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Separating the Warrior From the War:
PAUL RIECKHOFF

Highlights from 20 Interviews (2006)

Photograph by MICHAEL GREENBERG

EMAIL STORY PRINT STORY

Friday, October 27, 2006

By James Hughes

For more information on Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, visit the official IAVA site. For more on Paul Rieckhoff, visit his official site

*****

After serving 10 months as an infantry officer in Iraq — idling for a month in the sandstorms of Kuwait before being redeployed to the streets of Baghdad on the same day George W. Bush declared an end to major combat operations from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln — Paul Rieckhoff returned to his country a changed man. What immediately struck him, and the thousands of returning soldiers he now represents through the New York-based nonprofit organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, was how little the country had changed. During a week of outprocessing at Fort Stewart in Georgia, Rieckhoff, a former Wall Street stock analyst who devours news like he devours tickertape, vegetated in a motel room with his girlfriend during his off-hours and “channel-surfed with total selfishness.” As he recalls in his book, Chasing Ghosts: A Soldier’s Fight For America From Baghdad to Washington (NAL), released in May 2006: “There was barely a mention of the war at all. Groundbreaking issues like Janet Jackson’s exposed breast at the Super Bowl dominated the news. The names of soldiers dying each day in Iraq weren’t even mentioned. It didn’t feel like the country even knew we were at war. I felt guilty being home.”

Two years later, sitting at his desk in the Manhattan offices of IAVA, little seems to have changed. Hunched over his laptop, which remained open and purring throughout our interview, Rieckhoff called out the top news items on CNN’s website like a kind of derelict roll call: “Top story: JonBenet’s death an accident. Number two story: Mel Gibson pleads no contest. Three stories on JonBenet in the top 10. J-Lo is number 11.”

Undeterred, Rieckhoff and IAVA continue to feed the malnourished news cycle by consulting Iraq veterans who want to express their views, offer technical expertise or announce aspirations for elected office on the airwaves. Rieckhoff refers to this process as “media boot camp.” Speaking with the confidence and precise diction of someone who’s comprehended and been shaped by his role in world events (as a New York Army National Guardsman, he also participated in the Ground Zero relief effort), Rieckhoff proved once again this past August why he’s one of the country’s most qualified voices for change.

Stop Smiling: What concerns you most about the media’s presentation of the Iraq war?

Paul Rieckhoff: The American public has almost entirely been sheltered from the human cost of this war. You never see an American dead body, you rarely see the names and ages, and when you do, it becomes controversial. When Ted Koppel tried to air the names and faces early on in the war, people said he was fueling the insurgency or that he was siding with al-Qaeda. I think that’s ridiculous. The American people have a civic and moral obligation to understand the price of war. That’s not a pro-war statement, that’s not an anti-war statement. That’s the responsibility factor, I think. Now Stephanopoulos does it during his show every Sunday morning — that two minutes and 30 seconds is some of the most powerful television I see all week. It’s not just about being political — it’s beyond objective journalism — it’s also about honoring the sacrifices of these people. If I were killed in Iraq, I wouldn’t want to come home in a bag in the still of night when nobody could see it. Part of honoring the services of the troops is paying proper homage to them when they die. Some of the coffins come in at night, there’s no coverage of it — the fact that the president doesn’t go to any funerals is inexcusable. You can’t just stand with them on top of the aircraft carrier when things are going well. You have to also be there with them when things have gone bad, or things have gone wrong. He’s the combat leader — whether we like it or not, he’s the commander in chief — and it’s his responsibility as a combat leader to be there in the best of times and also the worst of times. If not, then you’re politicizing the war. That’s one of my main attacks on the president, is that he has politicized this war. They’re all politicians, so they all politicize it. Clausewitz once said, “War is the extension of politics by other means.” It’s political once you send men and women to die. You can’t separate the two. So when I hear that kind of rhetoric out of the White House, it pisses me off.

SS: How did it feel when it was revealed in 2004 that Donald Rumsfeld had been using an auto-pen signature on the letters of condolence that went to the families of soldiers killed in Iraq?

PR: I was furious. I think a lot of other people were, as well. I think that this administration and Donald Rumsfeld have a real duty and obligation to understand the magnitude of the sacrifice of these people. The country is already detached from this war. Less than 1 percent of the population served in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’ve never had a country that’s so personally detached from the sacrifices of a war. World War II was about 12 percent. Most Americans don’t know anybody [who has served]. Most Americans have never sat with somebody at a dinner table who’s served in Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s like a reality TV show that they can flip the channel on. And when I hear that Donald Rumsfeld is using a rubber stamp, that’s just the ultimate insult. That tells me he doesn’t give a shit. I think it’s another reason why he needs to be fired. Rumsfeld should be fired if only because he deployed an inadequate number of troops. Imagine if you took three-quarters of the police force off the streets of Chicago tomorrow and you left a quarter behind and said, “Deal with all the crime.” They’d be overwhelmed, crime rates would soar, they’d be running around like chickens with their heads cut off. That’s what our soldiers are doing in Iraq every day. It’s another illustration of how they’ve set us up for failure.

SS: How did you feel about Generals Abizaid and Pace on August 3rd speaking openly about the possibility of a civil war in Iraq?

PR: They’re still measured in their comments, and it’s hard to get a truly objective opinion from somebody who’s military and still on active duty. But if you listen to what they’re saying, they’re saying it’s a civil war. If you listen to what generals have said — Abizaid and others included — they’ve been trying to alert the American public and Congress to the severity of what’s happing in Iraq. If I have another big criticism — beyond the media, beyond the president — it’s Congress and their lack of oversight. We should have these generals testifying every week. We should have open hearings and get down to brass tacks and find out what the hell is going on over there. Part of the reason it’s gone so badly is that people have stuck their heads in the dirt and said, “Everything’s fine.” The generals were telling you otherwise — not just the ones who got out and spoke against the administration and against Rumsfeld, but the ones that were in.

SS: The statements that Abizaid and Pace made about the possibility of a civil war in Iraq were prompted by Carl Levin asking them a direct question. Do you think they would have mentioned that unless they were asked?

PR: They’re in a tough position, and this is not defending them. I think it would have come out in other ways, perhaps not as overtly. The generals are in a tough spot. It’s like Colin Powell. Do you get out and start talking and then have no real impact on the day-to-day, from an operational standpoint, or do you stay in and try to fight the system? I think even someone like Peter Pace is probably trying to do the right thing. But he’s been dealt an impossible task. You’re offering the military up as a solution to something that does not have a military solution alone. By essence you’re setting the military up for failure. That’s the policymakers’ fault. I think the real shame of all this is that, if there’s any chance of salvaging anything in Iraq, it’s going to be only because of the performance of our troops on the ground. But the policymakers have to be careful not to push blame on them. When Condoleezza Rice said that there had been “thousands of tactical errors,” that means the troops have screwed up thousands of times. That may be true, but then the policymakers, from a strategic standpoint, have screwed up tens or hundreds of thousands of times. We’re on the micro, they’re on the macro. We can only do so much with what we’re dealt. My experiences are indicative of that. I didn’t have interpreters. I can’t talk to the Iraqi people without interpreters. I don’t know how to fix an electrical grid. I can’t rebuild a school. I was taught how to kill people and blow shit up — that’s what I was taught how to do as an infantry platoon leader. When you try to ask me to do other things, I may be successful, but it’s less likely. It’s not the task I was assigned to do.

SS: You left Iraq before the major political developments were taking place.

PR: No, I think I was there in probably the most important time. I was there during the tipping point. I was there from the invasion until the spring of 2004. The summer of 2003 is where we blew it. That’s when the UN was bombed, where we had an inadequate number of troops, where we didn’t understand the differences between the Shias and the Sunnis — and ultimately our failure to deliver security, secure the borders and turn the lights on all resulted in the birth of the insurgency. I was there when we had a shot. We saw that window close. After the fall of 2003, into 2004, that’s when it started to slide down. It’s continued to slide downward ever since, and will continue to until something dramatically different happens.

SS: Is it wrong to assume that this year is equally important because, as we saw in July, the civilian casualties and roadside bombs are hitting their highest numbers?

PR: It’s a tipping point politically at home. A lot of people are frustrated by the lack of responsiveness from the American people. The American people aren’t stupid, but they are slow sometimes. They were slow in understanding how bad things have gotten in this war. People like me were trying to explain these issues in 2004, and we were labeled as partisan hacks. But the truth shouldn’t be a partisan issue. When veterans were coming home and saying not only did we not have body armor, not have interpreters and not have water, we didn’t have enough troops, we didn’t have a plan, we didn’t have a policy, we didn’t have a political and economic solution to problems that were starting to arise, not enough people listened. I think the veterans of this war are always six or eight months and even sometimes further ahead of the curve. There have been a couple key points along the road that have led to where we are. There are other things, too, that aren’t as visible, like when Pat Tillman was killed. I think the fact that a former NFL star was killed was a critical point in the war because, for many people in America, that was the first person they knew — or who they felt they knew — who had been killed in this war. Even though it was in Afghanistan, people felt they knew him from television, or sports fans felt like they knew him from when he played with the Cardinals. Most people can’t tell you the name of someone who died in this war except for Pat Tillman. He’s a great role model, but everyone going over there gives up something. This is the first volunteer army we’ve ever had. Every single person volunteers to go. We give up our world of MTV and Dunkin’ Donuts and Coors Light to go over there and sacrifice everything that we are and might be. When I was over there I told my guys, “You’re not here for George Bush, you’re not here for weapons of mass destruction, you’re here for the man to the left and right of you.” That’s ultimately what’s going to get them home in one piece.

SS: As the leaders’ justifications for the war began to shift, did the morale of your platoon change?

PR: There were a lot of people who thought the rationale for war was bullshit — I was one of them. But at the same time we held some degree of faith and trust in our government, and we were also somewhat convinced of the fact that the American people were behind us. It may have only been marginal support, but the American people were behind us. Ultimately, as a solider, you don’t have a say — you have a job to do, and you put your political feelings in your back pocket. A lot of us were uncomfortable about the rationale for war, and when we didn’t find weapons of mass destruction, a lot of people were pissed, a lot of people were gutted. Other soldiers didn’t want to deal with it — they just shifted agendas and tried to figure out a way to be relevant and make a positive impact. My unit looked everywhere for WMD for months and months. We ran all over [Baghdad] on wild goose chases, because some Iraqi guy told us he knew where this and that was. We dug holes, we looked in basements, under bridges for months, and we didn’t find shit. But when you’re there, and you know you’re there for a year, you still have to find other ways to be productive. You try to work with Iraqi schools or to teach the Iraqi civilians and the police forces, because you don’t want your efforts to be fruitless.

SS: What were among the most grandiose claims that led to these wild goose chases?

PR: Oh, Saddam. Everyone knew where Saddam was. The first summer, if I had a nickel for everyone who knew where Saddam was, I’d be richer than Dick Cheney right now. [Iraqi civilians] would come up to the gate and say, “I know where Saddam is, give me $50 and I’ll tell you where he is.” The first couple months, we were like, “Fuck it, let’s go!” We’d jump in trucks, fly out the gates, call in the helicopters — then it was, “Where is he?” The same with Uday and Qusay. And somehow, all Iraqis very quickly learned their first English words: “WMD.” They’d come up, didn’t know anything else, and would just say, “WMD, WMD.”

SS: In Chasing Ghosts, you wrote: “We realized that many Iraqis were using us to detain and harass personal adversaries and avenge grudges.” Can you talk about that a bit more?

PR: Imagine your typical American neighborhood, and you’re pissed off at your neighbor because he didn’t return your lawnmower — that’s magnified exponentially in Iraq, and you have cultural and religious divisions. They became very savvy to our hunger to try to get bad guys and find WMDs and hunt down remnants of the Saddam regime. So a guy would come up and say, “My neighbor has rocket launchers in his basement.” We’d go, kick in the door, look all over the place and find nothing — the guy next door just had a score to settle. Or maybe someone wanted to disrupt someone else’s business. Or maybe they wanted to send us to one part of town while something else happened in the other part of town. That was a level of coordination that early on I don’t think we were really responsive enough to. Iraqis are not stupid — they’re incredibly bright, and they have an efficient survivalist network. They survived under Saddam, so they’re going to survive under us. The seeds for the insurgency were being laid, but we didn’t always know it. When the Internet went up in Baghdad, everyone thought, “Wow, isn’t this wonderful. Iraqis have Internet!” It’s great that they can go online and find out what happened with Britney Spears, but they can also coordinate multiple attacks, citywide or countrywide. A guy in Mosul talks to the guy in Tikrit, and they say, “Okay, 4 o’clock on Tuesday we’re going to hit the American bases simultaneously.” So there’s a downside to free speech, tactically speaking. Cell phones popped up, a lot of communications methods made it much easier for the insurgency to communicate better.

We were very much at the frontline. We were as front as it gets: walking through homes, looking under beds, getting shot at, laying ambushes. We weren’t driving fuel trucks or turning wrenches. We were like super beat cops. We had a sense of the street, we could feel attitudes changing. We knew when a car was parked in a different place. Unlike how some of the force are laid out now, we lived in the community. Our forward operating base was right smack-dab in the middle of a neighborhood. I could look across the street and see an Iraqi family making breakfast in the morning. We were in a compound that used to be the Republican Guard headquarters. What we stayed in was basically like a bombed-out dorm room. We lived very intimately, and that fostered a degree of trust and it also helped us to be more effective. We got better intelligence than anybody else in the area. We were in the sector that, at one period, had more attacks than anywhere else in the country. But our sector within that sector was different. It was because we’re a light infantry unit. We walked among the people. We were close with them. They got to know us. My unit was a Reserve Component unit, so we had a lot of guys who were cops and firemen and civil servants, a lot of the guys were older, and I think that helped us bridge some of the cultural and social barriers.

The guys who were responsible for this war — Tenet, Rumsfeld — these guys get the Medal of Freedom. When they screw up, my guys die. Their mistakes go in body bags that we carry, and there’s been no level of accountability in this government for those failures. If Bush is a businessman, then act like a businessman and demand accountability. If this were a Fortune 500 company, this entire managerial staff would be gone. The shareholders would have fired these guys a long time ago, because the stock would be in the toilet.

SS: What factors contribute to this type of complacency?

PR: There’s something I learned in the military. A commander told me, “I know you hope you’re going to do this and that, but hope is not a course of action. You need a plan.” I think the president and the secretary of defense were hopeful about what they would have liked to have had turn out in Iraq, but that didn’t mean they were taking the time to plan successfully for an occupation, or that they had figured out how to secure the borders or how to deal with the Iranian influence. I don’t know if it’s incompetence or arrogance or what, but I know they were wrong. That is what I think the American public has now finally started to understand, and it’s why they’re fed up and want accountability. There are no easy solutions here, it doesn’t mean that we pull all soldiers home tomorrow. To their credit, most Americans understand that there are no silver-bullet solutions — if we stay it’s going to be bad, if we leave it’s going to be bad — but I think they want accountability. I think they want to see someone’s head rolling in Washington.

SS: Are you at all apprehensive about the antiwar candidates running for office, like Ned Lamont?

PR: I’m worried about it because Ned Lamont has zero credibility on Iraq. Ned Lamont is a powerful voice and probably a very smart man. I respect that he has the courage of his convictions, but the reality is, to get out of this mess, we’re going to need people who understand it. If it was Wesley Clark or Colin Powell, it would be different. I think for the Democrats to have the leader of their opposition to the war in Iraq be a billionaire from Connecticut who’s never worn a uniform in his life is creating a paper tiger. Karl Rove is probably licking his lips right now. It’s like Cindy Sheehan — I have tremendous sympathy for her situation, but she didn’t go to Iraq either. She can’t devise our exit strategy. Part of formulating a credible opposition is presenting an alternative, and no one has been able to provide a viable alternative. The only thing more pathetic than the Republican mismanagement of this war is the Democrats’ inability to capitalize on it and provide an alternative. People like me, we don’t have a political party. We’re looking for leadership and will take it in any party. My generation, politically, is up for grabs. We look at people like John McCain, John Kerry or Chuck Hagel — Hagel is probably one of the smartest voices on Iraq. He’s a moderate Republican who pulled his brother out of a burning armored vehicle in Vietnam. He understands the complexity of war in a way that this president doesn’t. Those are the guys I look to for leadership. I’ve met Ned Lamont. He doesn’t understand what a division is or what a brigade is. He may evolve, but when he talks a lot about Iraq, he’s a one-issue candidate, and he doesn’t know his one issue very well.

SS: Yesterday it was reported in the morning papers that Bush met privately at the Pentagon with his war cabinet and expressed disappointment about the situation on the ground in Iraq. It seemed like a glimmer of hope that he’s grasping the reality. Then news of JonBenet Ramsey’s murder dominated the headlines — there were stories about batons, not battalions. And by late afternoon, Tony Snow refuted all of the morning reports about Bush showing shades of doubt about Iraq. It became the usual sandwich of bad news.

PR: Yeah, Tony Snow said the president actually wasn’t upset and wasn’t frustrated. Well, then the president is out of touch with the American people, because the American people are tired of this and have not seen progress in Iraq. If the president isn’t upset, then that tells you something, because he should be. Everyone else is. I don’t care which side of the political aisle you sit on, but if you’re not frustrated, you’re out of touch. Bush’s unrealistic portrayal of what’s happening in Iraq has been a disservice to the people of Iraq, to the people of the United States and especially to our troops. If you’re over there getting your ass shot off, and when you come home the guys say everything is fine, then they don’t understand it. I don’t understand what war this president is looking at. I hope that someone holds him accountable for his detachment. And I think it fuels the detachment of the American people. He knows that if he goes to a funeral it’s going to bring attention to the dead, or if coffins are shown, it’s going to make people think twice about it.

In many ways, this administration learned the lessons of Vietnam politically. They knew that the Vietnam War was in the headlines every day and the people lost their stomach for it, or they decided to turn against it. We started a campaign with IAVA last year to get the names of the dead on the front page of every paper in America. No papers do it right now. In my opinion, it’s one of the most important things our citizenry can do — to send people off to die. You have a civic responsibility to know who those people are. If you’re going to rely on this army as heavily as you have, you need to take better care of them, and you need to pay better respects. What’s going to happen? People will stop signing up, and that’s already happening. That affects our national security and our ability to conduct sensible foreign policy far beyond Iraq. Iraq has sent shockwaves that are going to reverberate throughout the history of this country, and have already reverberated throughout the world.

When I had a soldier wounded, I went to visit him. When you have a soldier who dies, you’re personally responsible for writing a letter home to that family and ensuring that their memory is honored — that’s what I was taught as a junior officer in Fort Benning, Georgia. If President Bush had spent more time in the military and been in combat, maybe he would understand that a little better, in the way that we do. Many of us are not happy about that. At the basic level, it’s more important than a lot of this other crap. It’s more important than Britney Spears and Tom Cruise and Michael Jackson. It’s a stark reminder. People don’t know the face of this war.

You have to think of this, too — a million people have gone through Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11. That’s a powerful special interest group, if you want to call it that, and we need a representative.

SS: How do you feel about the contractors in Iraq?

PR: Contractors are one of the most troublesome elements of this war. There are about 40,000 contractors in Iraq. That makes them the second largest force: more than the British, more than the Italians, more than the Polish, more than anyone. They are there to make money, so the longer we’re there, the more money they make. When Eisenhower gave his farewell address, he said to beware of the military-industrial complex. It is an unprecedented level of involvement. They don’t answer to the same chain of command, they don’t abide by the same rules, they’re not subject to the Geneva Conventions and they’re not accountable. So, if they go out and kill somebody, the Iraqis think, “Well, that was an American.” They don’t know he was an American contractor. They don’t know whether he was a Special Operations guy or whether he was a contractor. So when they screw up, they don’t have to stand before the generals. They’re not subject to discipline by the Uniform Code of Military Justice. And, from a moral basis, if I have a soldier who’s got three kids, he’s 22 years old and he’s a sergeant making $35,000 a year to risk his life — he looks across the parking lot and sees a guy who works for Blackwater or KBR doing the exact same job for $100,000 a year, how do you think that makes him feel? Makes him feel like shit, and it makes him feel like his country doesn’t care about him.

From a military standpoint, beyond the fact that contractors are out of the chain of command and do their own thing — and this is not a knock on them personally, because I can’t blame them, they have their own things that they have to take care of — but they are poaching some of our best people in the military. It takes about two years to make a Green Beret. So a guy trains for two years, goes to Iraq for a year — the American people have spent all of this time and money investing in this person, and then he says, “Screw it, I’m going to work for Blackwater and make five times as much money.” We can’t recruit enough special forces — Navy Seals, Delta — we’re having a hard time retaining them. Beyond Iraq, these people are taking away our best and brightest. When I came back, I got offered over six figures to go back to Iraq with any six guys from my platoon I wanted. It’s crazy, it was like the A-Team.

SS: What is it that these employees are doing?

PR: They do anything from private security to flipping pancakes and driving trucks. They do jobs that were traditionally done by American troops. And they’re doing stuff at home, too. So many of our troops are deployed, and we’re so overextended as a military, that right now private contractors guard Fort Bragg. Private contractors guard West Point. Rent-a-cops, essentially.

SS: Were you burdened as well by having to protect contractors while you were in uniform?

PR: Yeah, that too. And if the going gets rough, they can quit. They can go back to Arkansas or California. My guys can’t do that. Our food was delivered by Halliburton. I don’t care what anybody says — the vice president had a very clear tie to Halliburton. And if only because of the way it looks, he should’ve picked somebody else. I know he’s getting deferred payments — I understand how that works, I worked on Wall Street — but, bottom line, it smells bad. It doesn’t make people very confident in the way our government is dealing with outsourcing our defense.

SS: How did the security for the contractors identify themselves? Were they in uniform?

PR: They could wear exactly what you’re wearing. A guy could roll in with an SUV and a Yankees cap on. I’d ask him where he’s going and he’d say, “I don’t have to fucking tell you.” I said, “Yeah, you do. This is my checkpoint. You have to tell me.” “Fuck you, Lieutenant. I don’t answer to you.” By the way, that’s a contributing factor to Abu Ghraib. Joe Darby talks about one of the pictures and how a body came in from contractors — they beat the guy up, killed him, threw him on ice and said, “We were never here.” My friend who was at Abu Ghraib, he wasn’t involved in that shit, but was personally responsible for guarding 250 prisoners. He said they didn’t know who was in charge, between contractors and CIA.

Everything you do is a reflection of 300 million Americans. More so than ever before. You screw up at a checkpoint, CNN is there. That’s a part of the gravity of the situation that Americans can’t even wrap their heads around. You’re 19 years old, you’ve never left Alabama, you got a wife back home with a six-month-old baby, your buddy just got his leg blown off, your commander got killed the day before. Now here comes a car barreling toward you with no lights on at two o’clock in the morning. You don’t know if he’s a drunk driver, if it’s full of explosives, if it’s just a guy whose lights are out. You’ve got three seconds to decide what you’re going to do, and it’s going to be on CNN tomorrow. That decision has a level of magnitude that most people can never wrap their head around. And you’re asking a 19-year-old who doesn’t speak the language and never left his state who makes dirt money to make that decision.

SS: How about the morale of veterans returning who see contractors profiting from the situation?

PR: They’re good guys. A lot of my guys feel like suckers when they meet them. They find out they get to eat whatever they want, take a two-week vacation — they used to go to Lebanon a lot and take breaks and fly home and make a ton of money.

SS: So the problem is we’re not looking 10 years down the road and thinking about the men who are being lost to private companies?

PR: I think there are a lot of things we’re doing that are, in many ways, mortgaging our future. It’s been said that we’re eating our seed corn. That’s a good way of putting it.

SS: How are you received in public when you tell people you served in Iraq?

PR: PR: People don’t know what to do with you. First of all, where I sit, I felt like a 250-pound exposed nerve. Everything was so much for me: the lights, the noise, the media. I didn’t feel like anybody understood what the hell I’d just been through, and that was true. When you get back from Iraq, you can’t just get on the subway and act like everything’s cool and listen to your iPod and read the news. You haven’t had anybody within five feet of your personal space in a year. You don’t have a gun anymore. You don’t have body armor anymore. You haven’t had air-conditioning in a year. All of these things hit you. Everything is sweeter and you go through the honeymoon period, but at the same time you’re trying to figure out where you’ve been. I think we all go through that, no matter what your job was in Iraq.

With regard to how people react, that’s interesting. It’s kind of a cross between being a rock star and an ex-con. Some people get tons of girls and free beers and people buy you dinner. Then, they’re kind of nervous about you being near their kids. Or they’re kind of nervous that, if you get too drunk, you might do a little too much. There are still stereotypes of crazy vets. We’re dealing with that from Vietnam. And, to be honest with you, when you look through the statistics, one in three veterans are coming home with post-traumatic stress disorder. So we have issues, that’s true. When you come home, the war’s not over. You don’t just put your uniform on the shelf and say you’re done. There are a lot of things that stay with you.

SS: You seem to be in the unique position of returning to Manhattan and setting up your organization here, in the cradle of American media. Yet I don’t see how a case can be made that the Iraq war is a burgeoning topic on the streets of New York.

PR: This is the city that got hit by 9/11, and five years later it couldn’t feel any more detached from the realities of that day. That was especially aggravating for me. Some people decide to fight against it and educate people or get involved politically or get involved in a nonprofit, and other people just go into a cocoon and don’t get out. But this generation of advocacy is going to be fought on the airwaves and on the Internet. It’s not going to be on the Lincoln Memorial or at Union Square Park. IAVA is about getting our issues in front of the American people. When I co-hosted a radio show for a while, we went out and asked people two questions. First, “Do you support the troops?” People said, “Yeah, sure.” Then we said, “Good. How?”

 

This interview originally appeared in Issue 28: 20 Interview

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