Editor's Note: The House Appropriations Subcommittee for Military Quality of Life and Veterans Affairs heard testimony today from Iraq War Veterans and family members. Over the next couple of days we will provide you with more of the testimony. --smg/TO

'I Trusted My Country'
By Garett Reppenhagen
t r u t h o u t | Statement

Wednesday 01 March 2006

Written testimony of Garett Reppenhagen, returned Iraq War Veteran; submitted to the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Military Quality of Life and Veterans Affairs.

Thank you for this opportunity to provide testimony on issues concerning Military Quality of Life and Veterans Affairs. I joined the Army in August of 2001 and became a Cavalry/Scout at Ft. Knox, Kentucky. I was indoctrinated into a military that I was proud of and had the courage to serve because I trusted that the government of the United States would use me in a responsible and necessary manner.

I was on leave from a deployment in Kosovo when the Iraq War began. I watched in dread, waiting for a layover flight at Dallas/Ft. Worth airport, when the ultimatum for Saddam and his sons to surrender ran out. Bradleys crossed the line into Iraq, and Baghdad was exploding on the televisions. Surrounding me were a crowd of people cheering like the Cowboys just won the Super Bowl. I started to feel like the reality of war and the policies of the administration were not as honest as they appeared.

In February of 2004, it was my turn to go to war. I was with 2-63 AR 1st Infantry Division stationed in Baquba, Iraq, as a Sniper in a six-man team. During my year there, I saw a lack of effort by our government to provide the US Soldier with the ability to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. As events unfolded, like Abu Ghraib and the battles in Fallujah, a growing resentment of the Iraqi people swelled the support for the insurgency. Our mission there became impossible.

We turned all our missions into surviving Iraq for a year. Missions like counter ambush, counter mortar, road clearing and house raids. No longer were we able to attempt reconstruction operations. The alienation of the people we were supposed to be trying to hand democracy to increased and the Improvised Explosive Devices, Rocket Propelled Grenade Ambushes and mortar attacks increased.

I left Iraq, eventually was honorably discharged after a ten month involuntary extension, and returned home to begin working for veteran advocacy. I have a growing network of friends who are veterans and deal with all the major veteran organizations. I frequently visit Walter Reed and speak to a dozen veterans struggling with PTSD and other forms of mental illness. It is a constant frustration to see these men and women treated without proper care and respect. And the problem is only growing.

These soldiers are returning and overcoming the most unimaginable physical and mental disabilities. But the question they all eventually begin to ask is "Why?" With the growing public opinion being that war was not only wrong, but also based on lies, the soldier who was sent to fight has a conflict with the fact that his sacrifice had no meaning. The lack of meaning ultimately creates a breakdown of character that is fundamental in a soldier's degradation of mental health. Because the war is so "wrong," it can create not just a guilt of the traumatic experience in Iraq, it also makes the soldiers shameful of the people they have become.

These soldiers return home to ticker tape parades and "thank you's," when the soldier many times feels like a criminal. Most hold on to the ideal that it was a noble cause, to protect their character from the damaging truth.

However eventually, over time, that protective bubble will pop. If it is years down the road, the buildup of stress will be more harmful. Whether conscious of it or not, because these soldiers are never punished by society and their leaders are not being held accountable, the veteran takes on self-destructive habits and sometimes commits suicide.

We hold ourselves accountable, and sometimes cannot live with the pain.

The longer we continue the conflict in Iraq, the worse the injuries to our soldiers will become. We need to remove our military from a war it should have never been involved in. Without the use of our military in honest operations, the psychological impact on our service members will be unavoidable. Trauma from war is another injury of combat and is a natural reaction to being in a violent environment. Added with the loss of meaning, it can be severe. The only way to put an end to it is to withdraw troops immediately from Iraq and bring them home now.

The following is a piece of the last letter SPC Douglas Barber, an Iraq War Veteran, wrote before taking his own life in January 2006:

All is not okay or right for those of us who return home alive and supposedly well. What looks like normalcy and readjustment is only an illusion to be revealed by time and torment. Some soldiers come home missing limbs and other parts of their bodies. Still others will live with permanent scars from horrific events that no one other than those who served will ever understand.

We come home from war trying to put our lives back together but some cannot stand the memories and decide that death is better. They kill themselves because they are so haunted by seeing children killed and whole families wiped out.

They ask themselves how you put a price tag on someone else's life. The question goes unanswered as they become another casualty of the war. Heroes become another statistic to America and they are another little article relegated to the back of a newspaper.

Still others come home to nothing. Families have abandoned them: husbands and wives have left these soldiers, and so have parents as well. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has become the norm amongst these soldiers because they don't know how to cope with returning to a society that will never understand what they have had to endure to liberate another country.

SPC. Douglas Barber