Garret Reppenhagen received integral training
about the Geneva Conventions and the rules of engagement during his deployment
in Kosovo. But in Iraq, "much of this was thrown out the window,"
"The men I served with are professionals," Reppenhagen told the audience
at a panel of U.S. veterans speaking of their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"They went to Iraq to defend the U.S. But we found rapidly we were killing
Iraqis in horrible ways. But we had to in order to remain safe ourselves. The
war is the atrocity."
The event, which has drawn international media attention, was organized by
Iraq Veterans Against the War. It aims to show that their stories of wrongdoing
in both countries were not isolated incidents limited to a few "bad apples,"
as the Pentagon claims, but were everyday occurrences.
The panel on the "Rules of Engagement" (ROE) during the first full
day of the gathering, named "Winter Soldier" to honor a similar gathering
30 years ago of veterans of the Vietnam War, was held in front of a visibly
moved audience of several hundred, including veterans from Iraq, Afghanistan,
and Vietnam. Winter soldiers, according to U.S. founding father Thomas Paine,
are the people who stand up for the soul of their country, even in its darkest
Reppenhagen served in Iraq from February 2004-2005 in the city of Baquba, 25
mi. northeast of Baghdad. He said his first experience in Iraq was being on
a patrol that killed two Iraqi farmers as they worked in their field at night.
"I was told they were out in the fields farming because their pumps only
operated with electricity, which meant they had to go out in the dark when there
was electricity," he explained. "I asked the sergeant, if he knew
this, why did he fire on the men. He told me because the men were out after
curfew. I was never given another ROE during my time in Iraq."
Another veteran of the occupation of Iraq on the panel was Vincent Emmanuel.
He served in the Marines near the northern Iraqi city of al-Qaim during 2004-2005.
Emmanuel explained that "taking potshots at cars that drove by" happened
all the time, and "these were not isolated incidents."
Emmanuel continued: "We took fire while trying to blow up a bridge. Many
of the attackers were part of the general population. This led to our squad
shooting at everything and anything in order to push through the town. I remember
myself emptying magazines into the town, never identifying a target."
As other panelists nodded in agreement, Emmanuel spoke of abusing prisoners
who he knew were innocent, adding, "We took it upon ourselves to harass
them, and took them to the desert to throw them out of our Humvees, while kicking
and punching them when we threw them out."
Two other soldiers testified about planting weapons or shovels on civilians
they had accidentally shot, to justify the killings by implying the dead were
fighters or people attempting to plant roadside bombs.
Jason Washburn was a corporal in the Marines and served three tours in Iraq,
his last in Haditha from 2005-2006.
"We were encouraged to bring 'drop weapons' or shovels, in case we accidentally
shot a civilian, we could drop the weapon on the body and pretend they were
an insurgent," he said. "By the third tour, if they were carrying
a shovel or bag, we could shoot them. So we carried these tools and weapons
in our vehicles, so we could toss them on civilians when we shot them. This
was commonly encouraged."
Washburn explained that his ROE changed "a lot."
"The higher the threat level, the more viciously we were told to respond.
We had towns that were deemed 'free-fire zones.' One time there was a mayor
of a town near Haditha that got shot up. We were shown this as an example because
there was a nice tight shot group on the windshield, and told that was a good
job, that was what Marines were supposed to do. And that was the mayor of the
Jason Wayne Lemue is a Marine who served three tours in Iraq.
"My commander told me, 'Kill those who need to be killed, and save those
who need to be saved,' that was our mission on our first tour," he said
of his first deployment during the invasion nearly five years ago.
Lemue continued, "After that, the ROE changed, and carrying a shovel,
or standing on a rooftop talking on a cell phone, or being out after curfew
[meant the people] were to be killed. I can't tell you how many people died
because of this. By my third tour, we were told to just shoot people, and the
officers would take care of us."
John Michael Turner served two tours in the Marines as a machine gunner in
Iraq. Visibly upset, he told the audience, "I was taught as a Marine to
eat the apple to the core." Turner then pulled his military metals off
his shirt and threw them on the ground.
"April 18, 2006, was the date of my first confirmed kill," he said
somberly. "He was innocent, I called him the fat man. He was walking back
to his house, and I killed him in front of his father and friend. My first shot
made him scream and look into my eyes, so I looked at my friend and said, 'Well,
I can't let that happen,' and shot him again. After my first kill I was congratulated."
Turner explained one reason why establishment media reporting about the occupation
in the U.S. has been largely sanitized. "Anytime we had embedded reporters,
our actions changed drastically," he explained. "We did everything
by the books, and were very low-key."
To conclude, an emotional Turner said, "I want to say I'm sorry for the
hate and destruction that I and others have inflicted on innocent people. It
is not okay, and this is happening, and until people hear what is going on this
is going to continue. I am no longer the monster that I once was."
(Inter Press Service)