Veterans speak out

By WilliamPrentiss

U.S. Army Reserve Sgt.  Alex Villatoro’s words cast a silence over the crowd gathered in The Hideout. Villatoro has been called to serve in Afghanistan for his third deployment. He shared with the audience that he is against the Iraq and Afghanistan war, but a part of them.

Villatoro is a member of the Iraq Veterans against the War, the organization that hosted the event at The Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia Ave., on March 8. He was one of 13 people who took the stage to perform or speak.  Among them were actors, a professor, musicians, a prison guard from Guantanamo Bay and veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq. The organizer’s goal for the night was to educate the audience and give them a first-hand account of what it’s been like for troops during the past nine years.

“I’m hoping that I can shed a new light for these soldiers before we leave,” Villatoro said. “It might seem too much of a dream. I wish we all could just stand and say, ‘We’re not going.’ I wish it was that easy. That’s my struggle.”

Villatoro told the audience he felt conflicted about his re-deployment and didn’t want to leave his soldiers under someone else’s command.

“My biggest struggle right now is another sergeant might take my position and lead them the wrong way,” Villatoro said.

Northwestern University history professor Rajeev Kinra also spoke. He was invited by the Iraq Veterans Against the War to give historical context in Iraq and Afghanistan and he said most people don’t know that history—even those who served in those countries.

“The veterans who spoke yesterday made that point,” Kinra said. “Most of them expressed in one way or another that when they got there, things were totally different than what they had been led to believe.”

Kinra said he felt good about how the night went and got a good response from both the audience and the veterans there.

One attendee, Matthew B. Ornstein, was deployed in Umm Qasr, Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He served in the United States Coast Guard, clearing the waterway where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet. He is one of the founding members of the Chicago Iraq Veterans Against the War chapter.

Ornstein joined another anti-war organization, Veterans for Peace, while the boat he was stationed on, the USCGC Walnut, made its return trip to the United States. His decision to join the Veterans for Peace and help found the Chicago chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War reflects his disillusionment with U.S. Policy

“I was in the service when 9/11 went down, and my gut response—I don’t know if it was as an American or as a man—was we have to go bomb somebody,” Ornstein said. “I was all about it. I thought we would make the world a better place by knocking down the Taliban. Then two years later, they said there were [Weapons of Mass Destruction] coming … I wanted to believe.”

His time served was relatively tranquil compared to others and was isolated from much of the fighting.

“In Iraq, I didn’t kill anybody,” Ornstein said. “Nobody tried to kill me. I had a pretty benign job … we gave all-new navigational aides to the Kwar Abd Allah waterway leading into Iraq to and from the gulf to make it safe and navigable … I really left my corner of the country in better shape than we found it.”

On Iraq Veterans Against the War’s Web site, the organization calls for the immediate withdrawal of all occupying forces in Iraq and reparations for human damage caused by the United States. Kinra said he is anti-war, but the situation requires a sense of perspective.

“The reality of the situation is [President Barack] Obama can’t just walk in the door and say, ‘OK, we’re leaving,’” Kinra said. “It wouldn’t be practical or advisable. The question is how—if you want to ultimately leave—do you do it responsibly? There’s no easy answer to that question.”