Change of Scenery

A US humvee during a patrol in the
city of Kirkuk. Photo courtesy of Ayub Nuri.

This week on War News Radio, the mother of a young Iraq veteran tells us about how the war has affected his return home. Elise Garrity reports.

Then, we hear about one soldier’s dissatisfaction with the media’s coverage of the war, and what he did about it. Elizabeth Hipple has the report.

In February of this past year the Iraqi government announced a new flag, we hear reactions to the change from Kurds in Iraq’s north. Listen now to Jess Engebretson’s report.

Finally we hear about some of the struggles that Iraqi immigrants in America face in their new homes. Sarah Whites-Koditschek reports.

These stories, this week on War News Radio.
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VARIOUS: “From Swarthmore College, This is War News Radio”

KRISTIN CASPAR: I’m Kristin Caspar.

ALEX IMAS: And I’m Alex Imas.

HEIDI: “He was in an alley shooting stuff, thinking the military was after him, it was just crazy. It’s only a miracle he didn’t get shot.”

KRISTIN CASPAR: As soldiers return home from service in Iraq, many are finding reintegration to be a challenge. This week on War News Radio: Change of Scenery. We speak with the mother of a young Iraq veteran about his challenges readjusting to life in the United States.

ALEX IMAS: And, we hear from the creator of, who tells us about his problems with the media’s coverage of the war, and what he’s doing to fill in the gaps.

KRISTIN CASPAR: We also talk to a few Kurds about their thoughts on the new interim Iraqi flag.

ALEX IMAS: Then, we hear from Iraqis who are trying to adjust to life in Virginia. But is the American government standing in their way?

KRISTIN CASPAR: Finally, we talk to Iraqis about the importance of the postal system and the challenges of keeping the mail coming. These stories, this week on War News Radio.

ALEX IMAS: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is an invisible war wound, which can surface in unexpected and frightening ways. Some veterans are pushed to the brink before they decide to seek help. Elise Garrity spoke to the mother of a 24-year old Iraq veteran, about how the dangers her son has faced have extended beyond the battlefield.

ELISE GARRITY: In September of 2001, Heidi’s older son David was eighteen years old. After 9/11 happened and an army recruited visited his high school, he and some of his friends decided to sign up for the National Guard. Four years later, as a sophomore in college, David was deployed to Iraq. After a year overseas, his mother says, back to school wasn’t back to normal.

HEIDI: You can imagine sitting in a library and hearing rocket propelled grenades, and feeling like you don’t fit in because you’re so different from the other kids. He couldn’t relate at all…

ELISE GARRITY: David did manage to complete his junior year, but all the while had difficulty settling into civilian life.

HEIDI: You know he did a lot of things that a lot of these guys do – drink hard, drive fast, get in fights, trying to get the adrenaline back, because he just didn’t feel like he was really alive and so I think that was a big thing for going back because that’s where he really felt alive. He felt like he had a purpose, you know all of those kind of things.

ELISE GARRITY: In June of 2007, David was called to Iraq for a second tour, this time with a different sense of purpose.

HEIDI: Well the first time he believed in the mission, you know, freedom and democracy, I don’t know that he bought into that whole weapons of mass destruction – I doubt, I doubt that very much. This time he’s, now he’s saying oil.

ELISE GARRITY: Heidi and her son kept in touch online, and she says that David kept it light.

HEIDI: Just very casual, “how’s it going, everything here is fine, just really busy,” very very casual, because he knew I would have had a fit, I would have been so worried if I knew he was getting blown up on a regular basis. He told me that in the midst of his pain, that’s when he opened up after he came back.

ELISE GARRITY: In May of 2008, David completed his second tour. Upon seeing him for the first time, Heidi was shocked to find her son so devastated.

HEIDI: I picked him up at the airport when he came back from his training. So I picked him up, and actually the people on the plane: “Oh thank you, you’re heroes,” and they put him in first class and they gave him a whole bunch of liquor. So they were just drunk coming off the plane and his head just kept spinning, he just kept talking and talking, which you know, you just let him talk, not say it’s going to be okay or “you were brave and you did what you had to do”. I just patted him and every now and then I would say I just love you, because they don’t want to hear it’s okay. Because they don’t feel it’s okay, they’re not at peace with what they did.

ELISE GARRITY: What bothered David most was guilt. He mourned for the Iraqi civilians who had become victims of combat.

HEIDI: That’s the horrible thing for him, and he called himself a killer and a murderer. I mean that – he’s like these are innocent people, we’re killing so many innocent people, and we’re not, you know, it’s not all terrorists and insurgents. That’s what’s eating him up. Women and children, fathers that have absolutely nothing to do with anything. And he just can’t, he just can’t let that go.

ELISE GARRITY: Despite all of his shame, David wanted to keep fighting. He had been planning to make a career for himself in the military, and his second tour had pushed thoughts of college far from his mind.

HEIDI: At first when he came back he just wanted to turn around and go back. He hasn’t been thinking straight, he had some brain damage, a little bit of brain trauma because their humvee hit an IED and exploded. So he was having a hard time concentrating and reading, he had ringing in his ear and he was like how am I going to do school like that? So he was talking really crazy when he first came back.

ELISE GARRITY: At first, Heidi says that David was resistant to the idea of getting help. But then he took a trip to Thailand with some friends. What happened on the way changed not only his mind, but the course of his life.

HEIDI: He was going to Thailand with his buddies, his army buddies, and he got in trouble in Japan. Legal trouble. Someone put his hands on him and his immediate reaction is to lash out, and you can’t do that. He had to pay some fines, all that kind of stuff, but the army busted him down a rank, which really hurt him a lot. This is clear-cut, you can see what’s happening. Just so much of this PTSD stuff.

ELISE GARRITY: David was diagnosed with PTSD at an army base in Japan. Back at home, Heidi contacted a local vet center, where he could get counseling. David was finally ready to ask for help.

HEIDI: So when he came home he had that on his mind. This is what I’m going to do, I’m committed to getting the help I need. And on his drive back from the airport the army called and said we’re not releasing you from active duty, we’re going to take you down where we want you to go, and he’s like “no I need to be with my family, I got counseling here.” So he kind of flipped out. That’s what propelled him, that was a couple days of drinking before the incident with the police. He was in an alley shooting stuff, thinking the military was after him, it was just crazy. It’s only a miracle he didn’t get shot. In fact when the police called me, they brought him to the VA hospital, but when they called me I thought for sure, that was what they were going to tell me. So he ended up at the VA hospital, sobbing in my arms, just broken. So broken and I’m just hugging him and rocking him, it broke my heart. Broke my heart and it just really made me angry that you’re going to use someone up, and not take care of him. So the military did come and get him, jerked him out of there and took him down almost 20 hours away from where I live and put him in their counseling program. So we can’t visit, it’s too far to go visit.

ELISE GARRITY: Heidi sees a silver lining in the fact that her son will no longer make a career for himself in the military. She says that he eventually plans to finish college as a business major. But that’s a long ways off. Heidi is a single mother of two, and David is not all on her mind. As her older son returns home, broken from the war, her younger son is preparing to leave. He signed up for the National Guard while David was on his second tour in Iraq.

HEIDI: I just hate it that I have a 19 year old that has to go over at the end of this year. My youngest joined the Guard. They have huge signing bonuses, like 20 thousand dollar sign-up bonuses. When you’re dealing with an 18-year old, that’s all he’s thinking about is that money. So he signed up, he went to boot camp last summer and now he has to go, either at the end of this year or the beginning of next year.

ELISE GARRITY: The past few months have been emotionally grueling for Heidi.

HEIDI: I’m very, very angry. I’m like, now I’m at the point I’m fighting mad, where I want to get involved politically, and I’m ready to join Women against Military Madness, people need to hear what’s going on. Especially after being online and reading all these stories and these families suffering, these vets who are lost and falling through the cracks, I’m furious. For what? All these lives being ruined and for what?

ELISE GARRITY: Purpose is a big question for all involved in the war today. After seeing David’s disillusionment about his purpose fighting for the war, Heidi has found her own – a fight against it. A fight for David’s life. For War News Radio, I’m Elise Garrity.

[That piece featured music by Calexico]

[Music Break: He War by Cat Power]

KRISTIN CASPAR: Staff Sergeant Bryan Paul of the Illinois Air National Guard saw news as it was made when he served in Iraq. Elizabeth Hipple spoke with Staff Sergeant Paul about how his time serving in Iraq inspired him to create, a website that brings the power of the media to the people.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: Bryan Paul, 23, was deployed twice to Iraq with the Illinois Air National Guard. Bryan didn’t see much resemblance between his experiences there and what the media was reporting, such as when he flew voters to the polling station during Iraq’s first elections in December 2005.

BRYAN PAUL: I had the pleasure of hauling around 80 of the Iraqi people and their ballots from the base where they were able to vote safely and back to their home in Baghdad. And every single one of them came up and shook my hand and only one of the gentleman on board spoke English and he came up and said, “God bless you and thank you so much for what you’re doing, you’re finally giving us a voice and it’s a wonderful thing”. You didn’t see that on the media and it was a touching moment.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: Bryan was discouraged by news coverage that failed to show Americans the Iraq he saw.

BRYAN PAUL: I think the most motivating thing when you’re over there is knowing that the people back home are empathizing with you and when they don’t get the same picture you’re getting it’s disheartening because you’re doing what you’re doing for the reasons you see in front of you and you don’t feel like they have your back if they don’t the same picture you’re seeing.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: Looking for a forum on the internet to voice his concerns, Bryan was frustrated when he couldn’t find such a place that was free of politics.

BRYAN PAUL: I looked for awhile for any kind of outlet or website that might remedy the situation and I was pretty disappointed since most of these fact checking website clearly stated, “we’re trying to stop the conservatives” “we’re trying to stop the liberals”.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: Bryan’s frustrations led him to launch in March. Hadnessing the populist power of the internet, fixmedia allows anyone to make a post flagging a news story they think is inaccurate or misleading.

BRYAN PAUL: That’s kinda the goal of the website: if we had enough eyes on all the media, and someone like a doc was a member of FixMedia and they saw this article and they said, “in my opinion that’s not correct” they could link whatever else, medical docs and everything and they post and then other people get the word out before that and that kind of tragedy is averted.

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: Bryan hopes that fixmedia will fill in the gaps in the mainstream media’s coverage of news.

BRYAN PAUL: As opposed to a lot of the websites out there that’s just one person or group that’s fact-checking the media and stuff gets overlooked and of course whenever you get a single person or small group you’re invariably going have some kind of bias, it’s just human nature but if you have a thousand, ten thousand people, you have more eyes, stuff that normally would get overlooked are going to get discovered and caught…

ELIZABETH HIPPLE: We encourage you to check out Bryan’s site for yourselves at For War News Radio, I’m Elizabeth Hipple.

[Music Break: R.I.P. Dilla by Jared Arnold]

ALEX IMAS: For 40 years, a red, white and black flag represented Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The three stars represented the Ba’ath Party principles of Freedom, Unity and Socialism, while the words Allahu Akbar in Hussein’s handwriting served as a reminder of the President’s power. But, with the fall of the Ba’ath Party, a new flag was needed, and in February, a temporary version passed — without the green stars. In a piece first aired in February, Jess Engebretson spoke with some Iraqis Kurds to get their assessment of the new flag.

HARDI AHMED: My name is Hardi Ahmed. I am a photographer in Erbil. The Kurdish government refused to raise the previous flag because they said it belonged to the Ba’ath party. Now they have removed the three stars and changed the font of the Allahu Akbar. But in fact it doesn’t have any Kurdish symbol on it. If the Kurdish leadership raises the flag because we are part of Iraq, that’s alright–but I believe the flag ought to have symbols of all the different minorities in the country. But it is all a political game. They change and raise the flag for sake of some political gain. Kurdish leaders have won the game because they refused to raise the Iraqi flag unless it was changed. Finally they changed it. It doesn’t benefit the Kurdish people in any way. Only the leaders win politically.

NAZ HIWA: I am Naz Hiwa; I am a student at Suleimanya University, studying political science. As a Kurdish citizen, I think that the new flag will change nothing. In Kurdistan, we have many other problems that our leaders need to address. Members of parliament should meet to solve these other issues instead of just trying to decide whether or not to change the flag. One of our problems is the education system. Like Europe and America, we have to first work on our education system. But here we have done very little work on our schools. The leaders here need to try to help the universities. I am a student myself. There hasn’t been any change or progress in our university. Students who stay in dormitories do not have services. In the cold of the winter, most of the students were out in the streets demanding services. This was a major problem, and the whole city get involved in the issue. Our government had to meet and seek a solution for that problem. We also have a budget problem. One of our professors recently told us that only 4% of the budget, which comes from Baghdad, has been spent on projects. The rest of it has disappeared in corruption. In just a few words I want to say that our parliament needs to deal with our education system and our budget. The flag has never been a problem.

DANA RAHEEM: My name is Dana Raheem. I am a school teacher in the town of Kalar. I have no problem with the new flag. Our Kurdish representatives in Baghdad have accepted it, so we as the Kurdish people should accept it too. The old flag had three stars that stood for the Ba’ath party. Now, as the three stars have been removed from the flag, it should be fine, it shouldn’t be a problem at all. In reality, everyone in Kurdistan wishes there was only the Kurdish flag, but since we are part of Iraq, we should raise the Iraqi flag and this new flag is better than the old one.

BURHAN MUHAMMED: My name is Burhan Muhammed. I am a government employee in Halabja. First of all, I don’t think the old flag was a representative of the Ba’ath party. But now as the parliament has agreed on this new flag, I think the Kurds should have had a say in this. So I don’t think this new flag is any different from the old one. Kurdistan is not an independent country. We are still part of Iraq, so we have to raise the Iraqi flag in our region. But in fact we have other problems, like resolving the status of Kirkuk, and the budget problem. Every year we have to face the dilemma of how to deal with the Kurdish budget. So I don’t really know what the removal of three stars on our flag would change about the current situation.

[Music Break: A Tribe Called Jamrod by Jared Arnold]

KRISTIN CASPAR: This is War News Radio. I’m Kristin Caspar. Thousands of immigrants come to the US every year searching for a better life and greater opportunity. But some face grave challenges. In a piece first aired in June 2006, Sarah Whites-Koditshek spoke with members of a Kurdish community in Virginia who are adjusting to American life while fighting a legal system that calls them terrorists.

SARAH W-K: One might wonder how there got to be a Kurdish community in Virginia in the first place, Professor of Economics J. Barkley Rosser from Harrisonburg’s James Madison University says this particular group of Kurds had helped the US in the first Iraqi war.

J. BARKLEY ROSSER: These people were viewed by Saddam Hussein as enemies of his government and their lives were threatened and the US government airlifted 650 Kurds out in 1996 in Operation Pacific Haven.

SARAH W-K: Kurdish refugees spent four months on the Island of Guam finishing security clearances, then one of the Rashid Qambari happened to move to Harrisonburg attracting others.

RASHID QAMBARI: As soon as they find out Rashid has been resettled in that city in the state of Virginia, I find them a job and I help to find them a place to live and they contact two other families and the two families contact two others.

SARAH W-K: Rashid is now on probation for sending money back to Kurdistan without the proper paper-work, like the other two defendants he had been using the tradition halala system where one trusted friend send money to another. It is these pro-American refugees workiong to support their families in Iraq who have been investigated by the FBI since September 11 for terrorist activities. So how has the Harrisonburg community reacted to the trial? Mike Medley who teaches at James Madison was at the sentencing hearing on Monday.

MIKE MEDLEY: This is amazing, I guess I have never been in a federal trial before and so I have never seen anything like this happen and the judge says the court room is full today and he says I wonder how many people are here in support of these men. And as we started to raise our hand and he asked us to please stand up if we were in support of these men, and of course everyone in hte court room stood up except for the journalists and the lawyers and the court staff. So he was very impressed by that.

SARAH W-K: So impressed that the judge gave them men probation rather than jail time and deportation. Imam Askari, the religious leader of the Harrisonburg mosque.

IMAM ASKARI: Yes. Huge impact on the court. Even the judge the judge acknowledged that. He said that was remarkable when he asked all the people who support the Kurdish community that meaning that you are successful people that you are good people you make a good relationship with the community. And yes affecting the judge in his final decision.

SARAH W-K: Again, defendant Rashid Qambari:

RASHID QAMBARI: What happened on Monday was happy for me because I didn’t know what was going to happen and we was worried, me and my family, but at the same time we had faith, our spirit was up because we are going to the United States judge which is a lot different than any other places most likely when you go with the law enforcement for any reason especially for politic opinions and freedom of speech most likely you are not coming back.

SARAH W-K: The light sentences were not only good news for the three defendants but for the whole Kurdish community which feared more investigations and more prosecutions. Christi Kramer, the wife of Imam Askari,

CHRISTI KRAMER: My sense was that people were very relieved yesterday that of the three men sentenced, none are in jail. That was a huge fear in the community.

SARAH W-K: Again Imam Askari:

IMAM ASKARI: The Kurdish community originally felt insecure all them were thinking, oh! someone is coming to visit me someone is coming to seize my house, my properties. And some families I know cannot even sleep at night.

SARAH W-K: What’s more, these Kurds are left to worry about their families in Iraq without being able to do anything about it. Again Rashid Qambari:

RASHID QAMBARI: I can tell you since the beginning of 2003 when I couldn’t do that anymore they did not receive a penny from me.

SARAH W-K: The support and camaraderie that was present in the court-room on Monday, isn’t new between the Kurdish community and the rest of Harrisonburg. It started after September 11th when the peace studies program at James Madison as well as local churches started reaching out the Kurdish community, and offer them protection if they or their mosque is targeted. But not everyone in Harrisonburg welcomes the Kurds. Again, Mike Medley:

MIKE MEDLEY: Definitely, I mean Harrisonburg has seen a lot of changes in the last 30, I mean Harrisonburg has gone from being a mostly white and certainly a white dominated community 30 years ago, to being a much more multi-ethnic community today. So for long time natives of Harrisonburg the changes are not always easy and not always looked upon positively.

SARAH W-K: Again, Christi Kramer:

CHRISTI KRAMER: While people were standing outside the courthouse, one person yelled to go back to Iraq.

SARAH W-K: When the FBI first began coming to Kurdish homes, they did not ask for help. The FBI asked them to keep the visits secret, but word got out. Mike Medley was one of the people who began the organization, Standing With Our Neighbors.

MIKE MEDLEY: When Standing With Our Neighbors formed which was in the end of February or beginning of March of this year, one of the first things that we did was form a couple of different groups of people, one group was a group of first responders, who if the FBI were to visit someone’s house again, they would be reached through a telephone tree, and members of the first responders would show up on the scene where the FBI was so that we could just be witnesses to what happened.

SARAH W-K: Standing With Our Neighbors went on to put an ad in a local newspaper with hundreds of signatures, wrote letter to local politicians and held potlucks for the Kurds and their families. The Kurds had earned this support they were hard-working and involved in the community, again Christi Kramer,

CHRISTI KRAMER: People had all different reasons why they were supportive of the families here, a lot of people who identified as people of faith and were then acting on the mandates of their faith responding to their beliefs.

EILEEN MAGRUDER: The reason that I responded so strongly is that I am Japanese American.

SARAH W-K: Eileen Magruder, a member of standing with our neighbors:

EILEEN MAGRUDER: And all of my family was interned in World War 2 and so few people stood up for them, I understand that the Quakers were the only ones that really came forward and were in support of the Japanese Americans, and I really am quite encouraged as I’ve watched people in our community stand up.

SARAH W-K While these Kurds were certainly not round up and interned, the experience was quite frightening especially for the children, according to Eileen so she decided to help.

EILEEN MAGRUDER: The children had been so traumatized by the FBI visits, one of the little girls would hide under a blanket on the bed anytime someone would knock on the door, that she thought it might be the FBI coming again. And so we have done a number of things and they have been really wonderful. The first activity that we did was a planting activity. It turns out that plants are such an important part of the life of the Kurdish people that it really was quite an appropriate activity. The children planted seeds and seedlings and they re-potted plants.

SARAH W-K: But friends and neighbors can only do so much, ultimately, says Imam Askari, the Kurds find their grounding in a higher power.

IMAM ASKARI: I tell people that they have trust God, they have to trust The Constitution, the legal system here. If they can. And after that let the consequences belong to God.

SARAH W-K: After everything they have been through the defendant consider their sentence of a year’s probation a gift. They escaped serving time behind bars and united their community. But even with their moral victory, a problem remains. The Kurds in Virginia cannot send money back to Iraq to their families. The people of Harrisonburg both the Kurds and hte other citizens are trying to change that. An effort is underway to petition the authorities for a permit under the Patriot Act that would allow them to send money to Iraq. The process will not be easy. There will be dead-ends, red tape, and maybe even another court battle. But for the citizens of Harrisonburg, it’s the only option. For War News Radio, I’m Sarah Whites-Koditschek.

KRISTIN CASPAR: That’s our show for this week.

ALEX IMAS: War News Radio is a production of Swarthmore College.

KRISTIN CASPAR: Visit us online to listen to archived shows, learn more about the program, or subscribe to our podcast. That’s at

ALEX IMAS: On our site, you can also comment on this show or on our past programs.

KRISTIN CASPAR: Our behind the scenes crew for this week includes: Marge Murphy, Ayub Nuri, Asher Sered, and Sonny Sidhu. I’m Kristin Caspar.

ALEX IMAS: And I’m Alex Imas. Until next time, thanks for listening.

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