by Marcella Bombardieri
NEW YORK — A year and a half ago, Robert Sarra was a Marine sergeant in Iraq, where, he says, he once fired his M-16 at a black-cloaked old woman who failed to stop when she was told. Instead of a suicide bomb, the bundle she carried to her death held only bread, tea, and a white flag.
From that day in a tiny town called Ash Shatra, Sarra says, he journeyed through dark territory — heavy drinking, violent outbursts, therapy — and finally from his temporary job in Chicago to the Republican National Convention this week. It is in New York that he embraced his new role — peace activist. “I became opposed to the war when I saw we had no point in what was going on over there,” said Sarra, 32, who spent nine years in the Marines and left in April. “We are all trying to make sure that the next time the US goes to war, it’s for a good reason.”
The massive protest in Manhattan on Sunday marked one of the first public appearances of a new group called Iraq Veterans Against the War. Though it is still small, numbering about 40, its members are taking tips from more established veterans groups, and because of their war experience, they seem likely to take a prominent role in debate about the Iraq war.
Almost unheard of before they caught the cameras’ gaze Sunday, the Iraq veterans are now juggling interview requests from Fox News and MSNBC and GQ and Maxim magazines.
“We have a currency no one else has,” said Mike Hoffman, 25, of Trenton, N.J., a Marine veteran who is the national coordinator of the group. “We’ve been there, we’ve seen stuff out there that no one else has, and nobody can argue with that.”
One by one, the founders met one another at antiwar rallies or got in touch through groups such as Veterans for Peace and Vietnam Veterans against the War — the group to which John F. Kerry belonged and which these Iraq veterans consider their model.
In March, Hoffman met Tim Goodrich, a 24-year-old Air Force veteran who has served in the Middle East. They talked about the idea of a peace group for recent veterans and gathered six other founding members. They announced their group at the Veterans for Peace national convention in Boston, which overlapped the Democratic National Convention.
Their ranks have grown. They had a dozen or so members in the antiwar march, and about five they had not known found them in the crowd.
They see themselves as the “little brothers” of the Vietnam veterans who protested that war. Among the tips they have been given by seasoned activists: Take it slow at the beginning, make sure all your guys have been honorably discharged, and feel free to end an interview whenever you want.
One of their mentors is David Cline, president of Veterans for Peace and a national coordinator for Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Cline said the participation in the peace movement of men and women who served in Iraq “makes it much harder for those who attack us to discredit us.”
Cline added that he believes there were about 1,000 veterans of various wars and family members of military personnel marching together Sunday.
Goodrich, who says he scrawled obscenities on bombs that were dropped on Afghanistan, starting reading peace materials on the Web when he was posted in Saudi Arabia in 2002. It gave him something to do while he waited for jets to return from patrolling Iraq’s “no-fly” zones.
Even before he was deployed to Iraq, Hoffman stumbled across a Noam Chomsky book that altered his views on US foreign policy. He still went to Iraq, he says, because it was his duty.
Hoffman has been a full-time activist since the fall, when his job managing a Halloween store ended. Goodrich, who lives in San Diego, sells gym memberships. Sarra has been taking temporary jobs and teaching at a summer camp. All contend that activism has become their driving force.
They know they will attract the suspicion of other veterans and those serving in Iraq. Sarra already has.
Shaken by the death of the old woman (shot by several Marines) in March 2003, he says he refused to go back to the same town days later to look for a missing Marine. “I said, ‘Look, we shot up a bunch of civilians. I don’t want to put my life and my Marines’ lives in jeopardy for a guy who’s probably dead,’ ” Sarra recounted.
Sarra was cited for displaying a lack of courage. Later, after refusing to return for a second tour in Iraq, he received an honorable discharge but was made ineligible for reenlistment, he said.
Back home, Sarra fought an internal battle. Fourth of July fireworks sent him diving for the ground and crawling indoors, he said. Once, in a drunken rage, he told a foreign cabdriver: “I wiped out your entire family over there, and I’ll get you, too.”
Other returning veterans will need a support network and someone advocating for their rights, Sarra said. He said he got only perfunctory help from the military for his post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I support the troops 110 percent,” he said. “These guys just want to come home.”