by Gerald Nicosia
"The reason I am doing this," said former Marine Jon Turner, "is not only for myself and for the rest of society to hear, but it's for all those who can't be here ... . Until people hear what is going on with this war, it will continue to happen, and people will continue to die. I'm sorry for the things that I did. I am no longer the monster that I once was."
A former Marine who had served two tours in Iraq, Jon Turner did not look like a monster. He was a little above average height, good-looking, with a thick thatch of blond hair, and gentle manners. If not for the small blue-dot earring in his left ear - and the tattoos he later exposed - he could easily pass for the all-American boy.
But the stories he related, and the videos and slides he showed during four days of hearings called "Winter Soldier Iraq and Afghanistan," were a million miles away from Norman Rockwell America.
During last month's hearings, held just outside Washington, D.C., a group called Iraq Veterans Against the War presented 55 veterans, including Turner, who gave personal testimony of what they had seen and done in Iraq. It was one horror story after another.
Turner, whose unit had lost 18 soldiers in Iraq, reported routinely firing rounds into mosques just out of anger; "kicking in doors and terrorizing families"; the mistaken firing of rounds into cars filled with civilians whose drivers were simply confused or didn't understand the English commands to stop; and dozens of other brutalities carried out daily against the population of Iraq.
Other veterans testified to similar incidents, but two of Turner's stories were among the heaviest we heard in those four days.
The first was of Turner's "first kill" - a "fat man" on foot whom he shot for refusing a command to halt. The "fat man" did not die from the first bullet that Turner put in his neck, so while he screamed and looked pleadingly into Turner's eyes, Turner deliberately dispatched him with a shot at close range.
The second story was even worse. Turner and his men were having a bad day - and bad days are apparently not hard to have in Iraq - so Turner and two fellow soldiers "took out some individuals" who were doing them no harm. Turner shot a man going by on a bike, then threw the body behind a wall and tossed his bike on top of it.
At the hearings, my friend Anthony Swofford, author of "Jarhead" and a former Marine himself, leaned over to me and said, "I think Turner just confessed to murder." But putting that remark in perspective, Swofford would also tell me later, "I know that for every guy up there testifying today, there are probably a thousand others out there keeping silent."
Some of the protesters outside, including the group Eagles Up!, claimed these testifiers weren't real vets, but they had all been thoroughly checked out by a verification team from Iraq Veterans Against the War. Moreover, nobody - unless they'd done a few years at the Actors Studio - could have faked the emotions these vets were displaying as they testified: voices choking up and cracking, tears spontaneously welling.
Although the horror stories kept coming for four days, not all of them involved personal malice. Marine gunner James Gilligan sobbed as he recounted how in Afghanistan in 2004, he placed an unfamiliar compass too close to a machine-gun barrel, causing it to give a false enemy position. Instead of taking out the Taliban artillery, the troops caused extensive civilian casualties in a nearby Afghan village.
The name Winter Soldier was taken from a similar series of hearings held by Vietnam Veterans Against the War in Detroit in 1971. The term originally derived from Revolutionary War patriot Thomas Paine's description of Washington's soldiers at Valley Forge, who withstood a terrible winter on starvation rations in order to come back and fight for their nation one more time - and eventually win. Clearly these Iraq vets, just like their Vietnam vet counterparts, saw themselves as still fighting for their country in trying to bring the truth they experienced into a public forum.
They spoke with no discernible hostility or partisan bias, and less anger than one would have expected. Most expressed their reason for being there along the same lines as former Marine scout Sergio Kochergin, who said he was expecting his testimony to be heard by Congress and to help bring a rapid end to the war.
One thing is certain: The issues and problems that were talked of at Winter Soldier Iraq and Afghanistan were all things that should have been discussed and debated by the Congress, the press, and the American people long before we entered this war.
Gerald Nicosia is author of "Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans' Movement."
By Gerald Nicosia