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Home > Programs & Publications > HEALTH CONSEQUENCES OF THE WAR IN IRAQ: Brooks Sunkett

 

HEALTH CONSEQUENCES OF THE WAR IN IRAQ

 

BROOKS SUNKETT,

VICE-PRESIDENT, PUBLIC, HEALTHCARE & EDUCATION WORKERS, CWA

TRANSCRIBED PANEL PRESENTATION FROM THE

DEPARTMENT FOR PROFESSIONAL EMPLOYEES,

AFL-CIO LUNCH & LEARN,

FEBRUARY 23, 2006

 

Good afternoon.  I guess I have been invited here because of my experiences as a public worker and vice president of CWA and also my past experience as a Vietnam veteran.  I was asked to comment on both issues and I will try to do that. 

One of the things we did in CWA in 2004 was pass a resolution against the Iraqi war.  I was asked to comment on how we were able to achieve that.  One of the ways we were able to achieve that is that a lot of education had to happen before we got to the convention.  Obviously back then -- and even now -- it was and continues to be a pretty touchy subject.  Many of our members had family members or relatives actually participating in the war.  You know that if you talk against the war you were told that you were anti-American.  So it was very tricky for us to do that. 

One of the things we had to do in our education process was to tie the war into the economic problems we were having at the Union.  Many of our members were being laid off, their jobs were being subcontracted, and they were facing economic problems.  In order to have people understand the war and support our efforts to stop the war, we had to make that connection for folks.  We were very successful through a series of workshops, information meetings, mailings, etc., so when people came to our national convention, which has roughly 2,500 to 3,000 delegates, we were actually able to get a resolution passed.  Part of that resolution was not as strong as I would have liked it to have been, but basically it says:  “Resolved:  The Communications Workers of America calls on the Bush administration to reject the philosophy of pre-emptive war without a clear and present threat to the United States; Resolved:  The Communications Workers of America calls on the next administration to vigorously pursue the war on terrorism in conjunction with our allies; Resolved:  The Communications Workers of America encourages the president and Congress to make federal funds available to staff and train first responders.”  That passed without opposition at our convention in 2004. 

The other thing I wanted to comment on is the war, as I saw it as a Vietnam veteran, and as I see it today in terms of the similarities between this war and the Vietnam War.  One of the same things that we were told back then -- and I was about 18 years old when I left to go back in 1967 -- I was there from 1967 to 1968 –- we were told then that we were fighting for a democracy and that at all costs we had to bring democracy to these people and protect democracy at home, and that communism was a real threat to us.  Many of you who were around then remember that we were going through the Cold War at the time and China and Russia were considered our enemies.  We are being told the same thing today with the Iraqi War:  that they had weapons of mass destruction; that Saddam Hussein must be stopped at all costs, and there was immediate threat to the United States.  Then after we went over there and found there were no weapons of mass destruction, then the whole agenda changed and we were told that we were bringing democracy to people who needed democracy.  We were supposed to believe that we were over there fighting to bring democracy to these people because that was the only way they were going to get it and they wanted us there.  We are also supposed to believe that, in spite of the fact that they had all this oil, if it had been an island in the middle of the Pacific that produced pickles rather than petroleum, we would be there fighting to protect them.  Be that as it may, there were a lot of the same similarities and a lot of the same lies I was told when I went to Vietnam. 

Many other similarities exist:  very high civilian casualties and military casualties.  The other thing is about the soldiers coming home.  When the soldiers came home from Vietnam -- and I was not sure what to expect because we were told that these people who wanted to end the war were our enemies and that we should not associate with them -- we actually thought we were going to be attacked when we got off the plane.  I think you hear the same arguments today, that the fact of the matter is that if you want the war to end you are anti-American and that you are opposed to the troops.  Now, as we all know, nothing could be further from the truth.  It wasn’t until I got back that I understood the real truth and I actually started getting involved in anti-war efforts back then.  I think that the main thing that brought the Vietnam War to an end and forced President Johnson to resign was the fact that the anti-war movement hooked up with returning veterans.  And, having done that made the movement a very compelling issue and got more of the American public involved.  I think the other differences that we have are that during that era, much of it was televised.  I remember having cameramen going through the jungle with us.  A lot of that is being stopped right now.  The American public really does not see the casualties.  The casualties are enormous in Iraq.  Sixteen thousand men and women have been seriously injured -- head injuries, loss of limbs, emotional injuries –- and a lot of that is not talked about.  Several weeks ago I was watching a talk show where they were trying to solicit funds to support these veterans coming back from Iraq.  They said there was just not enough money.  The fact of the matter is that if this stuff was actually shown on TV that the American public could not handle, this war would probably end in about a week.  So that is purposely why Bush has kept that from happening.  One advantage that we had in Vietnam was being on the news every night. 

The other part of it is that a lot of money has been cut.   I have friends that I grew up with who came back from Vietnam physically and emotionally scarred.  They have not been able to get it together thirty-some years later.  I have known them most of my life.  Yet when they go to get VA benefits, the benefits and support system is just not there.  Each year they cut even more.  I see the same thing happening to our men and women who are coming back from Iraq.  In fact, about a year ago, I think, there was an increase in a lot of the benefits they had to pay for to get treatment.  I think it increased about $250 per family for the soldiers coming back from Iraq. 

One of the other things I was asked to comment on is why I was involved in U.S. Labor Against the War and what does Labor have to do with the war, and what is the connection.  Basically for moral reasons, just morally, this war is wrong and I think all of us in this room recognize that.  The other thing is the Iraqi men and women have tried to have a union there for years and Saddam Hussein has prevented them from doing so.  The United States goes over there in the name of democracy and fair play and has still kept those same laws in place.  Many of the Iraqi men and women unionists are being killed.  No one is claiming responsibility for it, but it has not stopped.  For those reasons, and not only that, when you see contracting companies and defense contracting companies over there with no big contracts, taking jobs from men and women over here, particularly in the public sector, and making tons of money, companies like Halliburton where they don’t really deliver services.  Where our soldiers in Iraq have been getting rotten meat and failed equipment that is being supplied to them, at a severe cost to the United States government, by Halliburton. 

The other thing I want to comment on is the negative impact the war has had on the public service in this country.  Quite often, we do not really think of public services until we need them.  We can look at New Orleans.  That was a failure of public service.  That was a failure of the infrastructure of this country.  For years Bush has been telling us that he is fighting the war to protect us all.  I think New Orleans really exposed that.  That could just as well have been a terrorist attack and the same thing would have happened.

It has a very negative impact.  Immediately after 9/11 happened, I think Rumsfeld got on TV and said, “We are at war.  This is not about education, it is not about health care, it is not really about internal security, it is about Military Might.”  In my opinion, nothing can be further from the truth.  Public services supply the security and health and welfare of the people of this country.  Without that we all suffer.  For years and years, the  infrastructure of public workers has been privatized, cut back, and every politician who ever gets elected always attacks the public services.  If we are going to be protected from terrorists -- and they are there and they are real -- we cannot do this.  When you think about Amtrak and the post office, when you think about doctors and nurses that are being laid off.  It is the public institutions that have the responsibility.  These people are the ones who are going to protect us from biochemical attacks.  They are the ones who are going to protect us at our airports.  If you recall, Bush did not even want permanent full-time screeners at the airport.  He was opposed to it.  Even though half of them there say it was the only job they could get because it was low pay and they had police records and were felons.  It was only because there was public outcry that he was forced to hire permanent federal employees to do that job.  Even so, their budget has been cut, so they cannot do an adequate job.  Quite frankly, they should be union, but they have been stopped from being union.  I think that is the failure of the administration, and quite frankly, I think it is the failure of the labor unions not to have those people unionized. 

Our health care system is in bad shape.  We have under-funded labs.  I think many of you might remember when they talked about the flu and not having enough vaccinations for people and the threat of anthrax and other biochemical diseases, that there was not enough to go around.  Mainly because for years, the labs and the people who work in those labs have been laid off and subcontracted out to private companies.  Private companies were not up to speed to actually supply the vaccine that we needed. 

When you look at the financial course of the war, it has led to a crisis in the public safety net of this country.  Over a billion dollars have been cut from childcare programs and food programs, for low income seniors and needy pregnant women.  If you look at the amount of money the government has spent on the war just so far, we could have four million new public school teachers; we could have rebuilt the Gulf States due to Hurricane Katrina.  The government has the responsibility to protect the health and safety of its citizens.  We can only achieve that with a stronger public sector.  Bush’s budget tells us where his real priorities are.  His budgets are full of cuts for housing, child care, education, training, environment, and health care, while at the same time our military budget is 40 percent of the total world’s budget, probably larger than 60 percent of the total world’s budget. 

I just want to end on a quote from Hubert Humphrey.  He said:  “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life – its children; those who are in the twilight of life – its elderly; and those in the shadow of life – the sick, needy and the handicapped.”

 

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