 to help in the fight against terrorism and Osama Bin Laden (Who? We never hear about that search anymore, do we?). He was paralyzed after only 5 days in Iraq, but said that if it had happened in Afghanistan, (where he felt the battle should be, and still does) he'd be bummed about it, but would feel like it was for something, and he would not be in a documentary or involved with an anti-war group. But it didn't. It happened in a place where our government wants the oil and Halliburton is war profiteering and war crimes are rampant ... on and on and on, until none of us WILL be ok until the war is ended and the entire current administration is convicted of war crimes. And only then will we be able to look the world in the face and say we're STARTING to be ok.
So we thanked our guide and silently got on the bus. Slowly, we all started talking about it all ... everyone just sick to their stomachs, with sadness, shock, and righteous anger. As Tom said, "No one knows about this stuff, no one ever sees it!" So we're telling you. And hoping you will start asking to know about it, and to see it for yourselves. I KNOW that if access to these guys and their stories were readily available, the pressure for this war to be over would mount until they had no choice. Garett said, "If it never ends, we never lose." In my opinion, we've been losing the whole time, but it never felt this tangible until today at Walter Reed, "Home Of Warrior Care".
The next stop on our agenda was the IVAW House, where Vets against the war can come to organize, stay, get counseled by their peers, or just hang out and watch t.v., so they know that they are not alone. Geoff told our bus driver, "Just look for the house with all the anti-war propaganda on the lawn". And there it was, a big old house in a sketchy-ish neighborhood. We all filed in, lifting Tomas up the steps in his chair. From the moment you step in the door, you get it. The "You are not alone" posters paper the entryway, and other posters and stickers are everywhere. My favorite was "My kid fought in Iraq so yours could party in college". That about sums up the reality of it all, and our tendency to be Ostriches about the hard stuff in this country ... as long as there's cold beer and a game or American Idol on, it's all good. But deep down, every last one of us must know that it's not good at all.
We had a tour of the house (entirely paid for by small donations, and now a badass Justice Tour show the night before!), seeing the rooms of the 5 guys who live there now, and their "most important piece of equipment in the house", a punching bag. There was a computer room and a room where the Homefront Battle Buddies meet - a group that meets for peer support regarding mental health issues, since the VA seems to either deny it or drug them up instead of dealing with it, and the suicide rate of vets and soldiers is now up to 18 a day! This house seemed more and more crucial by the second.
We all ate lunch together, and listened to the IVAW guys speak about the history and strategy of their organization. They feel that if they take away military support for the war, it will have to end, and that seems obvious, but the challenges are many because the military makes it very easy to get in (even taking KKK members, gang members and drastically lowering height and weight standards as the willing and able pool is drying up), and very hard for soldiers to get out. Which is all the more reason why this group is so important - to let enlisted soldiers know that they have anti-war support among their peers makes is safer and easier to do something about it. As Geoff said, "This house does more for veterans than the entire VA System". And you can feel it. They want to make the military choose between having a military at all, or having this unjust occupation. The more you listen to them, the more you feel that they and WE can do it.
All the while, Geoff's little beagle, "Resistance" was running around, and they told us that Resistance is a certified PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder - the military uses a lot of acronyms) Counselor. She has many clients, I'm sure.
The IVAW has three main objectives:
1) Immediate withdrawal of ALL occupying forces in Iraq - and
that includes Halliburton.
2) Take care of all Veterans (Hey McCain, why won't you sign the GI Bill when you're such a war hero? Hmmm ...)
3) Reparations for the Iraqi people. We are grossly indebted to this country we've destroyed.
That all seems perfectly logical and do-able to me. While we're at it maybe we can improve our OWN country with all the money we're currently using on committing daily crimes against humanity, which includes our own soldiers. Five new members signed up for the IVAW between the Justice Show and Walter Reed today. And the movement just keeps growing. They're sick of being USED as the reason to perpetuating this war, ala "We need to keep at it so the soldiers feel like they can be victorious." B.S. These guys will have a strong presence at the Political Conventions this summer, which will be good to raise their profile. As will all of us talking about it and promoting it. We OWE them that, at the very least.
They thanked us all for coming, and Tom for choosing their organization as the beneficiary of the D.C. stop on the Justice Tour. Tom thanked them for EXISTING - the fact that they got organized and built their group makes it easier for other soldiers - and we civilians who see the injustice for what it is - to speak out and do something about it.
We loaded back on to the bus, and rehashed it all together a bit, but mostly looked out the windows and thought about all that we'd experienced. What a day ... and we only VISITED, we don't have to LIVE the nightmare of this war, every day for always.
After a quick breather, it was time to head to the Amnesty International Annual Meeting, where Tom was going to present awards to some members out there fighting for human rights and justice. We couldn't get the Walter Reed guys out of our heads, so sat around backstage sharing it all with some AI folks. That's a start ... the more we talk about it, the more people know about it. That betters the chances to get people involved in DOING SOMETHING ABOUT IT. Tom gave a lovely speech for the Amnesty people, telling them about what the Justice Tour is all about, and how activism and music can work together to DEMAND Justice, especially when working in harmony with all the fantastic organizations we've been learning about so far on this amazing, adventurous, eye-opening tour.
After the meeting, Tom split off to meet up with Dave and Breckin at the CUBS/Nationals game. I needed a break, and some time to reflect, so I went back to Georgetown to get some dinner with Paul, Carlos the Tour Manager and Deyden and Jamie, our lovely charity organizers. We all needed a drink (or three) after the heavy metal drama of the day. We got those, which somehow gave us a second wind.
Paul had never been to D.C., so I told him he at least had to see the Lincoln Memorial and the steps where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his historical speech before we left early the next morning. As we paid the cab driver and crossed the street to walk up the Memorial, my phone beeped. It was Tom, asking how the bar was, but saying, "We're at the steps where MLK gave his 'I have a dream speech'". I looked up the steps, and there they were ... we'd all had the same idea at the same time in the middle of the night! I think after the disgust and disgrace of seeing what our government has inflicted on its own people (and a country that never did anything to us) in this immoral and criminal war, we all needed to remind ourselves of what we are SUPPOSED to be, for ourselves and for the world. Abe had it right, Martin had it right ... and they were both killed for it. It is up to us to carry on those ideals, and that great dream. I have tears again now at how far astray we've gone, and can only pray that we can find our way back, and right our wrongs. We looked out at the Washington Monument from the very spot where MLK's speech was given, and I know that in each of our hearts, we felt the need to honor that flag that flies over our nation's capital, and never stop fighting for Justice.