Support our troops: bring them home now!

Events on both coasts last week reflected the worry growing throughout the country about the impact on soldiers and their families of ever-lengthening deployments in Iraq and Kuwait.

Also late last week, the Army announced that members of any unit going to Iraq or Afghanistan will automatically face “stop-loss” extensions of their deployments, possibly lasting over a year. A stop-loss order suspends all separations from service during a conflict, and could include the calling back of discharged personnel into active service, should they be needed.

In Salinas, Calif., a shared concern for the well-being of U.S. soldiers deployed overseas and their families brought some 60 relatives of area military personnel, peace activists and concerned residents to Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church June 4. Posters and T-shirts proclaimed, “Support our troops – bring them home now!”

Many Salinas-area soldiers are reservists, and most are Mexican American.

Participants in the meeting with area Congressman Sam Farr (D) urged that the troops be brought home soon, and discussed how best to support them while they are overseas.

“I think this election may be about the war in Iraq, although people may tell you that voters are more concerned about domestic economic issues than about international issues,” Farr told the audience. People are starting to see that “this is a pocketbook issue,” he said, “because what’s happening ... is that everybody has to cut, squeeze and trim, since we don’t have enough money to provide the services” such as education, health care and infrastructure.

Farr said that increasingly members of Congress “are questioning whether this president should have called for, and should continue to call for,” the actions the U.S. is taking in Iraq.

As available regular troops are exhausted, deployments of reservists and national guard members are being repeatedly extended although they never signed up to be full-time soldiers, he said, with the result that jobs and family income are at stake, and wives and children must often go on welfare to make ends meet.

Maria Echevarria, organizer with the Citizenship Project, whose son-in-law is overseas, said that besides the personal hardships of family separation, families don’t get support from the military when they need health services, or when insurance expires.

Bob Fitch of the Resource Center for Nonviolence in nearby Santa Cruz, presented an overview of the rights of young people in relation to military service.

Also participating were Amy Newell, national organizer with U.S. Labor against the War, and Paul Johnston, executive director, Monterey Bay Central Labor Council.

“This cause has just begun,“ said Luz Fausto, an organizer of the gathering and mother of a reservist whose deployment has been extended twice. She pledged to keep building the circle of families to work on the issue together.

Meanwhile, Iraq war veteran Paul Rieckhoff, a lieutenant in the Florida National Guard, told the “Take Back America” conference in Washington June 3 that a mood of anger is growing among the 135,000 soldiers as their tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan are extended by a year or longer.

“The soldiers are stretched so thin,” he said, “they are bringing in private contractors,” mercenaries paid as much as $200,000 a year while active duty U.S. soldiers receive $40,000 in annual pay. Rieckhoff commanded a 38-member platoon in Baghdad in a 13-month deployment before his unit was relieved last February.

Rieckhoff delivered the Democratic Party’s response to Bush’s news conference last month in which the president vowed to “stay the course” in Iraq. Rieckhoff debunked Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” slogan, charging that Bush has no plans to bring U.S. troops home from that quagmire.

“We were told we would return home by July 4,” Rieckhoff said. “But three days before we were supposed to leave, we were told our tour in Iraq would be extended indefinitely.” The GI death toll has risen to over 800.

Rieckhoff has set up a new committee called “Operation Truth” to expose the deceptions of the Bush administration. “Other soldiers are getting involved,” he said. “I want my fellow soldiers to come home safely. There has to be a plan to bring them home.”

Security in Iraq must be turned over to the Iraqis, he said. “The policy makers in Washington are using the military to solve a problem for which there is no military solution. We need a phased withdrawal.”

The authors can be reached at pww@pww.org.