Digging into the Operation Recovery Campaign
By Nicole Baltrushes, Civilian Soldier Alliance. July 28, 2011
Killeen, TX- It’s hot. The days are long and filled to the brim. The gears are turning. The people are moving. We are building. The strategy is evolving. We are all learning. We are all growing. We are changing each other as we transform ourselves.
I came to this base town to support service members’ right to heal. I wanted to meet service members where they’re at, and Ft. Hood is one of the best places to do it. Ft. Hood in Killeen is the largest US military installation in the country, with over 75,000 active duty service members; half of which are deployed at any given time. I arrived in the middle of July, the 1st Cavalry, 1st Brigade had started deploying to Iraq and the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment was beginning to return from a year-long deployment.
I joined up with the Operation Recovery Deployment Team- a group of Veteran and civilian organizers within the Operation Recovery Campaign. This campaign aims to stop the deployment of traumatized troops and support service members right to heal from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and Military Sexual Trauma (MST).
Between 20% to 50% of all service members deployed to Iraq and/or Afghanistan have suffered Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This means between 350,000 to 900,000 Iraq and Afghanistan service members have suffered or are suffering from PTSD.1
In 2007, the VA reported Military Sexual Trauma (MST) rates of 22% among female veterans registered with the VA.2
Suicide rates among active-duty troops, are twice as high as that of the civilian population, and veterans with PTSD are 6 times more likely to attempt suicide.3
There is clearly an epidemic of mental health issues within the military and still the Department of Defense is not following its own regulations about these issues. Someone has to force them to implement these changes.
“If soldiers don’t feel empowered to hold their commands accountable to regulations regarding these issues, no one will,” said Malachi Muncy, an Operation Recovery Organizer and Veteran of the Texas Army National Guard. Malachi deployed to Iraq twice and has been working with other IVAW resident organizers to build power in the ranks of active duty soldiers at Fort Hood to stand up for their right to heal.
As a member of Civilian Soldier Alliance (CivSol), an ally organization to Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and a partner in their veteran-led Operation Recovery Campaign, I came to Fort Hood to be part of this movement and to support the work that was already underway. I came to learn more about transformational organizing and to better understand my role in this struggle.
Five days a week, I worked with the Operation Recovery Deployment Team doing outreach to active duty soldiers. We would pile into a car and go out to places where active duty soldiers gather and ask them what issues they are facing. We pass out flyers about the Operation Recovery Campaign and Under the Hood Cafe and we ask questions. We want to listen more than to talk. We ask about their experiences with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Military Sexual Trauma, and Traumatic Brain injury. We ask about access to health care. We ask about their concerns, their questions. We ask what they think needs to change.
We, as civilians, are lucky to get the chance to have these conversations with active duty soldiers. As Lori Hurlebaus, CivSol resident organizer explained ; “We get to talk to the people in the best position to imagine solutions because they have the most intimate experience with the problems.”
Here in Killeen, we are working in conjunction with the Under the Hood Café. Since 2008 Under the Hood Café has been a place for soldiers to gather, relax, and speak freely about the wars and military. During the Vietnam War, GI Coffee Houses were havens for free speech, GI rights counseling, and places nurturing change and resistance. Killeen was home to one of those GI Coffeehouses, the Oleo Strut, which opened it’s doors on July 4, 1968 just a few blocks away from where Under the Hood Café is located. Now we are working with a new generation of military veteran organizers to build this coffee house into a space where active duty GIs and veterans can share their stories with each other. We are creating safe spaces to vent, to rage, and to turn those experiences into action.
In the evenings, we bring this safe space to peoples homes. We do follow up visits with people that are interested in sharing more of their stories. I spoke to one service member who has been dealing with PTSD for several years, trying to carve out time to seek the help he needed while being stigmatized at work for his struggle. These are the stories of struggle we need to give voice to by listening, documenting them, and sharing them with our own communities outside of Killeen.
As civilians, one of the most important functions we can serve is being an open ear. We are here to listen and support. Paulo Friere writes in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people which engages him in their struggle than by a thousand actions in their favor without trust.” We are here to build that trust by connecting with active duty soldiers. Our individual work across the country is strengthened by our collective efforts here.
By participating in this outreach work we, as civilians, gain skills we can bring back home. We gain familiarity and confidence communicating with active duty soldiers. We gain experience with the practicalities of outreach to active duty service members. We develop deeper trust and respect for and with the community we are working with. And, most importantly, we are inspired by the potential for personal and collective transformation that is built into our work and in the spaces we hold together.
The weekly GI Rights training and free Barbeque that is hosted at Under the Hood Cafe on Thursdays is another opportunity to transform the space and ourselves. This past week the event brought us all together as a community of organizers as we prepared the food, cleaned, made signs and final outreach blitz to get people out. The evening transformed from screen-printing workshop to conversations about the rights and options of AWOL soldiers, to a musical performance by myself, to a porch jam session, and then back to screen printing.
I watched as one of the active duty soldiers who has become interested in Under the Hood Cafe went from a conversation with one of our veterans about GI rights, to reading Winter Soldier, to eating ribs, to playing guitar, to helping with the screen printing. His ease and comfort here was clear. Something is starting to grow here. We’ve just got to keep giving it the support it needs. I am eager to see what kind of fruit it bears.
We came here for our own mix of personal and political reasons, but we all came with the hope to grow. We came to Killeen to learn more about the day-to-day work that lay ahead, ourselves, and our stake in it. As L.t., Civilian Soldier Alliance member from Portland , put it, “I want to keep growing and becoming more useful. Being in Killeen provides a transformative space that will form that growth.”
After all, what better way to figure these things out than to dive right in and start building a sanctuary of rebellion in the belly of the beast?
Nicole Baltrushes is a Civilian Soldier Alliance member from Chicago who has been working in her own community to break down the disconnect between our wars and everyday life. She is active in the military family community helping to build support for everyone affected by war. Nicole visited Under the Hood Café as a guest organizer in July, 2011.
Photos by Laura "LT" Taylor
1. Seal, K. H., Bertenthal, D., Maguen, S., Gima, K., Chu, A., & Marmar, C. R. (2008). “Getting beyond “Don't ask; don't tell”: An evaluation of US Veterans Administration post-deployment mental health screening of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.” American Journal of Public Health, 98, 714–720. See also “Comparisons of PTSD rates” Journal of Traumatic Stress-Volume 23, Issue 1, Feb, 2010 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jts.20486/pdf
2. Kimerling R, Gima K, Smith MW, Street A, & Frayne S. (2007). The Veterans Health Administration and military sexual trauma. American Journal of Public Health, 97(12), 2160-2166.
3. “Suicide and PTSD”, Department of Veterans Affairs, http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/pages/ptsd-suicide.asp, Armen Keteyian “Suicide Epidemic Among Veterans”, CBS News, November 13 2007, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/11/13/cbsnews_investigates/main3496471.shtml and Mark Thompson “Invisible Wounds: Mental Health and the Military” CNN, August 22 2010, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2008886,00.html