Antiwar activists are gearing up to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq with a weeklong series of events to protest the ongoing occupation of the country.
The US invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003. Then-President George W. Bush and top administration officials told the American people Saddam Hussein was an imminent threat to the US, had concealed weapons of mass destruction and helped plan the 9/11 attacks.
But that was a lie. Former Bush administration officials have said publicly that the Iraq war was planned weeks after the Bush was sworn into office and that intelligence reports that claimed Iraq was a threat that intelligence reports that claimed Iraq was a threat were cooked up by analysts under pressure by Vice President Dick Cheney and his senior staffers. And government reports have been released since the invasion documenting the nearly 1,000 lies the Bush administration used to sell the war to the American public.
Those lies claimed the lives of 4,369 US soldiers, have wounded hundreds of thousands more, both mentally and physically, and cost taxpayers $700 billion. By some estimates, more than half a million Iraqi civilians have also been killed.
And, yet, seven years after "shock and awe" the US still has 96,000 troops on the ground, according to Shawn Turner, a Department of Defense spokesman.
Antiwar protests will be held in major cities across the country March 20, including a march in Washingtonn, DC, where thousands are expected to show up to speak out against the war.
Next week, Andy Thayer plans to attend a protest in Chicago along with thousands of others opposed to the war. Thayer is a representative of the Chicago Coalition Against War and Racism and the Gay Liberation Network. He spoke to Truthout earlier this week about the message that he hopes to convey during the protest:
"The main message is that only the people can stop the war," he said. "That's the only way that wars in the past have been stopped, short of the annihilation of one or both sides of them."
Representatives of the Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), a group based in New York, and about 80 other veterans' advocacy groups are helping to organize the protests, which they will use to also demand all returning war veterans receive adequate health care and treatment.
Last Sunday, Iraqis held the first election since 2003 that they've organized themselves, and 62 percent of registered voters cast ballots. Only 53 percent of voters cast ballots in Baghdad, which experienced a five-hour bombardment by militants that day.
"The mere fact that Iraq is holding (the election), with no major sects or ethnic groups boycotting, is little short of a miracle to many current and former officials who lived through the darkest days of sectarian violence from 2005 to 2007," Warren P. Strobel of McClatchy Newspapers wrote in a recent story.
While parliamentary election results are tallied in Iraq, a US commander there said it's unlikely any outcome would require American troops to stay beyond their scheduled withdrawal, according to the American Forces Press Service. Polling this week has been characterized by military officials as a "historic" moment for Iraq that paves the way for the drawdown of US forces from 98,000 to 50,000 before September.
But Paul Sullivan, executive director for veterans advocacy group Veterans for Common Sense (VCS), said the invasion has come at a huge cost in terms of suffering, about which his group personally warned Bush.
In March 2003, VCS urged Bush's administration not to take on another war if it couldn't take care of the veterans fighting in the war.
"First, we know the Iraqis aren't going to greet us with flowers," Sullivan said, referring to the many predictions made by Bush officials after the overthrow of Hussein. "Then we said that the Iraqis didn't have weapons of mass destruction because they'd been destroyed. Then we said that Iraq was not harboring al Qaida because, in fact, it was al Qaida that had Osama Bin Laden that had offered to remove Saddam Hussein and the Iraqis from Kuwait, and the Kuwaitis and Saudis turned down their offer.
"Then we said that the VA was unable to handle its current load of veterans from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam war, the Gulf War, and we didn't think that the VA would be able to handle an influx of new patients. And we were right on all of those things. And what made it worse is that here we are seven years since the Iraq War started, and there's still no plan for how to handle casualties from the two wars."
Sullivan said of Bush's entering the war with Iraq, "There was no plan to take care of our casualties from the two wars - now at 508,000 and rising at the rate of one new Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) patient from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars flooding into VA every five minutes."
Sullivan said he would like to ask Obama what he is doing to make sure that veterans and their families don't fall through the cracks.
Back when VCS wrote a letter to Bush before the Iraq war began, VCS and US war veterans questioned the wisdom of invading Iraq and sought a meeting with the White House to discuss their concerns. The letter included nearly 1,000 signatories, including high-ranking officers.
Citing UN predictions of massive Iraqi casualties, including 1.26 million children under age five at particular risk, the letter stated, "excessive civilian casualties like those predicted by the UN pose a grave risk to our national security, making the US more of a target of retaliatory attacks by terrorists."
The letter also stated, "We would like to meet with you to discuss steps the United States and its allies can take to protect US soldiers, allied forces, and Iraqi civilians from known and suspected hazards that would result from military operations."
It also read, "We fear our own nation and Iraq would both suffer casualties not witnessed since Vietnam. We fear the resulting carnage and humanitarian consequences would further devastate Iraqi society and inflame an already volatile Middle East, and increase terrorism against US citizens."
Bush never responded to the letter.
As the war in Iraq has continued, agencies have tried to keep up with caring for veterans' physical and mental health care needs.
Amy Fairweather is an expert in veterans' issues and is director of the Coalition for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans, a clearinghouse of more than 45 agencies serving a myriad of needs associated with deployment in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. She also is director of the Iraq Veteran Project for Swords to Plowshares, a community-based, not-for-profit organization that provides counseling and case management, employment and training, housing and legal assistance to homeless and low-income veterans in the San Francisco Bay area and beyond.
"At the beginning of these wars [in Iraq and Afghanistan], there was a feeling that they were going to be short and not produce a lot of casualties and certainly not this length of time and repeated deployments," Fairweather said. "So, throughout these years, we in community-based systems of care as well as government entities have been playing catch-up to try and quickly put into place care in real time as we are seeing the staggering rates of traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and economic stresses and injuries that we didn't necessarily anticipate seeing."
She said, "At this stage I think all sectors have made great strides in responding to these needs." For example, she said that the VA has added a lot of mental health programs.
Also, she said that groups such as the Coalition for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans and other agencies are doing everything from providing free transportation to wounded service members and their families, who are dealing with mental health issues, to helping those who have lost loved ones due to injuries combat death or suicide to cope.
"We've been scrambling and there are some really beautiful programs out there that have developed over these years and that will just do wonders for these veterans and their families. And hopefully because we are on the ground right now, trying to put in place a safety net, these veterans won't have the same problems that their predecessors had. But we have to remember that the need is not going to end when the war ends. These families and these veterans are going to live with this for the rest of their lives, and we're talking about relatively young service members." She has been seeing service members who are 22 and 23 years old.
"Depending on their injuries and even if they're not injured, going to war is something that stays with you forever," she said.
Care for veterans is progressing, Fairweather said. "I applaud the progress that we've made, but we have a lot more to go," she said. "There are still significant problems with access to health care, access to mental health care. But we're headed in the right direction, but we have to remember that this job is something that we have to do for the next 50 years. And we hope that everyone comes home safely as soon as possible."
In addition, Fairweather said, "I fear that once there is no Iraq war, that interest in these individuals will dwindle, and that cannot happen. We can't say, 'Oh, it's over.' It's never over."
Rep. Bob Filner (D-California) said the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have led to a skyrocketing number of suicides among veterans of the conflicts, to which the VA has been slow to respond. "These are our children, they come home with these unseen wounds, these silent wounds," Filner said. "They may kill themselves from the demons that they got from this war, a third of those who have been diagnosed with PTSD committed felonies in this nation. These kids did not come home to kill their spouses or their children, they were so wounded but they were not taken care of by our people who sent them there ... It is time to take care of them, it is time to bring them home, let's support the resolution on the floor.
"War is hard, but I've got news for you," Filner said. "Peace is harder."