September 18, 2008

Military Members Discuss Wars Abroad

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While the Iraq war is competing with Hurricane Ike and the financial crisis for media coverage in the new as of late, last night an audience in RPCC heard a range of active duty and retired armed services officers offer their insight on the time they spent serving overseas.
In “Today’s Military: Exposed and Uncen-sored,” a range of mid-level and high-grade officers discussed their views of the war, its successes and failures. Sponsored by the Residential Programs and the ROTC program, the aim of the panel discussion was to present a side of the war rarely seen in the media.
Featuring seven officers, three of whom are currently on active duty, the panel fielded questions directly from the audience. The first question asked dealt with what improvements the officers had seen on the ground.
Maj. Bryan Miller, a battalion executive officer in Cornell’s ROTC program, responded first. He said one of the more memorable moments of the two tours of duty he served in Iraq came when he was able to help restore electricity in the city of Taji, which enabled people to go outside at night.
For Miller, Operation Pencil Box was significant milestone because young girls were able to attend school. He said, “School supplies came directly from military families at home.”
Former Captain Ben Hansen grad said he distinctly recalled the importance of building roads between valleys as significant infrastructure improvements.
“If you’re able to build a road between two valleys, you’re opening up communication and there will be less in-fighting,” he said.
Lieutenant Colonel Brian Page, professor of military science, said, “It’s a matter of creating a stable environment in that country.”
However, there are many obstacles to a stable environment beyond what people generally hear in the news such as foreign fighters.
“Out of 100 people stopped for questioning, four to five will be foreigners. We’ll later pick them up as [insurgent] fighters … What we’re doing there is not negative. 99.9 percent of what we’re doing is positive,” Page said.
Lieutenant Matt Zarracina grad, who is currently on active duty and is also the freshmen advisor to the ROTC program, cited planning issues that led to the current situation on the ground.
“It’s one thing to be idealistic. It’s another to be pragmatic in your implementation,” he said. He went on to explain that “there was a clear-cut failure of strategic planning” because politicians failed to consider the life cycle of this mission.
“Where’s the Department of Education with their plan to help with setting up education [in Iraq]?” he asked.
Some members of the audience asked when America would actually pull out of Iraq.
Miller said, “We want to see the Iraqis succeed. We don’t want another country to come and have the Iraqis unable to defend themselves. Until all provinces are turned over, that’s when we’ll pull out,” he said. “Will we ever leave 100 percent? I doubt it.”
Steven Maddox grad, who served in the Marines for 10 years, pointed out that the American people also have a responsibility to raise their voices. He said, “Why we’re still there? It’s a failure on the part of American people to hold politicians accountable for the poor decisions they have made.”
Page also explained that the current failures in Iraq can be attributed to logistics failure. “One of the biggest mistakes we made was not training for logistics … It takes time to get to a level of competency.”
He stressed that the task at hand is even more difficult considering the high level of acceptance of corruption that pervades the atmosphere, recalling an incident when Gor-Tex jackets were not issued because some people wanted to resell them for a profit instead of utilizing them.
But Zarracina remains optimistic about the progress being made. He said, “The progress is Anbar is indicative of the progress we’d like to see in the rest of the country.”
Kima McCoy grad a traditional guardsmen for the New York Air National Guard who served overseas in Afghanistan, explained that one thing that will be increasingly beneficial in promoting stability on the ground is raising the level of security forces.
Many members of the panel emphasized this point because it will allow various NGOs, diplomats, doctors and other skilled and technical personnel into the country who would otherwise be unable to enter in the area safely.
One issue that remains to be fully seen is how this country will deal with the numerous soldiers returning from tours of duty at the frontlines of combat.
Speaking about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and mild traumatic brain injuries, Page said, “It’s just a reality of the war. A lot of people don’t want to have it identified in them … Our structure is not set up right now to deal with that damage. We are still trying to figure out how to diagnose it and people experience injuries they might not know about for years … The system is just not large enough to deal with the capacity [of injuries].’
The conversation then turned to whether it was ethical for the media to show pictures of soldiers who were either killed or wounded in battle before their loved ones had the opportunity to be notified.
Page replied, “The speed of technology has accelerated this process … But people deserve the right to be know they’ve lost someone in a respectful and professional manner. It’s not a matter of what is being shown in the pictures.”
Maddox said, “I think if more people saw the coffins, maybe more people would ask questions.”
Organizers of the event said they were pleased with the turnout and discussion.
Bianca Lane ’10 said, “I was impressed that both cadets and civilians came, and people are willing to learn. It’s a shame more people don’t get the opportunity. We had all the branches of the military represented tonight.”