The mock raid goes down like this: A couple of guys in gray-green military fatigues burst into the room, yelling. They’ve got their arms extended. Their forefingers and middle fingers form the point of an imaginary gun. They shout down a couple of people dressed in the traditional garb of an Islamic country and force them to their knees. The guys in fatigues keep yelling and whisk away the frightened detainees.
When it’s done, Jason Hurd, who helped stage the performance, asserts that what you’ve just witnessed resembles daily encounters between American soldiers and Iraqi civilians.
Hurd, 28, should know. As a member of the Tennessee Army National Guard’s 278th Regimental Combat Team, he served a stint in Iraq beginning in December 2004, working with a unit in Baghdad’s “green zone.” The Kingsport, Tenn., native returned to his home state in November 2005, disillusioned with the military and the war in Iraq. He earned a philosophy degree at East Tennessee State University and began speaking out against the war, then moved to Asheville, where he helped start a local chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War.
Using mock raids, speeches and one-on-one discussions with other Iraq veterans, Hurd says he’s trying to “stir up that spirit” of activism that he hopes will lead to the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.
“If America can see the suffering that we are putting these people through, we would be out of Iraq immediately,” he insists.
Mountain Xpress: When did you join the Army?
Jason Hurd: In 1997, I was an average student and tired of school and was trying to figure out what to do. So a friend—his brother had signed a contract with the Army—invited us to a recruiting event. … So I went and enjoyed myself.
I went home and I told my dad, “Look, I want to sign up with the Army. I think it’s the best thing for me.” And my dad was one of the most right-wing, conservative, gun-loving nuts that you could meet. And he thought that it was America’s responsibility to police the world and he thought wars were fine. He thought that America’s wars were fine. But he didn’t think that when it came to his son. Looking back on it, I could tell he knew the negative consequences of war.
So your father was in the service?
These are the two World War II battles he fought in [points to a tattoo on his forearm]: Tarawa and Guadalcanal. He had same tattoo on his forearm. He was in the Second Marine Division.
He never would finish a story about any of his combat experience. He would always break down and cry before he could finish one. … Tarawa is just this little three-and-a-half-mile-wide island in the Pacific [and] there was just a ton of Japanese machine-gun nests on this island. … Well, about half a mile off the island out in the water is a reef and they didn’t know about it, and all their boats got hung on this reef and they couldn’t go forward. So the Marines had to dive over the sides and wade through a half-mile of water under heavy machine-gun fire. … It was kind of like the Omaha Beach of the Pacific campaign. It was just a bloody mess.
How old were you when you joined?
I was 17. I turned 18 a few days into boot camp.
What was basic training like?
I actually enjoyed basic training. I thought it was fun. I don’t think I had as rough of a basic training as some people can. If you’re in an all-male basic-training unit, they tend to be rougher on you. But luckily, being a medic, I had females in my basic-training unit, and so they didn’t seem to mess with us as much. … It was very challenging. It made me pierce through barriers I didn’t think I could ever pierce through—physical barriers especially. So I enjoyed it. I didn’t want to leave.
What did you think of the Army?
About midway through my contract, I started getting really disillusioned with the Army. … We started getting all these new lieutenants fresh out of college who hadn’t had a day in the Army, but they come to our unit and it’s up to the enlisted people to train them and get them up to speed. Some of these guys were my age, if not younger, and I didn’t like their leadership style. It tended towards keeping a soldier’s self-esteem low so you keep him submissive. I started seeing that as sort of pervasive in the Army. In a lot of ways it’s a—I’m trying to think of a nonoffensive way to say this—but you know, it’s to see whose penis is longer. It’s a power struggle.
How did you get the news of your deployment to Iraq?
[Hurd had finished his active duty assignment with the Second Infantry Division at Fort Lewis, Wash., and returned to Tennessee, where he joined the Tennessee National Guard.]
In March of 2004, I was at the house, and my platoon sergeant called me and was like, “Hey Jason, I’ve got some news for you. We’ve come down on orders to go to Iraq.” And at first I thought he was really kidding with me. I was like, “Whatever, quit it. Cut the bullshit. What are you calling me about? What’s up? Are we changing drill dates or something?” He was like, “No Jason, I’m serious. We’re going to Iraq.” I just hung up the phone. I didn’t say anything.
What was your feeling about going to Iraq?
I did not agree with the war from the start. I never thought a good case was made for us to invade Iraq.
What was Iraq like?
When I got there, I saw all of this just horrendous suffering all over the place.
What struck you most?
We were harming the people we’re purportedly helping. We’re ruining their lives. And I try to explain to people in the South this way: If a foreign occupying force came here in the Southeast and invaded—regardless of what they claimed, regardless of whether they told us they were trying to free us or that they were here for our own good, or any of that—do you not think that every person in the hills that owns a shotgun would come down and defend their land and their families? And usually, I’ll see light bulbs going off. They kind of get it at that point. And that’s what’s happening in Iraq.
What do the members of your former unit think of your activism?
To this day, the worst response that I get from them is, “Look, some of us may not agree with what you’re saying. We all agree that you’ve got the facts correct, but we don’t necessarily agree with what you think the consequences are.” I think this is wrong for America. They think it’s OK for America—some of them. But they always say, “But if anyone’s got the right to say the stuff you’re saying, it’s you. You’ve been there. You were beside us.”