Iraq Veterans Speak Out

Yvonne Latty is the author of In Conflict: Iraq War Veterans Speak Out on Duty, Loss and the Fight to Stay Alive (Polipoint Press 2006) and the critically acclaimed We Were There: Voices of African American Veterans, from World War II to the War in Iraq (Harper Collins/Amistad 2004). She worked for the Philadelphia Daily News for 13 years where she was an award winning reporter specializing in urban issues. Latty was featured in the History Channel’s Documentary Honor Deferred and has lectured nationally. Born and raised in New York City, she earned a BFA in Film/Television and later an MA in Journalism from New York University. She has taught journalism at Villanova University and in the fall will be a Clinical Professor of Journalism at New York University.

What made you focus on soldiers who have served in Iraq? Did you have any goal with this book?

The war in Iraq is endless. I got tired of hearing from politicians, pundits, the media and activists. I wanted to hear what was going on from those closest to it — the soldiers who served. About 1 millions have served so far. They are the ones that sacrificed their lives. They are the ones on the front lines not the rest of us and in my opinion their voices have been silent. I wanted to write a book that gave them a chance to speak out, to tell their truth about the war and the aftermath on their lives. I wanted the book to be bipartisan not to have a political agenda, but to be honest accounts and have the readers come to their own conclusion about the war. It was also a natural follow to my first book, "We Were There: Voices of African American Veterans from WWII to the War In Iraq." Both books are done in first person so the voice you hear is the voice of the veteran.

A recent Zogby poll showed that 72 percent of soldiers currently serving in Iraq believe we should get out of Iraq within a year. Is that consistent with your research? For those that what to get out of Iraq, why? For those that think we should stay, why?

Many of the vets I interviewed believe we should not be in Iraq, but there were also many who did and were very proud of their service. Those who want us out of Iraq believe the war was started on fraudulent purposes. They don’t support the president and feel used. Those that support the war believe they liberated a country that was in dire need of liberation. They spoke of positive changes they saw while in Iraq. Others spoke on how we messed things up during the initial invasion by dismantling the Iraqi Army and police. They stressed how we need to right it, not cut and bail and leave a very unstable country. So they want us to stay until the Iraqi people have a strong police force and is more stable.

The poll also showed a lot of confusion as to why we are in Iraq. Forty-five percent said they did not know why and over 80 percent of those who thought they knew why said it was because of Saddam’s role in 9/11 and Saddam’s work with Al Qaeda. Is that kind of misinformation and lack of understanding consistent with your research?

No. The vets I interviewed knew that wasn’t the case. I interviewed a medic who was still in Iraq, but the rest of my interviews were done with soldiers who had already returned home. But those who served in the beginning of the war believed at the time it was because of 9/11, weapons of mass destruction and Al-Qaeda, which is what many Americans believed. Some of the veterans I interviewed want to hold on to the idea that the war was a good thing for the Iraqis. You have to understand that for those who serve, who risked their lives and in some cases now suffer from PTSD, have lost limbs, or watch their friends being blown up, it’s very hard for them to say all that they went through, all that they suffered, was because of a lie or misinformation. Many want to stay the course because to say it was mistake is too horrible a thought for them to bear. Those who serve in the military are trained to follow their leadership, if they doubt or ask to many questions it would be very difficult to maintain their focus on their mission. In war you can’t sit around and have long talks with your comrades on what you think. That can get you killed. For most it’s when they came home when the doubts surface.

What lessons do you take from this book?

That we as a country are not doing enough for Iraq War veterans. That their needs are lost in the shuffle of this endless debate. When they come home their issues are ignored. We need to do more. Why does Terry Schiavo’s case spend weeks on the front page when soldiers blown to bits by IED’s merit three paragraphs in the middle of newspapers and don’t even make the evening news? Why do so many say "bring them home now" without thinking of how to support that homecoming? Most Americans are not affected by the war and that’s obvious by how it’s discussed, but we are at war. All you have to do is listen to those who have served to get a glimpse of how hellish war is and its aftermath. Whether you are for the war or against it the veterans need your help and support. VA services are being cut, vets are homeless, unemployed suffering from post-traumatic stress. They need us to advocate for them. That is something we can all do and see results.

The military people you talked with seem as divided as Americans — as unclear as to the solution. How do you see your book helping to end the occupation? Does it give you a clearer perspective on Iraq? If so, what is your view?

I didn’t write this book as an attempt to end the war. But I would challenge anyone to spend time with the amputees at Walter Reed, like I did, and say, “stay the course.” I was there. I saw what a roadside bomb could do to a young, strong body. I wrote In Conflict because I wanted to give those Americans most affected by the war, those who fight it, a chance to tell people in their own words what’s going on in Iraq and how they feel about it. They are in conflict just as we are here when we speak about the war. There are so many different sides, opinions and agendas.I didn’t write the book as platform for my theories about the war or how I think it can be ended. I feel if you read the book you will get a clearer, more realistic view of the war and it will become more than just a theory or debate. Readers will feel a personal connection to the soldiers and want to help those returning from Iraq. You see in the book how the president’s policies affect those who serve, and what happens when they return home is some of the poignant parts of the book. I don’t like war and I look forward to the day when this war ends. But if it ends and some vets have to continue to fight to get benefits and jobs, then it’ll be just a different war that they will be fighting.

Why should someone read your book?

These stories need to be heard. These men and women represent just a slither of the over 1 million that have served. Some are back on their third tours. Although I profile 25, they represent the veterans of this war. They are from all over the country. They range in age at time of service from 19 to 54. They are white, black, Jewish, Latino, Asian and of mixed race. One of the veterans is gay. They range from majors to privates. They are all courageous men and women. I want people to connect to them and this war, make it personal. After reading In Conflict my goal is for readers to be moved to reach out and support the veterans who are coming home. Whether it’s to help one find a job or donate your time and efforts to in helping veteran’s organizations, like the Wounded Warrior Project that helps returning amputees.