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‘Pro-Soldier, Anti-War’

Iraq, Afghanistan veterans speak out

“You get more flies with honey than vinegar,” says former Marine Michael Russo, a security volunteer for the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protest.

Earlier that morning, a yelling match broke out between two people in Zuccotti Park..

With little fuss, the security volunteers appeared, diffused the conflict, and dispersed the gaggle of curious bystanders.

Dispersing the crowd removes the fuel for any flaring tempers, says Russo.

He says that the security volunteers would call in the New York Police Department if necessary, but they haven’t needed to. Besides, he adds, it’s always best to use diplomacy first.

As NYPD officers stand watch around the park, many clearly feel the potential for flared tempers leading to violence.

With accusations of police brutality by protesters during recent arrests freshly on people’s minds, the protesters themselves tell marchers before an afternoon rally that Occupy Wall Street has no intention to riot.

It’s a Marine’s role to take care of those who can’t care for themselves, Russo says, hardly looking up from a drawing of a police bomb squad defusing a bomb as he staffs the security table.

Security is one of many working groups that people can join at the protest.

To Russo’s left at the same table are volunteers for “Outreach” who are working on the OWS newspaper, The Occupied Wall Street Journal.

“It’s my civil duty,” said Russo, in response to why he volunteers.

According to Russo, everyone contributes what they’re good at in Zuccotti Park. The people volunteering for security duty come from a variety of military and law enforcement backgrounds. But people contribute in other ways, too, he says.

Russo grew up in Brooklyn, where the people in his neighborhood used to watch out for one another. But the area has gotten gentrified, he says, and now people just “walk over each other.”

“My neighborhood is destroyed,” he says.

“It’s all me, me, me,” Russo says, adding that material things don’t interest him.

Russo, honorably discharged from the military after eight years of service between 1981 to 1988, says that he saw a lot during those years. He goes back to working on his drawing.

“People are tired of the abuse,” he says, referring to why he thinks the OWS protest has inspired people to come out to the park.

In Foley Square that afternoon, four Iraq War veterans hold a banner for the organization Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). Members from the organization Veterans for Peace stand with the Iraqi vets.

The crowd swirls around the soldiers. One Iraq veteran in his dress fatigues stands stiff. Two others wear a black T-shirts emblazoned with the organization’s website.

“I’m pro-soldier, anti-war, and pro-the-99-percent,” says Joseph Carter, who served in the Army from 2002 to 2007, with two combat tours in Iraq.

Carter now serves as the co-executive director for Coffee Strong, a veteran owned and operated GI coffee house in Washington, and works with IVAW’s Operation Recovery.

Coffee Strong helps connect soldiers and veterans to resources and support, while Operation Recovery works to stop the redeployment of traumatized troops.

In Carter’s opinion, the U.S. government spends its money on the war and bailouts while leaving citizens dry.

“The [government] tells us we don’t have money,” says Carter. “But it always finds money to fund the wars,” wars that he believes are “bankrupting” the United States.

Carter says he joined IVAW because of what he saw in Iraq.

Within six months of his first tour, he says, it became clear that the “deadly” weapons of mass destruction that were cited as the justification for the U.S. invasion of Iraq did not exist.

The government lied to the troops and American people, he says. “It enraged me.”

Carter says he views the military as a tool for supporting public policy. He doesn’t agree with critics who say if someone is anti-war, they’re anti-soldier.

Disagreeing with rationales for military action is not a betrayal of the troops, he asserts, especially when it come to Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Those wars are not about defending our country,” he said.

Citizens can “support the troops by speaking truth to the government,” says Carter, who considers the willingness to speak up as “holding true to the American spirit.”

Carter said the OWS movement needs to grow. People should join the movements near them, he said.

“We need 10,000 [people] in every major city,” he says. “If we do that, [the government] can’t ignore us.”

“To be a patriot, you have to believe in democracy,” says Elliott Adams, a former Army infantryman and paratrooper.

Adams, whose military career took him to Korea, Vietnam, Japan, and Alaska, believes that wars are not a form of conflict resolution, nor do they contribute to national security.

One thing he is sure of, however, is that a few people “make a whole lot of money off every war.”

So, he asks, “Then why do we assume it’s not the intent?”

“Democracy is an active form of government,” says Adams, who also has a penchant for quoting Frederick Douglass.

Citizens have all the power, Adams says, because they are the ones who fight the wars, fires, and crime, the ones who pay the IRS, and the ones who elect the representatives. But people have fallen asleep, he says, forgetting they call the shots.

And democracy can’t grow when 90 percent of the financial assets belong to 10 percent of the population, Adams says.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #122 (Wednesday, October 12, 2011).

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