February 27, 2007

C.U. Veterans Reflect on Iraq

Print More

Baghdad may sit 6,000 miles from the cozy confines of our Ithaca campus, but the war in Iraq lies close to the hearts and minds of many Cornellians.

According to the International Students and Scholars Office, although no Cornell undergraduates identify themselves as Iraqi citizens, Cornell-Iraq connections run deep. Several Iraqis are enrolled at the Weill Cornell Medical College in Doha, Qatar.

In addition, dozens of Cornellians have been involved with the war in Iraq and combat in Afghanistan. According to Prof. Richard Brown, military science, every member of Cornell’s Army ROTC training staff and roughly 80 percent of cadets commissioned since 2001 have served at least one tour of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Cornell suffered its first casualty in the Iraq war in November 2003, when an explosive device struck the tank of Captain George Wood ’93. During its 2004 season, the Big Red football team wore patches bearing the emblem of Wood’s Fourth Infantry Division and his number 77, to honor his commitment to his alma mater and to his country.

Captain Ezekiel Moreno ’02 recently returned from his construction battalion service in Southern Iraq, where he worked in building and maintaining the infrastructure to support the mission.

“I learned a hell of a lot,” Moreno said. “I’ve seen poverty all over the world, but in that environment it was definitely different. Basic things you take for granted, like water, power and light are just non-existent in parts of major cities.”

Moreno said a desire to give back to the country motivated his decision to enlist.

“I’m the first generation born here in the states; my father is Mexican,” he explained. “I wanted to serve my country. I had plenty of opportunities here that I knew I never would have had had I been born on the other side of the border, so that’s pretty much why I started ROTC.”

As part of his service, Moreno helped build schools and worked on several emergency service and humanitarian projects.

“On the news, we hear of the twenty Iraqis who were killed today because of a roadside bomb, but a lot of the positive aspects that result form our service are never shown, and that’s unfortunate,” he said.

Major Kurt Belawske, a former Cornell ROTC staffer, agreed that the dearth of positive U.S. media coverage of the Iraq war has been misleading.

“My, or my fellow soldiers’, presence [on] a National Police operation lends credibility to the operation and is slowly allowing the Iraqi population to trust the National Police,” said Belawske, assistant team chief for a National Police Transition Team in Baghdad.

Belawske is working to advise and train Iraqi security forces, with the goal of developing a self-sufficient National Police force capable of securing Baghdad, manning checkpoints and detaining insurgents.

In between assignments in Korea and Iraq, Belawske spent two years training Army ROTC students at Cornell. He noticed a profound absence of any connection to the war in Iraq for most Americans.

“Unless a family has [someone] here, there’s virtually no impact on any given American household,” he said. “Other than the bad news on the television about car bombs and attacks, it seems to me that Americans are largely unaffected.”

“There has been a deafening silence from undergraduate students about the war in Iraq,” said Prof. Is.a.ac Kramnick, government, of his observations of Cornell students. Because the United States has not implemented a service draft, Kramnick argues, “There is no impending fear that they may have to go to Iraq.”

Kramnick also attributed part of the silence to the climate of post-9/11 national security concerns in which many students came of age; to the growing number of conservative students on campus; and to the increasingly complex state of affairs in the Middle East, which creates conflicts for many politically-active students on campus.

One student who broke the silence is Perry O’Brien ’08. For O’Brien, it was the longing for adventure and real-world experience that led him to take time off from his studies and join the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C.

In 2003, O’Brien spent eight months serving as a medic at a field clinic in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

“We ran sick call for soldiers, taking care of whatever medical problems soldiers had. We also treated enemy combatants and civilian Afghans according to the life, limb or eye sight rule,” O’Brien said.

This rule obligates soldiers to treat only those civilians in danger of death, blindness or in need of amputation.

One day, a patient identified as a high-ranking Taliban official arrived at O’Brien’s clinic, seriously injured after being tortured by Afghan militiamen trained and supported by U.S. forces.

O’Brien explained, “The only thing he had done wrong was refusing to pay taxes to a warlord. So, after cutting this guy’s hands off and sending him on his way, I realized that we were empowering some of the warlords and thugs we were supposed to be getting rid of. It got me asking a lot of questions.”

After filing for conscientious objector status, O’Brien received an honorable discharge.

Since his return home, O’Brien has been active in Iraq Veterans Against the War, which he explained, “has quickly become an umbrella group for post-9/11 war veterans.” O’Brien also runs a website that helps troops navigate the complex process of attaining conscientious objector status.

“I’m certainly not anti-military,” O’Brien said. “What I am opposed to is the deceptive recruitment tactics that both ROTC and traditional recruitment use, which lead to a tremendous sense of betrayal. The realities are often a lot more grim and banal than what [new recruits] expect.”

Meanwhile, many Cornell undergraduates are busy balancing their coursework with Army, Navy and Air Force ROTC training. Upon graduation, the cadets will continue with training and active or reserve duty.

“The cadre here with combat experience can use that experience to mentally put [the students] in [combat] situations,” Major Brown said, “but the primary role of ROTC is to develop leadership.”