When he enlisted as a U.S. Marine in 2003, Lars Ekstrom believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein needed to be ousted to prevent terror strikes against the United States.
He trained as an infantryman and spent several months on ships in the Persian Gulf with a maritime special purpose task force where he set up blocking points and searched boats. He was also on the ground in Kuwait where he experienced sniper fire.
By the time his unit was back stateside in early 2006 and training for a second deployment to the Middle East, Iraq had been unsuccessfully scoured for weapons caches and Hussein had been found hiding in a dirt hole.
Those threats gone, he says he re-evaluated the military's role in the region. Between the newly proven futility of the original invasion and the stress he experienced in combat, Ekstrom broke.
"Rolling it over in my head, over and over again, one day I just started crying for no reason. I cried for four to six hours. I asked to see a chaplain," Ekstrom, 22, says. "After that, I suffered a catastrophic blow to my morale. ... I just completely lost faith in the chain of command and I developed chronic depression."
He wasn't ready to leave the military but wanted an administrative assignment where he could get mental health treatment that he didn't think would be available in a combat setting. He accepted an administrative separation and was discharged in June 2006.
Coming home to Madison Heights, he found a night-shift job, enrolled at Oakland Community College and thought about the conflict he'd been a part of. Surfing the Internet, Ekstrom found the MySpace page for Iraq Veterans Against the War and joined.
"Just in talking to other people, they have similar stories to mine and have an understanding of what I've gone through. It's helpful," he says.
The Washington, D.C.-based group, founded in 2004 and now counting nearly 1,000 members, is one of several military-related organizations opposing U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
With members who are veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, veterans of other wars and family members, the groups have several roles. They provide a sense of community for veterans who, like Ekstrom, are conflicted about their newfound opposition to war. They lobby for medical care and other issues directly affecting servicemen and women. They publicize the stories of active-duty soldiers and Marines. And they constantly hope to leverage their unique perspective to have Congress or a new president end the war.
"When you have the actual veterans and their families who have experienced it, I think there's nothing better for credibility," says Deborah Klein Walker, the immediate past president of the American Public Health Association, a professional organization worried about the health effects of war on civilians, veterans and their families.
World War II Navy veteran Bob Fehribach says Iraq has re-energized his anti-war efforts. The Sterling Heights man was "pro-military" for decades. But then a friend shipped off to southeast Asia in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which made the conflict more personal. With the nightly news showing bodies coming home in bags, he thought about the reasons U.S. troops were in Vietnam, and how those circumstances differed from those of World War II. Over time, he saw leaders lie about the situation in Vietnam and realized American troops had no legitimate reason to be there. He feels the same way about Iraq.
"I just took a complete turnaround and ever since, I've been speaking up," says the 80-year-old retired social worker, who is active with the southeast Michigan chapter of Veterans for Peace, one of 120 chapters with 7,500 members internationally.
"I spoke up against the war in Vietnam. I went to Washington. I've marched for peace. We're against any kind of war. We don't think we should do any nuclear armaments of any kind. We just don't believe that's a way of solving anything."
Such veterans' involvement in anti-Vietnam campaigns was credited with helping turn public opinion against that conflict. Today's groups say they have a "tougher" sell to the general public, which may not immediately realize the effect the war is having on the home front.
Without a draft, there isn't a universal fear among Americans that someone they know will be injured or killed in combat, so they don't care as much.
"People are once removed from seeing immediate family, seeing their sons and daughters going off to war," says Audrey Mantey, a former U.S. military Russian linguist and intelligence analyst now active with southeast Michigan's Veterans for Peace chapter. "People aren't as affected by it."
But when military men and women do come home from Iraq and Afghanistan, families then realize the toll war has taken, says Nancy Lessin, who co-founded Military Families Speak Out in 2002 when her stepson was deployed with the Marines. The group now counts 4,000 families as members.
"Our focus is on ending the U.S. military occupation in Iraq, bringing our troops home now and getting them the care they need when they get home. That's truly supporting our troops," says Lessin, who lives in Boston.
And today's veterans' needs are many, according to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a nonprofit support group based in New York.
Traumatic brain injury is the "signature wound" of the Iraq War, the group says, but the Department of Defense has not implemented mandatory screening despite surveys that show as much as 20 percent of Iraq veterans — about 300,000 people — suffer the injury.
The current Army suicide rate is the highest it's been in 26 years, at least 40,000 Afghanistan and Iraq veterans have been treated at a VA hospital for substance abuse, and 20 percent of married troops in Iraq are planning a divorce, according to studies. Yet the U.S. Army Medical Command found nearly one-third of soldiers and Marines in Iraq worry about the effect a mental health diagnosis could have on their career and more than half worried they would be considered "weak" if diagnosed with a psychological problem.
Christopher Arendt would count himself among those veterans who could use some better medical, educational and financial support. Halfway through his senior year at Olivet High School in 2003 Arendt says he bought into the military's "masculine concept and all the heroism." He joined the Army National Guard, believing a recruiter who told him the guard would only work domestically.
"That was immediately turned on its head," Arendt says. He was enrolled at Kalamazoo Community College during the fall of 2004 when the news came. "My unit was going to be deployed to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to be prison guards. I withdrew halfway through the semester, I lost all the money. We deployed in December," Arendt says.
During training in New Jersey where he learned to guard prisoners, Arendt filed papers describing himself as "psychologically unfit" for duty.
"I had a history of being depressed. I had a couple of suicide attempts under my belt by the time I was deployed," he says. Being assigned as a prison guard at the Cuban facility exacerbated his problems.
"I didn't want to be involved in the oppression of people. I didn't like it. I didn't want anything to do with it," he says. But he went and says he was a "successful soldier." Arendt received awards, was offered promotion and supervised troops, he says.
But his views about the war put him at odds with the military establishment. "We were being used. I thought it was offensive to global politics. I thought it was offensive to human beings," he says.
Arendt says his post-service mental health issues are mostly attributable to his military experience. "I think 75 percent of my issues come from the military and 25 percent is from my life in general," he says.
Now attending school in Chicago, Arendt says involvement with anti-war groups helps him "find a sense of community and find a peace for this part of my life."
Last weekend Arendt and Ekstrom were among the 250 people who participated in an anti-war event organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War in Washington, D.C. Called Winter Soldier, it was patterned after the anti-Vietnam War event of the same name held in Detroit in 1971.
The first Winter Soldier hearings were sponsored by Vietnam Veterans Against the War and largely credited for fueling the anti-war movement in the United States. Then a young veteran, John Kerry participated. A few months later he would testify at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee where he famously asked, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
Ekstrom says veterans need to continue speaking out and making their opposition visible. He's hung anti-war fliers near military recruitment materials on public bulletin boards and would like to start a local chapter of the Iraq veterans' group.
"It will just kind of shake up the myth that veterans all support the war," he says.Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or at [email protected]