Rockets’ red glare
Iraq veteran Chris McCray struggles to express the horrors of war at Pasadena impeachment teach-in
By Joe Piasecki 07/27/2006
The more than 100 people who gathered last week at a Pasadena teach-in on the movement to impeach President George W. Bush were ready to hear 24-year-old Iraq War veteran Chris McCray’s take on the conflict, even if he wasn’t ready to talk about it.
In an evening marked by carefully crafted political speeches from local Green Party congressional candidate Bill Paparian and former ACLU of Southern California President Stephen Rohde on reasons why Bush should be impeached — including the NSA’s unauthorized wiretapping, the torture of prisoners in the War on Terrorism and misleading statements leading to the preemptive invasion of Iraq — the nervous and drunk ex-soldier’s words were anything but polished.
Perhaps that rawness was why many listeners found them so compelling. “We all did a lot of things we didn’t want to do,” he tried to explain to the audience. “It’s hard to describe. There were a lot of civilian casualties over there.”
McCray, who is a member of the more than 1,000-strong Iraq Veterans Against the War, carried a rocket launcher in Iraq, where he worked a security detail for a sniper team. After returning home to Florida more than a year ago, the one-time registered Republican joined the Green Party.
“One of the worst things I had to experience, they were trying to get us and ended up blowing up 80-some people who were all trying to enlist in the Iraqi military. … At one time you got 80-something people blown up, and we’re sitting there trying to place a body part with a body.
“I’ve had to clean up American remains. I had to pick up an officer’s head that was still in its fuckin’ helmet, you know. They drove a car bomb right into the front gate,” he said.
Although he would not elaborate, McCray told this reporter he was disturbed by the death and destruction caused by using his weapon, which destroys “everything within a five-meter radius” when fired, he said.
The teach-in, which took place at the Pasadena Hilton Hotel, was one of several dozen events hosted around the country on July 19 during a national day of action called for by the Center for Constitutional Rights, authors of a short book laying out cases for impeachment that include the invasion of Iraq.
Paparian, a former Pasadena mayor, attorney and Marine Corps veteran running against incumbent Democrat Adam Schiff in the November election, described Bush as an authoritarian empire-builder.
“We’re a nation of laws, not men, but Bush says that the president is above the law. No one, especially the president, is above the law. That is a fundamental truth upon which our country was founded and upon which it has grown strong and prospered,” he said.
Green Party state Assembly candidate Ricardo Costa spoke at the event about Assembly Joint Resolution 39, which, if it receives majority support, would force members of Congress to begin impeachment proceedings against Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
Under rules that govern procedure in the House of Representative, a state resolution can trigger impeachment proceedings. Authored by West Hollywood Democratic Assemblyman Paul Koretz, the resolution charges the Bush administration with manipulating intelligence related to Iraq, authorizing the torture of prisoners, conducting illegal wiretaps of American citizens and acting “in a manner contrary to their trust” and “subversive of constitutional government.”
Several minutes into McCray’s discussion of the war, an audience member asked about post traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD), a psychologically crippling condition marked by nightmares and tension that is often coupled with substance abuse and depression.
A recent Defense Department study of combat troops returning from Iraq found that one in six suffered from severe depression or PTSD, yet 60 percent would not seek treatment, reported the San Francisco Chronicle last month. Even though most refuse help, more than 12,000 Iraq veterans have sought Veterans Administration counseling for PTSD and related symptoms, according to that report.
“I drink. That’s one of the ways of coping with it. You come back and have all of these things on your mind,” said McCray, who had found a diverse but sympathetic audience.
“I understand where he’s coming from,” said Ed Brotherton, a 33-year-old Van Nuys resident who served in the Air Force from 1993 to 1997. “You stand there and take that oath to swear to uphold the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic, and then all of a sudden you get sent over into some war zone that you know is a violation of the Constitution. That’s why the morale’s so low. They’re being told one thing and they know it’s crap. They know it’s not right, and they know it’s just lies, but they’re there.”
Melissa Posad, a 23-year-old Pasadena City College student who removes flyers on that campus posted by the nearby military recruiting center on Colorado Boulevard, has seen friends and family members similarly troubled after serving in Iraq.
“It’s so sad, the guys I’ve talked to are also drunk and can’t handle all this shit, you know. It really shakes me up. They’re good people,” she said.
Although Iraq tended to dominate conversation during the teach-in, Rohde focused on secret wiretapping — “a sweeping violation of the rights of people in the United States,” he said — and treatment of military prisoners in violation of international law established by the Geneva Convention as equally effective causes for impeaching Bush.
“A violation of the Geneva Convention is a war crime, and this is president is guilty of war crimes,” said Rohde of reports of torture in American-run prisons and the movement of prisoners to countries who employ acts of torture.
In the end, he said, impeachment “is a question of the majority of the American people saying, ‘We have had enough. Our brothers and sisters have died, our brothers and sisters around the world are dying, you have violated your oath of office, you do not deserve to serve in the White House another day.’”
Paparian said his opposition to Bush inspired his candidacy as a Green.
“Unfortunately, Republicans who oppose Bush feel constrained by party loyalty, and the Democratic leadership seems frozen and unable to move. That’s why I’m running for Congress, because I’m going to tell this emperor president that he’s not above the law,” said Paparian.
Though he would like to see the Bush administration removed from power, McCray said he felt his larger mission was to relate his experiences.
“I don’t want other people doing the same things that I had to do, see the things that I saw,” he said later over a double scotch at the hotel bar. “Nobody should have to do the things that I had to do, period.”