Unitarians Face The Iraq War Head On Church Visit #5
On Sunday, November 11, 2007 we visited the 4th Unitarian Society of Westchester in Mohegan Lake, New York to attend a service unlike others we have attended in our local campaign to urge clergy to call for an end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq and to oppose an attack against Iran.
In this service, on Veterans Day, withdrawal from Iraq was the central message. The day’s Order of Service announced:
“This year, we celebrate Veterans Day to recognize and remember the brave women and men of the armed forces by asking our government to bring them home. Veterans Day was originally called Armistice Day. It remembered the end of the Great War in 1918. But it also falls in between the anniversaries of several peace agreements. Let’s reclaim Armistice Day as a time of remembrance of the horrors of war.”
- Social Action Committee
The speaker for the morning was Corporal Karl VonDerHeyde, 38, on active duty in the Army Reserve. He was introduced by the President of the church, Melissa Cole, who was wearing a black T-shirt with white lettering: “I Support Iraq Veterans Against the War.”
Before reporting on his talk, I’ll explain that we came to this service because Sandra, who is African-American, had heard an Iraq veteran would be speaking when she attended a film series at the church - “We Need to Talk” - that considers race relations. Knowing of the focus of the service, we did not bring the banner that we have been lifting in the midst of Sunday services at various churches in Westchester County. The banner enumerates the human and dollar costs of the Iraq War and asks: “Why the Silence?”
4th Unitarian is located on Strawberry Road, a residential street of modest homes lined by old trees. The main church building is a simple two-story structure with large multi-pane windows covering the sides on both floors. This building is an addition to a stone house, also part of the church. They sit far back from the road on a broad lawn, beginning to be covered with yellow leaves, on which the parishioners park their cars.
At the entrance of the church we were greeted warmly and genuinely by the pastor, the Reverend Dawn Sangrey and Leslie Heffernan, of the social concerns committee, who arranged the visit by Corporal VonDerHeyde. We were also greeted cordially by other parishioners as we took seats on folding chairs that are used for services. With the welcome, the large windows and the simple interior, the room had an unusual feeling of openness and freedom. Parishioners walked about the room visiting with each other in a relaxed way, waiting for the service to start.
I immediately encountered a friend I had not seen in several years, Al Weger, and I asked him how it is that Unitarian churches seem to have more interest in social issues and war and peace than some other denominations. He said that the Unitarian branch of Christianity had formed in the early history of the United States on the belief in a single God rather than the Trinity - Father, Son and Holy Ghost - and that Henry David Thoreau and other leaders in social freedom were influenced by Unitarianism.
(Garry Wills provides a detailed account of the origins of Unitarinism in “Head and Heart: American Christianities”-Penguin Press)
By the time the service got underway, delayed in waiting for Corporal VonDerHeyde to arrive, about 70 people were assembled, all dressed casually. The parishioners were mostly white with several African-Americans, including African-American children adopted by white parents.
The service was conducted by parishioners and began with announcements and a candle lighting by members of the social action committee as this was a “social action service.” The first hymn was “This is My Song” , which speaks against nationialism with lines such as …”other hearts in other lands are beating, with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.” (Check Wikipedia.com for a history of this hymn, which has its origin in a symphonic poem by Finnish composer Jean Sebelius.)
In the Joys and Concerns portion of the service, Reverend Sangrey made her one appearance in the service, announcing that her step-son’s wife had just given birth to a baby boy.
Then, after the offering, young children in the congregation were invited to come forward for their message before going out to Sunday school. They were asked: “Do you guys know what a veteran is?” A boy said: “Someone who fought for a war, and they won.” A girl then offered, “Sometimes they fight it and don’t win it.”
Shortly after these children left the hall, Corporal VonDerHeyde was introduced.
He was wearing a light green camoflagued uniform with a black beret stuffed in his trouser pocket. He was about six feet, with close-cropped hair, heavy-set, ruddy-faced and with a military bearing. He hooked up a computer to a projector, and as he talked slides flashed onto the screen next to him showing him in Iraq, some of his buddies, trucks and other vehicles burning, make-shift armor on trucks like the ones in which he rode, and a few that included Iraqis, one a corpse. There was a slide simply of a traffic sign, in English and Arabic, that read: “Stop Here Or Be Shot.”
Corporal VonDerHeyde opened his talk by saying that as an active-duty soldier he was not able to talk about certain things, like what he thinks of the President, then coughed in a joking way not quite concealing his true thought, or the reason for the war, and he coughed over the word “money”, or his opinion on whether the war was about fighting terrorism, and he coughed again. People laughed.
He said that although the day was dedicated to peace, he had to say that he is not a pacifist, that there are things worth fighting for, such as the freedom to search for meaning evidenced in the church service. What is not worth fighting for, he continued, are: “lies, imperialism, bullies, money, expansion of your country’s businesses.”
He then began talking about his experience in Iraq, where he was assigned to be part of a truck transport unit that had called itself the “Outcast Express”. He said that 26 people in his unit had left the States and 26 had returned, but he said there had been “a real high cost of coming home alive.” He did not elaborate, but it seemed that he was talking about injuries to body, mind and spirit that they had suffered.
He said that his unit had created a symbol of a black demon head with long horns to be painted on its trucks, with the idea that this would frighten their Iraqi opponents. He said this showed how little they understood about Iraq, as Iraqis joked about the symbol, calling it the “the black rabbit.”
Corporal VonDerHeyde devoted a major part of his time to talking about various buddies in his unit and the strong bonds of friendship among them. It seemed that this part of his experience had been very positive for him. He said he had had the demon symbol of his unit tatooed on his chest, he said.
He described how he, while riding in a lightly armored transport, had lost the hearing in his right ear when the truck hit a bomb planted in the road. He saw a knob sticking out of the road, called for the driver to stop, but too late. After the explosion, he said he jumped out of the vehicle with his weapon, but was hung up on headphones he had been wearing. When he got disentangled, another soldier told him to start firing on their attackers, but he couldn’t hear. Then he found blood running out of his ear. His friend had to mime firing a weapon in the direction of the enemy before he knew he was supposed to shoot.
He said he has “no idea to this day how I didn’t get hit...I’m still deaf as a post on this side.”
He said he could see the faces of Iraqis that he was shooting at, that they are dead and that he has dreams about them. He wants to assure young people, he said, that there is “no college tuition worth the nightmares you’ll have.” And, “I’m talking about killing human beings.” He said of the Iraqi resistance: “They believe in what they are doing.”
At one point when a slide of a burned out civilian car came on the screen, Corporal VonDerHeyde had said “That was a bad day for that guy”. In explaining the fighting in the truck bombing incident, he said the U.S. soldiers “put some fire down” at the enemy. But later in his talk he recognized that what he had said about putting down fire may have sounded callous, and he said the term doesn’t negate the fact that “There are real people dying.”
He concluded by urging the congregation to do more to bring the troops home, to run for office, to do whatever they could think of. “There is nothing going on over there that is worth killing another human being.”
During the question and answer period, he was asked by an elderly man if he hadn’t volunteered for Army, possibly implying that the corporal should not object to the war. Corporal VonDerHeyde said yes, he had volunteered.
A woman said that she and friends were sending “Care” packages to troops in Iraq but they were unsure what to send. He said “Baby Wipes” are very much appreciated for cleaning vitually anything including weapons: “Baby Wipes are king.” He said that bed sheets are also in demand. He said troops had plenty of toothpaste and that they had given out surplus tubes to Iraqi children, who mistook the toothpaste as candy because of its sweet, minty taste.
While he seemed to have said that the war is not worth fighting, in answer to a question from the congregation, he said that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein “was evil with feet,” that it was a good thing that he was removed from power. He said that he was certain that the U.S. knew that Hussein had weapons of mass destruction because they had made in the U.S.A. on them. He said that Hussein had chemical weapons because he had used them on his own people. He said he believed everything that was said about the war up until the time when George W. Bush announced “Mission Accomplished”.
Although he said that U.S. forces should be brought home,he does not want Congress to cut off funding while the U.S. still has troops in Iraq because they need the support. And, he said, he hoped that U.S. troops could at least “provide some kind of stability” in Iraq that would “keep people from being killed.”
In answer to the final question of the morning, from a woman who spoke about a relative in the military, Corporal VonDerHeyde said he has a 21-year-old son in the Air Force who had wanted to be assigned to Iraq and was disappointed to have been sent instead to Qatar where there is a major facility to provide “R&R for the front-line troops.” He said his son called him two weeks ago to say how bored he is.
Corporal VonDerHeyde attended the coffee hour at the end of the service. A mother brought over her soon to chat with him. The boy was dressed in his Cub Scout uniform, apparently in preparation for marching that afternoon in the local Veterans Day parade. She said her son was very excited by Corporal VonDerHeyde’s uniform.
As Sandra and I left, we discussed how we appreciated that the Unitarians had been willing to take a position for withdrawal from Iraq in their service. We also appreciated that Corporal VonDerHeyde had had the courage to speak out on the war, but at the same time we
(Note: The Fall 2007 edition of “Rights Now” published by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, has a call for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and “calls on the U.S. government to declare unequivocally that we have no intention of maintaining a long-term military presence in Iraq.”)
The foregoing was written by Nick Mottern.
The sun shone brightly on this crisp Sunday fall morning, and the colors of the landscape made it an outstanding day to hear truths, concerns and the real deal from a soldier who was willing (a suicide mission I thought) to speak out about the ills of this war, and I was ready to hear it all.
Corporal Karl VonDerHyde, a member of the U.S. Army Reserve who carried out 200 transport missions in Iraq, said he began speaking about the war after he wrote a comment on a petition regarding the war, “not a big fan of the current war.” This statement made him visible in the U.S. Out of Iraq crusade.
He started out by saying, (making it clear), that when wearing his uniform he is governed by the Constitution and the Military Code of Justice. Meaning, he said, that he couldn’t speak against the President, why the U.S. is in Iraq or his opinion of Global War on Terrorism. He could only talk of his experience in Iraq, but he said there might be things about this he could not relate.
The Corporal talked of training at Fort Dix in New Jersey and said that there were arrests of a terrorist cell operating out of a pizzeria from which he ordered pizza about 3 to 4 times a week, and he got these people on and off base constantly. He used this as an example of why he might not answer certain questions during Q&A because he doesn’t want to be responsible for someone dying on the other side of the world.
He said that there were things worth fighting for, risking his life to protect. But he said lies are not worth fighting for, or imperialism, bullying, money, and expansion of your country’s business overseas. In his opinion, the U.S. involvement is all about money.
The corporal talked of capitalism in Iraq mentioning the presence of Burger King, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Subway, Popeye’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Baskin & Robbins Ice Cream and Wal-Mart which has a “big stake” in the PX. And he said Halliburton and associated companies are also involved. And, he said this made him very angry.
He has no respect for the former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld due to a statement by Rumsfeld early in the war: “there are no unarmored vehicles in the Iraqi theater of operation.” Karl and his outfit had to dig in scrap yards for material to armor their vehicles.
He said that the people he served with he knew better than his own family. The outfit called themselves, “Outcast Express”. Their logo was a demon head. It was to intimidate the Iraqis. So taken by this logo, the soldier had it tattooed on his chest. But the Iraqi’s thought their logo looked like a black rabbit so they were known by the local people as the “Black Rabbits”.
Discussed were personalities of the Outcast Express including a gay soldier who saved the corporal’s life and Rick the lunatic, who saw a box on the road and decided to kick it even though he suspected it could be a bomb, being warned not to kick it and kicking it anyway. Thank Goodness it was ‘just’ a box.
Corporal VonDerHeyee said that only one U.S. soldier has gone missing in Iraq until this day, and the corporal thinks he is dead. But, he said, the Army has listed a soldier as captured so that the family can collect his paycheck, since 2004. The missing soldier has been promoted 2 times. He felt this was a humanitarian thing for the Army to do.
Even though the detestation of Saddam Hussein was high, the U.S. troops still used the arena where he trained his Olympic team as a retreat when there was a lull in the action.
He gave definitions like “fill the hole” or “open up the perimeter” meaning weapons fire that he said are all about killing humans beings, people with homes and families. The corporal stated that there is no college tuition worth what you’d experience in war because the “benefits don’t outweigh the negative stuff”.
He said the reason he fought in Iraq was simply to survive for his family and to protect his buddies and that was it.
When the war started, Corporal Karl VonDerHyede was a true believer until he got to Iraq and saw what was happening. He thought there weapons of mass destruction controlled by Hussein because the U.S. sold them to Iraq. But none were found.
The soldier’s last remark was… what is victory, what has to happen in Iraq for us to say that we won?
Question from the audience: a group of women ‘”adopted” a platoon, and wanted to know what they preferred in a care package. Answer: “Baby wipes are king”, cleans you, your weapon. But no toothpaste, the children thought from the minty taste it was candy.
At the end of Corporal VonDerHyede’s talk, I was disappointed that he didn’t seem to be giving the whole raw truth of what he had experienced, and wondered if he could have done so if he was not wearing his uniform?
The slides consisted of landscapes, sunsets, down-time, partying and swimming at Saddam Hussein’s Olympic training camp, a burning vehicle and the Outcast Express logo. His comments on the pictures of his buddies and his sometimes humorous comments and imitations of mortar rounds falling and talking over a radio made me feel he needed to talk about the lighter side of the war for him, the friendship, what had been done for relaxation, with less emphasis on his combat experience.
The definitions that he gave about “fill the hole” and other terms for killing led me to believe that the soldiers did accomplish their mission; they did kill and not just soldiers. Because of this, I was hoping to hear more of exactly what he had experienced that made him oppose the war.
He talked in a glib, almost joking way about a Christmas Eve mortar attack on a base where he was stationed, mimmicking the sound of mortar round landing, by making popping sounds in cupped hands as he held the microphone. While he apparently did this to convey the reality he had experienced, there was a certain pleasure in repeating the story. He joked about how a soldier had been told that there was sheperd on the road ahead, but the soldier thought what he was being alerted to was a dog not a man tending sheep. He joked about a gunner on a .50 caliber gun wondering how he could be a Buddhist and still be a gunner. One of the bases he had visited, he said, was nicknamed “Mortariaville” because it was being hit so often with mortar shells.
Note: As a person who was in the Navy from 1960 to 1963 and was stationed in what was then Saigon, South Viet Nam, I have had difficulty in reporting on Corporal VonDerHeyde’s talk because I know personally that although one may find shocking evidence to condemn a U.S. war of occupation, there is an excitement and fascination in the life and death experience, the deadliness of it, that is fascinating and can be strengthening or profoundly destructive physically and spiritly. I was fortunate to never have been involved in direct combat or to have to fire at an enemy or be fired on directly by an enemy. For me, to my knowledge, I did not experience the profound dark, blank loss of war, the grissly, brutality that it can bring. The terror.
My impression is that Corporal VanDerHeyde was caught somewhere between. His experience and his injury made him believe that the U.S. should withdraw, but he could not help himself from conveying the joy he had experienced in comradeship, the casualness, machismo and gallows humor that could also give the impression that in some ways he had had a good time in Iraq, perhaps one of the greatest times of his life.
He made it clear that in the end, what he was loyal to in Iraq was his friends and his family not U.S. policy and that he thought this got him and his friends home. But the military lingo endures for every veteran I’ve known
I expect that this is what is called the love of war, the kind of thing manifested into monsterous form in Patton. As wars go on this love is overpowered by the rentless logic of loss and sadness in the hideous injuries to the living as well as blank spots in our hearts left by the dead. Corporal VonDerHeyde asked what is victory? He is also asking what number have to die and be wounded to tip the balance toward peace.