A Gulf War veteran finds peace in the anti-war movement
Chico resident Jim Reis has been on the front lines in Iraq and in the peace marches of California. He has believed in both–the need to derail the presidency of Saddam Hussein, the need to stop U.S. military intervention in the Middle East.
He is not, in his own opinion, a man of contradictions, but rather an Army veteran who has traveled a common and yet complicated path. As a combat engineer with the U.S. Army’s 24th infantry division, he helped blow up civilian infrastructure in Iraq during Desert Storm.
Now, at 35, he protests the war in Iraq. He spoke at last week’s anti-war rally on the Chico State University campus. He heads up a local chapter of the national organization Veterans for Peace, which is comprised of like-minded people who have made the same extraordinary journey from war zones to peace marches.
Reis enlisted in May 1990, drawn by the U.S. Army’s college fund and his own family’s legacy. On his mother’s side, almost all the men have done military service.
Then, in August, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and the administration of former President George Bush Sr. intervened to push out Hussein’s military. Reis recalls that his unit was encouraged to destroy not only Iraq’s military bases but Iraqi infrastructure as well. U.S. military leaders reasoned that it would force Hussein to later spend large sums on re-building, he says. “We blew up freeway overpasses and power lines and ammunition supply bases, and it got to where we were shooting at buildings we passed,” Reis recalls.
In late 1992, 22-year-old Reis, who had lived in Capay near Orland before enlisting, returned to the United States and settled in Chico. Shortly after, he remembers driving through downtown on a Saturday morning and seeing a small band of peace activists on the corner of Main and Second streets. “I said to myself, ‘What the hell’s wrong with these crazy people?'” Reis says. “Eight years later, I was down there [protesting] with them.”
It took about six years, he says, to become convinced that he should actively oppose war. During those six years, he worked at the main Chico post office, took classes at Butte College and Chico State and had a series of what he calls “epiphanies.”
For example, he recalls delivering mail shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. “I saw a flier on a billboard for a ‘pro-war’ rally,” he says, remembering how odd the phrase “pro-war” struck him. “I thought, ‘This is insane.'”
He attended the rally, held in the Downtown Plaza Park. He says some of the people attending were wearing U.S. flags draped around their shoulders like capes. Reis, surprising even himself, climbed the gazebo stairs to the microphone to speak.
He recalls thanking the audience for the support he received from Chico residents when he was in Iraq. He recalls saying something about the horror of war and what he views as misguided U.S. foreign policies that lead this country to military interventions. He asked whether those in attendance would send their children to war without fully understanding why they were going.
He says people at the rally hollered “Yes!” and he was booed off the stage.
The United States, he points out, helped create the Taliban by supporting extremists who would fight the Russians during the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan. He believes the United States is repeating this error by supporting factions in Iraq that this government will later come to oppose. “We shouldn’t support dictators to begin with,” Reis says. “Then we wouldn’t have to go to war with them.”
Recent U.S. interventions, he says, are not about democracy, freedom or weapons of mass destruction, but about control of natural resources and military domination.
At the beginning of the Iraq war, U.S. soldiers were seen as “liberators,” Reis says. “Now we’re over there as occupiers. I wish someone could convince me we’re not being seen as occupiers.”
Reis blames the high rate of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder affecting Iraq war veterans on the type of “urban warfare” U.S. soldiers are engaged in. “You don’t know who your enemy is. There has to be severe psychological trauma,” he says.
Reis is sometimes determined, sometimes discouraged. He deals with medical “issues” related to his Gulf War service. He’s upset about the treatment of veterans, saying they’re “glorified during combat” but “often forgotten” when they come home.
But worse, his life journey has cost him the “blissful ignorance” he says he once enjoyed. In those days, Reis says he was “your typical, jingoistic American.” Now it’s different and harder. “I very much love my country,” Reis says, “but I fear and loathe my government right now.”
For information on the national organization Veterans for Peace go to: www.veteransforpeace.org