Zach LaPorte is an Iraq war veteran
It was a hot sweaty day, the humidity clung our uniforms to our body as the sweat soaked through. We marched forward to the commands of our fellow veterans. Today was the day we had been preparing for over the past six months. Each of us carried a medal that had been awarded to us from our military commanders during the Global War on Terror. After much deliberation and second guessing, we planned to return the medals to the very commanders that had sent us on deployment to show them how we really felt about the tokens the military issued to make us feel better.
Steve Acheson was one of the soldiers that marched with me on Sunday. He was a former full time US Army Infantryman who now attends the University of Wisconsin in Platteville.
After the march he said, "I've buried my own PTSD by spending most of my time trying to help other Veterans. Sunday's March was a way for me to finally do something significant for myself and my mental health." He then elaborated by saying, "I can't say that all the feelings of guilt for participating in an oppressive occupation have subsided, but this was a great first step in moving forward toward a more peaceful future."
The march on Sunday at the NATO summit was the first time since 1971 that US military veterans of a war had attempted to return their medals to their former commanders. Acheson served five years in the Army including multiple deployments. His service left him with PTSD and recurring nightmares. Returning his medals was a step in the right direction towards the healing process.
"Throwing those medals, feeling them leave my hand, watching them soar down the street towards the NATO Fence, that was relief, that was healing for me," Acheson said.
Marching in the front of the formation were three members of Afghans for Peace. IVAW had reached out to them and asked if they would participate in the march with us. Their acceptance was a sign of great trust and compassion, two ingredients required for reconciliation.
Suraia Sahar is one of the three members of Afghans for Peace. She told me that the Soviet occupation had caused her family to leave Afghanistan. I was able to catch up with her after the medal returning ceremony.
"Watching them throw back their medals and listening to their individual speeches of remorse, apologies, atonement, and hope was overwhelming. I know it can never change the past, but I took in everything they said and I accept every word," Suraia Sahar stated to me.
It took great courage for these three young women to be there that day, and the level of trust they showed us was overwhelming, I could almost feel it in the air as they marched in front of us. The rest of the world seems to be separating and becoming more divided, but on this day we came together for a common cause to stand up for what we believe in.
When I asked her about standing in solidarity with the vets on the stage in Chicago Suraia had this to say, "I'm honored to have stood next to them and share that moment, as well as call them a strong ally in the peace movement. These men and women are not just veterans to us. They're also friends."
Rachel McNeill, a former Army Reservist from Wisconsin was among the uniformed members of IVAW marching in formation with me. We briefly served together in the same reserve unit before she moved on to Harvard. She came all the way back from Massachusetts just for the chance to throw her medals back.
"When I looked out at a crowd of tens of thousands and renounced the war on terror, and turned to throw that medal, I felt like I was letting go of all of the anger and the sense of betrayal by the military that I had been feeling because of the war and because of the inadequate care for returning service members," Rachel said.
There is definitely a lot of anger around the level of care for veterans. Last month the National Nurses United, the nurses union that serves the Jesse Brown VA hospital in Chicago, approached IVAW to picket for more staff. Once the hospital administration found out we were going to picket, they caved in to the demands and made new hires.
The VA is very important to vets, but today was different. "I never felt as good about my military experience as I did when I threw those medals. That single action was more therapeutic for me then all of the sessions I have had at the V.A.," Chris May said to me. Chris, a former soldier in the US Army, left the Army as a conscientious objector. He now lives in Asheville North Carolina.
Throwing those medals back was not an easy decision for any one of us. We all joined the military thinking we were going to be doing the right thing. We wanted to go to Afghanistan and find the members of al Qaeda that had bombed the twin towers. We wanted to go to Iraq and find weapons of mass destruction so they couldn't be sold to terrorists. We all bought into it.
As we marched, the police lined the streets. Everywhere we turned their blank stares looking at us, judging us. But when we got to the stage things changed. After hearing our stories, the officers suddenly saw us as humans. As they filed past the stage during the ceremony, one by one, they thanked us for our service and shook our hands. It was a very powerful moment that I won't soon forget.
Later Chris May spoke with me about the police thanking us for our service: "that was big for me because I think a real connection was made across all lines, you know, these policies that NATO leaders make have affected so many different groups in so many ways. The police realize that because the occupation of Afghanistan, which my former unit is leaving for at the end of the summer, and the bankrupting of our economy, their own jobs are in jeopardy."
The fact of the matter is, most of us lost a friend, most of us saw civilians being mistreated or murdered, and we know this occupation is unjust. On that sweltering day in May when I threw my medals back to NATO, I stood on stage with the bravest most selfless group of men and women that I've ever known.
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