Paul Rieckhoff is the Executive Director and Founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), a non-partisan non-profit group with over 100,000 members around the world. Since founding IAVA in 2004, it has become America’s first and largest Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans organization. Rieckhoff is now a nationally recognized authority on the war in Iraq and issues affecting troops, military families and veterans.
After graduating from Amherst College in 1998 with a degree in Political Science, Rieckhoff coached high school football, worked on Wall Street, participated in the rescue efforts at Ground Zero on 9/11, and served as an infantry platoon leader in Iraq from 2003-2004. In the spring of 2004, Rieckhoff became one of the first Iraq veterans to publicly criticize the war, call for better care for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, and demand accountability from elected officials. In 2006 Rieckhoff also published Chasing Ghosts, a critically acclaimed account of his experiences in Iraq and activism on behalf of veterans.
Question: Is our job really over in Iraq?
Paul Rieckhoff: I don't even know what the job is, so to ask whether or not the job is done, I think if you ask a hundred Americans, “What are we doing in Iraq?” you're gonna get a hundred different answers. The same is true in Afghanistan, so the President says combat operations are over in Iraq, but we're still gonna have tens of thousands of troops in Iraq. So what are those troops gonna be doing? Washing windows? I mean, they're gonna be in a combat zone getting shot at, in harm's way.
So I think that this is an example of how politicians have driven the rhetoric in a very disingenuous way. If your son or daughter is in Iraq after this summer, you're still gonna be worried about them. You're still gonna be sending them care packages. You're still gonna be counting the days until that person comes home. And because so few people have somebody serving over there, they can get away with this kind of loose and fast rhetoric, and I think an artificial focus on troop numbers.
Troop numbers are not some kind of silver bullet to the world's problems of violence. We've seen that in Iraq. We've seen that in Afghanistan. We've seen that in counter-insurgencies around the globe for decades. So I think there's a real lack of understanding of what's happening on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there's a lack of understanding consistently that goes all the way back to the Bush administration.
So when President Obama spoke at the DAV, this was supposed to be an opportunity for him to talk about veterans' issues. It was supposed to be, for us, the biggest speech of the year. Instead every news story this week has been about the Iraq draw-down. I think that's a missed opportunity. He made a campaign pledge, he said he was gonna end the war in Iraq, and now he's trying to deliver on that promise. That is important to him, and that may be what people want to hear, but that is independent of his ability and his willingness to tackle veterans' issues. And that's part of what me and other people have been trying to decouple.
The warriors and taking care of them coming home is not necessarily linked to the war plan. It should be. There should be a continuation of care, but that doesn't exist right now, so when the President spoke about Afghanistan at West Point a couple months back and laid out his huge plan for Afghanistan, he neglected one word: veterans. He never mentioned the word "veterans," so if you were sitting home on your couch you were left with the idea of, “The President's got it under control. Our military has got it under control, and me? I can go back to watching 'American Idol' and shopping.”
So at some point, we've got to involve the American public in the dialogue, and I would argue at some point we've got to involve the American public in the sacrifice. And that could come in the form of taxes, it could come in the form of time, it could come in the form of volunteering at a local veterans facility, but for the most part most Americans have lived life uninterrupted, and every politician—Bush and Obama—have allowed that to continue. And I think that's to the detriment of not only the troops, but to the American public in general.
Question: Should there be a mandatory service requirement in our country?
Paul Rieckhoff: I think there needs to be a social backstop when you send folks to war. The level of involvement right now in Iraq and Afghanistan is totally unprecedented in American history. We've never had a protracted war with an all-volunteer military and a President who hasn't served. You put those three things together, and it's really created a profound, troubling disconnect where we have essentially created a warrior class. You've got folks who are gone for 10 tours, and you've got everyone else who really could, if they wanted to, block this war out entirely. That is damaging to our social fabric. That is damaging to our nation. When you can send folks to war without the American public feeling it. That's a problem. And I think it's a really unprecedented problem and one we have to address.
So I think there has to be some way to involve the American people. It doesn't have to be conscription; it doesn't have to be a draft. It could be a national call to action, and let me give you an example. Right now we know the suicide rate is climbing. General Correlli, who leads the suicide prevention task force at the Pentagon, has repeatedly said part of his problem that he's facing right now is a critical shortage of qualified mental healthcare workers. The Pentagon is saying they don't have enough psychiatrists, psychologists, and no one seems to notice. The President has never issued a call. The President could stand up tomorrow and say, “You wanna serve your country? You wanna help our men and women in uniform, and you're a psychiatrist or a psychologist? Go work at the Army, go work at the VA, go work at the Pentagon.”
We have not really tapped in to the resources that exist in this country, even folks who want to help. I mean, you don't even have to make it mandatory. If you stood up right now, and you were the President, and you said, “I'd like you to do X,” millions of people are gonna get involved. He can use the bully pulpit to drive action and to drive involvement without making something mandatory. But over time, I think we do have to re-examine the lack of equality that exists.
You can't have folks continue to die, and continue to fight, and have so many folks that are totally disconnected. I don't think it's good for our country. Many people have said the all-volunteer military works, the all-volunteer military is great for the military, we have the best fighting force on earth. And that's true, and it's good for the military. But I'm not sure it's good for America, and that's the question I think we've got to ask in the next couple of years.
Recorded August 2, 2010
Interviewed By Max Miller