Earlier this year there was a town hall meeting on the Iraq war, sponsored by Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), with the participation of such antiwar organizations as CodePink and MoveOn.org. The event also featured Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), a former Marine who had become an outspoken critic of the war. To this Iraq war veteran, it was a good example of something that's become all too common: People from politics, the media and elsewhere purporting to represent "our" views. With all due respect, most often they don't.
The tenor of the town meeting was mostly what one might expect, but during the question-and-answer period, a veteran injured in Afghanistan stood up to offer his view. "If I didn't have a herniated disc, I would volunteer to go to Iraq in a second with my troops," said Mark Seavey, a former Army sergeant who had recently returned from Afghanistan. "I know you keep saying how you have talked to the troops and the troops are demoralized, and I really resent that characterization. The morale of the troops I talk to is phenomenal, which is why my troops are volunteering to go back despite the hardships. . . ."
"And, Congressman Moran, 200 of your constituents just arrived back from Afghanistan -- we never got a letter, we never got a visit from you, you didn't come to our homecoming. The only thing we got was a letter from the governor of this state thanking us for our service in Iraq, when we were in Afghanistan. That's reprehensible. I don't know who you two are talking to, but the morale of the troops is very high."
What was the response? Murtha said nothing, while Moran attempted to move on, no pun intended, stating: "That wasn't in the form of a question, it was a statement."
It was indeed a statement; a statement from both a constituent and a veteran that should have elicited something more than silence or a dismissive comment highlighting a supposed breach of protocol. This exchange, captured on video (it was on C-SPAN), has since been forwarded from base to base in military circles. It has not been well received there, and it only raises the already high level of frustration among military personnel that their opinions are not being heard.
In view of his distinguished military career, John Murtha has been the subject of much attention from the media and is a sought-after spokesman for opponents of the Iraq war. He has earned the right to speak. But his comments supposedly expressing the negative views of those who have and are now serving in the Middle East run counter to what I and others know and hear from our own colleagues -- from junior officers to the enlisted backbone of our fighting force.
Murtha undoubtedly knows full well that the greatest single thing that drags on morale in war is the loss of a buddy. But second to that is politicians questioning, in amplified tones, the validity of that loss to our families, colleagues, the nation and the world.
While we don't question his motives, we do question his assumptions. When he called for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, there was a sense of respectful disagreement among most military personnel. But when he subsequently stated that he would not join today's military, he made clear to the majority of us that he is out of touch with the troops. Quite frankly, it was received as a slap in the face.
Like so many others past and present, I proudly volunteered to serve in the military. I served one tour in Iraq and then volunteered to go back. Veterans continue to make clear that they are determined to succeed in Iraq. They are making this clear the best way they can: by volunteering to go back for third and sometimes fourth deployments. This fact is backed up by official Pentagon recruitment reports released as recently as Monday.
The morale of the trigger-pulling class of today's fighting force is strong. Unfortunately, we have not had a microphone or media audience willing to report our comments. Despite this frustration, our military continues to proudly dedicate itself to the mission at hand: a free, democratic and stable Iraq and a more secure America. All citizens have a right to express their views on this important national challenge, and all should be heard. Veterans ask no more, and they deserve no less.
The writer is executive director of Vets for Freedom. He served two tours in Iraq with the Marines before being wounded in action.
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