By Devin Dunlevy
City News Reporter

Attendees at the Santa Cruz chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) fundraiser, held Oct. 24, got a sobering and tragic portrait of what happens to many veterans after they return from active duty.

“The military doesn’t teach you how to transition into civilian life again,” veteran Jamie Hawkins said. “It’s like going from high school to graduate school. There are 18 suicides a week from soldiers coming back.”

Hawkins, who joined the military at 17, and other local veterans spoke at the IVAW event about their experiences in the military. The event also featured spoken-word performances and live music.

IVAW was founded in 2004 at a Veterans for Peace conference in Boston. The group advocates immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq and the improvement of medical support for returning soldiers, especially for conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder.

Kenny Sexton was in the Army for four years, and experienced mental health issues after serving in Iraq.

“I blacked out in Germany, and I was diagnosed with a pre-existing personality disorder so the military could get out of taking responsibility,” Sexton said.

After coming back to California and trying to re-assimilate into civilian life, Sexton received new orders to deploy to Iraq. The military can force soldiers to remain in service beyond their discharge date under the stop-loss policy.

Outraged, Sexton consulted his local congressional office about the orders.

“I went to [Santa Cruz Congressman] Sam Farr’s office and personally thanked him for getting me completely discharged,” Sexton said.

Representatives from the GI Rights Hotline tabled at the event. Soldiers seeking information about their rights can call and get free, confidential advice 24 hours a day.

Santa Cruz activist April Burns is a counselor for the hotline.

“We get calls from people in the military who are in crisis,” Burns said. “We’ll get them psychiatrists and lawyers to help them.”

Matt Childers was deployed twice to Iraq while serving in the Marines. He was there for the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003.

“We were under the impression that the U.S. was at risk of a nuclear attack,” Childers said. “We were trained to be violent and merciless. People filled water bottles with piss and gave them to small children, and I know a woman who was raped in front of her children. Our chain of command couldn’t recognize these behavior patterns.”

Childers also joined other veterans in protesting at the Democratic National Convention and the Republican National Convention (RNC) in Denver and St. Paul, respectively, over the summer.

“The second day at the [St. Paul] hotel, the police were following us everywhere,” Childers said. “In Denver they weren’t as aggressive, at the RNC the cops were hostile from the beginning.”

The Watsonville Brown Berets, an affinity group pushing for immigrants’ rights, helped organize the event. Brown Beret activist Sandino Gomez performed spoken-word poetry before the veterans were introduced.

“We see the war as an attack on all people, and there’s a heavy Spanish media push,” Gomez said. “We’re in total solidarity with the Iraq Veterans Against the War.”

Emotions ran high throughout the night. Many of the soldiers described traumatizing personal experiences and vented frustration at a war that has been going on for five years and counting.

Childers articulated the anger many Americans feel towards the Iraq war.

“I don’t know why in America we’re letting people fight in a war there’s not one good reason for.”