Pay attention to the news, and tell your congressperson what you think.
That was the message given to students Thursday by former soldier, now anti-war activist Matt Southworth.
Referring to the discussions about debt reduction, he said the talk is mainly about cutting domestic needs, not raising taxes.
"The world that the Congress is creating right now for you will affect your ability to get a job in five years, to get a house in 10 years," Southworth said.
One of the best ways to save $1.4 trillion would be to end the two wars the United States is engaged in, he said.
"The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not being included as part of the short-term solution," Southworth said.
Southworth works on Afghanistan policy and greater Middle East issues on Capitol Hill for the Quaker public advocacy group Friends Committee on National Legislation. He is a legislative associate for foreign policy and has been working closely with a number of congressional offices in an effort to create an Afghanistan-Pakistan Study Group to provide the president with recommendations moving past the July 2011 start of troop withdrawals.
He was on the Iona campus to speak to students in the criminal justice and communications departments.
Southworth, like many high school graduates, chose to serve in the U.S. Army in order to help pay for college. Two of his friends were going into the Army and he decided to hear what the recruiter had to offer.
"This was before we invaded Iraq," Southworth said, and was enticed by the recruiter's promise of being stationed in Hawaii. "It wasn't that he didn't lie," he said. "He was just a very good liar."
While his friends were sent to Hawaii, Southworth was sent to Seattle, a far different climate than the Pacific islands. He was deployed to Iraq in 2004 as an intelligence analyst, whose responsibility was to help identify "high value" enemy targets.
"It seemed like a noble thing for my 19-year-old brain to bring freedom and democracy to people who had suffered for a long time," he said. "[That] was a nice idea, but the second the first bullet flies all that goes out the window."
In mid-February, an extremely well-liked sergeant in the unit was killed by an improvised explosive device. Shrapnel hit the sergeant in the back of the head.
"He bled out in another soldier's arms," Southworth said. "That is when things really started to change. Freedom and democracy took a back seat to getting the bad guys.
"The problem was, we didn't always find the bad guys," he said, adding that his unit would cast a wide net, rounding up men and boys of all ages for interrogation. They were deprived of food and water, strip searched and questioned.
"Here I am, 19 years old, bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq," Southworth said. "They were presumed guilty before they had had a fair trial. To me, this was undemocratic."
Yet, he didn't say anything.
"I bit my tongue and finished my deployment," Southworth said. "I feel badly about that. I feel I should have been more outspoken" about the way Iraqis were treated.
Returning home, he kept his family in the dark about things he had seen while in Iraq.
"I've seen body parts missing from bodies, bodies missing from body parts, dead kids," Southworth said. "I never had this conversationn with my family, partially because I wanted to keep them isolated from that."
His behavior changed, acting "totally weird," not hanging out with friends. His father told him he had a chip on his shoulder and had to knock it off.
Southworth was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition he called an epidemic.
"Imagine the Iraqis and Afghans," he said. "They all have PTSD. They have lived the last eight to 10 years in conflict. I got to come home. That is home for the Iraqis and Afghans."
And that is a real concern for Southworth, especially in light of the planned transitional period of gradual troop withdrawal.
"The U.S. can't turn its back on Afghanistan like it did in 1989," the time of post-Russian occupation, he said. "The U.S. has been so focused on a security transition," while ignoring economic and political factors. "If the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, it's going to be a really bad situation."
Frances Hughes, 24, of the Bronx, is a senior at Iona, majoring in journalism. She was impressed with Southworth, adding that his stories of veterans committing suicide made her emotional.
Hughes said she thought it was important for people to hear from people like Southworth. "I think a lot of people are very misinformed about everything that is going on over there," she said. "I think people need to ask for the truth."
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