Thursday, August 28, 2008

3,000 Vets, War Protesters Hand-Deliver Their Message

By Patti Thorn

Follow Us. Welcome to Denver," read the electronic sign on the police vehicle.

And with that conciliatory gesture, an unpermitted march for peace was allowed to proceed Wednesday afternoon through downtown Denver streets - peacefully. It was easily the largest demonstration in a week filled with them.

See videos of the march here

At least 3,000 Iraq war veterans and war protesters marched from the Denver Coliseum to the Pepsi Center perimeter. The veterans' ultimate goal was to deliver a statement to presidential candidate Barack Obama, urging him to promote the immediate withdrawal of "all occupying forces" from Iraq, among other points.

After about an hourlong standoff with police at the end of the march, contact was made with an Obama aide. Mission accomplished.

Co-sponsored by the anti-war group Tent State University and the Iraq Veterans Against the War, the march began around 3:15 p.m. outside the coliseum after 9,800 people attended a free concert featuring the heavy metal/rap band Rage Against the Machine and three other acts.

During the four-hour show, audience members were urged to join the demonstration. Band members and others stressed the need for the march to remain peaceful.

At one point, rapper Jonny 5 of Denver's Flobots referred to conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh, who has been widely quoted as saying it would be his "dream" for riots to break out in Denver during the convention. The musician told the crowd the worst thing they could do was make that dream come true.

While some feared police would attempt to stop the march, officers surprised the group by escorting the protesters through city streets, redirecting traffic and pedestrians along the way.

"Under the totality of all the circumstances, it was handled in a manner that best addressed the public safety at the time," said Lynn Kimbrough, spokeswoman for the Joint Information Center, a clearinghouse for convention security information.

The group of mostly young people walked behind a banner that said: "Support GI Resistance."

Wearing T-shirts and stickers with slogans such as "Arrest Bush" and "Make Out Not War," they sang rolling chants, Marine- style. "Tell Me What We're Marching For," sang one group. "Stop the torture, stop the war," answered another.

People lined the streets to watch, most approvingly.

As the marchers wound their way through the neighborhoods west of the coliseum, they found solidarity with a group of Latinos holding up an anti-war sign and cheering them on. "Si, se puede!" shouted some young marchers. "Yes, we can!"

But not all were supportive. From the balcony of an apartment complex, a man yelled at the throngs to move on. "Don't come back here," he said.

As the march wore on under a hot sun, some dropped out. Others found ways to take shortcuts. Two teens on the 16th Street Mall shuttle wearing Rage Against the Machine T-shirts admitted they had skipped part of the march and planned to join it as it neared the end.

One foot clad in a black shoe, the other barefoot, James Koller, 17, explained: "Someone clocked me in the face and took my shoe in the mosh pit. This is a quicker route to the Pepsi Center."

Koller's friend, Joey Minicucci, 18, of Littleton, noted that his brother was in the military and would soon be sent to Iraq. That was one of the reasons he was going to the march.

Anne Hill, of Montrose, had other reasons. "I'm marching because it seems to be the last vestiges of our free speech and because people have demands and our government's not listening," she said.

The march came to a standstill at the perimeter of the Pepsi Center around 6:30 p.m., at which time the veterans attempted to have their statement delivered to Obama. Tension with police seemed to escalate, until several veterans stepped forward and saluted police.

"We are your brothers and sisters in arms," said one. "We don't want to hurt you. We don't want you to hurt us."

With that, the standoff melted away and soon an appropriate aide was contacted.

"I figured as long as we kept things peaceful, they would hear us, and they did," said Army veteran Jeffrey Wood.

Staff writers Allison Bruce, Daniel J. Chacon, Abigail Curtis, Jeff Kass, Dan Kelley, Sue Lindsay, Steve Myers and Judi Villa contributed to this report.

Prozac army: 20,000 troops suffer stress

Exclusive by IAN BRUCE, Defence Correspondent

One in six American soldiers in Afghanistan and one in eight in Iraq are taking daily doses of prescription antidepressants, sleeping pills or painkillers to help them cope with the stresses of combat, according to figures contained in a US Army mental health advisory team report seen by The Herald.

The findings mean that at least 20,000 troops are on medication such as Prozac or diamorphine while serving in the front line or on equally dangerous convoy escort or driving duties in conflicts where insurgents regularly target the supply chain.

While the vast majority would have been barred automatically from combat roles in earlier wars on medical and safety grounds, the pressure to provide up to 200,000 soldiers at any given time for the two major deployments has led to a relaxation of the rules.

Most of those affected are on their second or third tour of duty and 10% are predicted to be at high risk of developing "stress illnesses" including post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Pentagon admitted that medication was tolerated because those sent to Afghanistan or Iraq were "younger and healthier than the general population" and had been screened for mental illnesses before enlisting.

It also said it had no way of knowing exactly how many troops were taking medicinal drugs because an unknown number brought the pills with them from home rather than having them issued by a military doctor.

Official military surveys claim that while all soldiers deployed to an active war zone will feel stressed, roughly 70% will recover completely soon after a tour ends.

Another 20% will suffer "temporary stress injuries" which can bring on symptoms such as insomnia, panic attacks and growing feelings of depression, but which should also pass relatively quickly.

By contrast, the British military has a "zero tolerance" policy on drug use - either recreational or medicinal - which precludes service in frontline units.

Random drug tests where UK soldiers are found to have illegal narcotics in their system lead to automatic dismissal, while those on prescription medicines for injuries or behavioural disorders which might affect their performance or put others lives at risk are relegated to administrative duties.

The need for the US to maintain garrisons of 147,000 men and women in Iraq and 33,000 more in Afghanistan, plus units running the logistics chain in neighbouring countries, means that the US Army, National Guard and Marine Corps are overstretched by rolling, year-long deployments which have intensified over the past five years.

The US Army's annual mental health surveys have been running since 2003 and show that almost 30% of troops on their third deployment suffer from psychological problems as a result of seeing friends and colleagues killed or maimed.

Colonel Charles Hoge, one of the leading US military psychologists, told the Pentagon and a Congressional inquiry last year that the current 12-month gap between tours is insufficient to allow soldiers to "reset themselves" before facing the horrors of roadside bombs and ambushes again.

Britain tries to ensure its troops, who serve six-month tours, have a 24-month "harmony" break between each combat assignment.

Meanwhile, 18 sailors on a Royal Navy warship have tested positive for a class A drug, the Ministry of Defence said yesterday. The crewmen were caught during routine testing on board HMS Liverpool, which is deployed in the South Atlantic.

A spokeswoman said the drug involved was cocaine and internal disciplinary action was being taken. The test had been carried out after the crew had a "run ashore" on a break in Brazil.

U.S. increases spending on contractors in Iraq

By Peter Eisler, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — The United States is spending more money than ever on private security contractors in Iraq as thousands of troops return home amid steady declines in insurgent attacks, federal records show.

This year, spending on contractors, who protect diplomats, civilian facilities and supply convoys, is projected to exceed $1.2 billion, according to federal contract and budget data obtained by USA TODAY. Most of that bill — about $1 billion —is State Department spending, which is up 13% over 2007. The remaining $200 million covers Pentagon contracts.

Rising private security costs come as the Pentagon removes the last of the 30,000 extra troops sent to Iraq last year. Contractors take on roles once handled by U.S. troops, such as securing Iraq's infrastructure and guarding reconstruction supplies.

Congress is raising concerns about the costs of relying on contractors for that work and the challenges of ensuring that they are supervised properly.

"While security is obviously necessary for American officials in Iraq, we should be transitioning reconstruction to the Iraqi government, which is capable of supporting many of these efforts with its … oil revenues," says Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., who chairs a House appropriations subcommittee that oversees spending for Iraq reconstruction.

Lowey calls the security costs "exorbitant." She has pushed legislation to boost contracting oversight by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.

Overall U.S. private security spending in Iraq has grown dramatically since the war started in March 2003, the new spending figures show. Concern over supervision of these contractors has heightened since guards with Blackwater Worldwide shot and killed 17 Iraqi civilians while escorting a State Department officer in Baghdad in September 2007. Blackwater spokeswoman Anne Tyrell said the guards acted in self-defense. The Justice Department is investigating; no charges have been filed.

State's contractor spending has climbed because the focus in Iraq has shifted from combat to rebuilding, department press officer John Fleming says.

More diplomats are leaving secure areas to work in the field, where they need security, he says. At the same time, U.S. troops who once guarded reconstruction projects and Iraqi infrastructure are leaving.

Contractors "will increasingly take over these former military roles and missions, increasing (the) numbers of private security," Fleming says, noting that the new oversight policies will "hold contractors accountable."

In recent months, State and the Pentagon have developed policies governing the conduct of security contractors, who are immune from Iraqi law. State can impose administrative penalties for misconduct in Iraq; Pentagon contractors are subject to the military justice system.

The Pentagon and the State Department have committed to work with Congress to enact legislation to increase legal accountability for all U.S. government contractors in Iraq.

U.S. contractors in Iraq perform other work beyond security, such as construction and transportation services. A Congressional Budget Office report released this month showed that U.S. agencies spent a total of $85 billion on contractors of all types in Iraq from 2003 through 2007 — about 20% of all U.S. spending for operations in the country during that period.

Some security costs may be undocumented because they're buried inside contracts for other services, the report said.

That's an unacceptable lack of clarity, says Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., who chairs the House subcommittee that controls defense spending. He has proposed to cut $4.5 billion from contracting accounts in next year's defense budget and add $943 million to other Pentagon accounts so more of the work can be shifted to civilian government employees.