Vermonters Assess the Human Price of Military Conflict
MIDDLEBURY -- John Gelineau of Eden could never put a price on the life of his son, Christopher, a 23-year-old Army National Guardsman who was killed in Mosul, Iraq, on April 20, 2004. But Gelineau has calculated what his son's life -- and the lives of more than 2400 other American soldiers killed in Iraq -- has been worth to Halliburton: about $71 per share. According to Gelineau, that's how much the price of the military contractor's stock has risen since the start of the war.
"In 2002, Halliburton's earnings were negative 8 cents per share," Gelineau said last week. "In 2005, their profits reached $4.54 per share. If you don't think there's some war profiteering going on here, you've got your head stuck in the sand."
Gelineau spoke about his son's death in slow, halting breaths that reveal his exasperation with the war. He was one of three Vermonters who spoke last week at Middlebury College. The presentation, titled "Back From Iraq," was meant to remind listeners that behind every soldier serving in Iraq are families, friends and community members whose lives will also be irrevocably altered by the traumas of war.
Like other military family members who've lost loved ones in Iraq, Gelineau says that at first he couldn't speak publicly about his loss, or his anger at the Bush administration. But today he and his wife Iuliana are members of Gold Star Families for Peace, a growing antiwar group founded by Cindy Sheehan that has become one of the most potent voices in the antiwar movement.
Another such voice is Drew Cameron, a retired U.S. Army sergeant. The Winooski resident told the Middlebury audience of about 50 people that he was one of the lucky ones -- he came home from Iraq in one piece. Between April and December 2003, Cameron's unit was deployed just north of Baghdad at Camp Anaconda. Every day, he said, he was greeted back at the base by a black plume of smoke that hung over the camp from all the incinerated waste and a sign that read, in English and Arabic, "Working with the Iraqi people for peace and prosperity."
Cameron, who admited he was "fairly neutral" about the war at its outset, said he quickly grew disillusioned. The change in attitude came from many sources: his unit's Vietnam-era flak jackets that do little to protect them from improvised explosive devices; the depleted uranium shells that are poisoning the Iraqis' soil and groundwater; the third-country nationals who are hired by civilian contractors while millions of Iraqis go without jobs.
Cameron said he was finally struck by the "absurdity" of his mission when a convoy he was riding in accidentally rear-ended a Mercedes carrying an Iraqi family. As the parents pulled their injured and mangled children from the twisted wreckage, Cameron's section chief ordered the convoy to keep moving lest they come under attack. The injured family was left bleeding and unattended on the median of a four-lane highway.
"I remember thinking, we have medics in our convoy. We're trained in First Aid. We have extra room in our trucks," Cameron recalled. "Instead, we rolled on with our mission of ÔWorking with the Iraqi people for peace and prosperity.'"
Today, Cameron is an outspoken member of Iraq Veterans Against the War. The organization calls for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, for reparations to be paid to the Iraqi victims, and the expansion of benefits to all U.S. veterans. Cameron noted that his own "tipping point" to speak publicly about the war came after he returned home and couldn't put the memories of war behind him.
"I came back a different person," he said. "I couldn't stand the monotone voices of people reporting on the madness. I had to do something."
Cameron and Gelineau's experiences aren't unique, said Joseph Gainza, field coordinator for the Vermont chapter of the American Friends Service Committee. Gainza, who also spoke at the Middlebury event, explained that the price of this war will be paid by those who live through it and by future generations as well.
He pointed out, for example, that a recent study found the grandchildren of Australian veterans of the Vietnam War have a suicide rate three times the national average. Gainza also noted that about half the homeless men in the United States are veterans. "This is the true cost of war," he said, "and we have to always ask ourselves, ÔIs it worth it?'"
Like Gelineau and Cameron, Gainza is pushing for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq -- a position that is apparently supported by a growing number of U.S. soldiers and Marines. A Zogby poll conducted in February of 300 military personnel stationed in Iraq found that 72 percent of them want the troops to be brought home within a year; 29 percent say they should be withdrawn immediately. Forty-two percent described the U.S. role in Iraq as "hazy."
Since 2002, 24 soldiers with Vermont ties have been killed in the war.