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US veterans to return war medals in protest

Iraq War veteran Steve Acheson at his home in Platteville, WI, on May 14, 2012.
Iraq War veteran Steve Acheson at his home in Platteville, WI, on May 14, 2012.

Iraq war veteran Steven Acheson will engage in the rarest of protests this weekend: He will hand back his military service medals at the NATO summit in Chicago, an act one veteran calls "disgraceful."

Acheson, who served for five years in the Army, including more than a year in Iraq that he says left him with PTSD and nightmares, is taking this step to protest the "war on terror" and the force leading it, NATO. He will be joined by a few dozen veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who are concerned about the wars' fallout on veterans and civilians alike.

“I feel like this is a really good way for me to kind of, not clear my conscience, but just make a step in the direction of healing and kind of reconciling with the Afghan people and the Iraq people,” said Acheson, a 27-year-old college student from Wisconsin and a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, which includes soldiers who served in any of the post- 9/11 conflict zones, “… and let them know that we’re standing by their side and we’re not standing with NATO anymore. We don’t agree with the policies that are driving these wars.”

Acheson and 30-50 fellow 9/11-era veterans will carry their medals as they lead an anti-war march this Sunday through Chicago’s downtown area to the convention center where NATO is holding its summit. President Obama and other world leaders are scheduled to be among the summit attendees, and the city of Chicago is bracing for major protests.

Organizers are hoping the rally, which caps a week-long series of anti-NATO actions, will draw thousands. The Iraq and Afghanistan veterans will be flanked by Vietnam veterans and will hold a reconciliation ceremony with Afghans for Peace.

They intend to carry an American flag that they will lower and replace with a white one as they approach the summit venue. They are planning to pin their medals to the American flag, which they’d like to present to NATO officials. If they’re unable to do so, they may construct an ad hoc memorial or toss the medals toward the convention center -- like some 900 Vietnam veterans did in 1971 on Capitol Hill in an anti-war protest dubbed “Operation Dewey Canyon III.”

Barry Romo was West Coast coordinator for the Vietnam Veterans Against the War during the 1971 week-long demonstration.

“Wives left husbands; parents said … those medals were something you should be giving the grandkids. But I mean, the level of death was just really too much for us to deal with at that time and we said, you know, if there’s a question of medals versus lives then there was no question,” he said.

Returning the medals – even those that are given just for showing up to the theater of conflict, as are some of the ones the veterans plan to return – is not without controversy.

“They’re as much of a disgrace as the veterans back in the Vietnam days that did the same thing,” said retired Army 1st Sgt. Troy Steward, of New York, who served 22 years and is now a military blogger. “If these veterans aren’t proud of the service that they did … then they should never have accepted them (medals) in the first place.”

Steward, 43, who served in Afghanistan, said the action was “disgraceful and disrespectful” to others who had served. While the veterans were welcome to express their opinions, he said, there were a lot of “better ways to do it than essentially shaming your military service and your brethren.”

Acheson will return his “Global War on Terrorism Service Medal” and the “Iraq Campaign Medal”; he is keeping others he received.

Aaron Hughes, a 30-year-old organizer for IVAW who served six years in the Army, including 15 months in Iraq and Kuwait, also will return two medals.

In the process of searching for a way to heal “we came to these symbols of the occupations, which are these medals that we carry around and we still have,” Hughes said. “They’re these … reminders of what we’ve done, that it’s time to let go of.”

“I think it’s something that many of us are conflicted about, but we also feel like this is the right action to take,” he noted, adding that there was a lot of consensus on the returning of the medals. “It is a sacrifice, but it’s one that we feel is worth it.”

But some cautioned the veterans to think carefully before handing over the medals.

“They become almost like family heirlooms in some ways,” said Adrian Lewis, a professor specializing in 20th century warfare at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. “It's not the norm to give them back. Most folks are proud of them. They feel like they earned them and they’re indications that they served their country.”

“They may regret it at some point ... and their family may ultimately regret it, too,” he added.

Unlike the Vietnam War, Americans today don’t have the same outrage over the current conflicts, Lewis said.

“Most Americans are not paying attention to the war ... they have no stake in it, no commitment to it,” he added, noting that he therefore didn’t expect the veterans’ medal protest to “be a big deal. It's not a game-changer.”

It’s not clear how many other veterans have taken similar action. The Department of Defense, the Air Force and Army said they did not keep records on how many medals have been given back.

"We're very proud of the service rendered by our soldiers and veterans, and they are free to do with their awards and decorations as they please," George Wright, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon, said in an e-mail.

Acheson said the veterans don’t have high expectations for how NATO officials will receive their protest. He also noted that he was keeping some of his medals because he was proud of his service, even though he was upset that he ended up fighting in a country that had nothing to do with 9/11.

“I’m tired of seeing … fellow vets being redeployed with traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder, and I’m tired of seeing soldiers being deployed in general to an illegal war,” he said. “I just feel like we’ve spent enough money and enough lives over there … it’s time to come home.”

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