Gannett News Service, Star-Gazette.com
June 12, 2007
Michael Blake joined the U.S. Army right out of high school and trained as a unit supply specialist. He served in Iraq from April 2003 to March 2004, mostly driving Humvees.
After his first tour of duty, Blake was one of 63 people that year to apply for an honorable discharge as a conscientious objector, and was one of 32 to be granted it.
Blake, and two other members of Iraq Veterans Against the War, spoke Saturday night to about 75 people at the Unitarian Church annex in Ithaca. The event was organized by Tompkins County War Resistance and the Ithaca Unitarian Social Justice Council.
Blake also told the story of his close friend, Timothy Swanson.
Swanson, who also opposed the war, served with Blake during his first tour of duty, and later helped Blake during his application for conscientious objector status. Swanson had considered applying for conscientious objector status before he was called for a second tour of duty, Blake said.
This past February, Swanson was in a Humvee that was hit with an improvised explosive device in Iraq. Three of the four passengers in the vehicle, including Swanson, died from the attack.
“I pretty much collapsed as soon as I heard,” Blake said.
Blake joined the anti-war veterans' group in 2005, and now leads the Central New York chapter.
Phil and Eli, two other members of the chapter, joined Blake in recounting their journeys in the U.S. military and in the veterans' group. Phil and Eli are both currently enlisted in the Army and did not want their full names used. Some members of the military have experienced reprisals for speaking out against the war.
Both men are stationed at the Fort Drum army post in Watertown, where Phil said the group's fastest-growing chapter is based, having gained 10 members in the last two months.
Phil spoke at length about the situation that the U.S. has created in Iraq, where he said 655,000 people have been killed since the start of the war on terror. In addition, 4 million people have been displaced, be it internally or externally.
“Where do we go from here? Where do we start?” Phil asked.
The anti-war movement is fragmented, he said. It needs to unite, with a single, clear message that the war needs to end immediately.
“The day my boots hit that desert, I realized I had a serious conflict of guilt,” said Eli, who served from September 2003 to September 2004.
Iraq Veterans against the War
Eli soon found that he was not alone in his sentiments against the war. He found the veterans' group to be “almost like a second family.”
After the veterans spoke about their experiences, those in attendance broke into three discussion groups charged with deciding what could be done to help the current state of affairs. The groups also asked the veterans questions they had regarding the movement.
Blake explained Operation First Casualty, a sort of street theater event that the veterans' group has organized in three cities: New York City, Washington D.C. and Santa Monica, Calif. Blake participated in Operation First Casualty in Manhattan about two weeks ago. About 10 group members dressed in their uniforms and mimicked how they patrolled the streets of Baghdad in Iraq. They yelled, screamed and even detained some civilian volunteers and broke up staged riots.
Their goal was to show American citizens what happens on a regular basis in Iraq, said Blake. Further information about Operation First Casualty can be found at the group's Web site, www.IVAW.org.
Spreading the word
More servicemen and women need to be aware of the anti-war veterans' group, Blake said, and Phil and Eli agreed. To this end, the group is planning more outreach at military bases, and encourages people to get the word out.
The group also needs money, Blake said. This is mostly because members need to travel to outreach events, or to events such as Operation First Casualty, and “we're broke,” said Blake.
The three veterans also showed support for counter-recruitment efforts, at places such as high schools.
There will be another meeting at 7 p.m. July 14 at the Unitarian Church Annex in Ithaca.