M ore than 200,000 veterans live in New York City. Most of them paid their dues during the Vietnam War – conscripted into service. War wasn’t an option for them, and protesting was a natural response for many.
Today’s military is an all-volunteer outfit. Of all the veterans in the city, 16,000 New Yorkers served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since 2001, some of them have mobilized themselves and are now active in the peace movement nationwide.
“I was strongly against the Iraq War,” said Jose Vasquez, executive director of Iraq Veterans Against the War. “And I guess that led me to question why I was in the military in the first place.”
Vasquez had joined the Army Reserves as a combat medic in 1997. He never served abroad specifically because of his opposition to the war in Iraq. Instead, Vasquez joined IVAW in 2005 and became a conscientious objector two years later.
He is one of IVAW’s more than 1,500 members across 24 states. The organization was formed when the first deployments to Iraq came home. Some of the veterans and active-duty service men and women began to speak out against what they called private contractor waste, and abuse and torture of Iraqi civilians.
While the anti-war existed before last year’s Occupy Wall Street protests, Vasquez said that veterans came out of the woodwork for the marches.
“By and large, people who serve in the military come from a working class background,” he said, and added that issues including jobs and education are priorities for some members.
“A lot veterans feel strongly abut those things and those are some of the reasons why they decided to join the military,” Vasquez said.
Former Marine Sgt. Shane Strassberg, 30, is one of those veterans. He served two tours in Iraq, his first in 2004. He explained that his service helped him better understand the movement.
“My service indoctrinated me with a core belief that my service was intimately connected to civilians’ right to free speech, assembly and capability to address grievances against the government,” he said.
It was enough to convince Strassberg to get involved. Currently a pursing a master’s degree in anthropology at Hunter College, he decided to march with the Occupy movement on more than one occasion.
“I ultimately saw the injustices being perpetrated upon the Occupiers as a direct assault on my oath and obligation to protect those rights for them,” he said.