Expert at living in tents, some veterans are finding new purpose in the streets
We're in a coffee shop near McPherson Square, the location of Occupy DC, and Michael Patterson, 21, and I are having hot cocoa on a cold November night. He's wearing an Iraq Veterans Against the War sweatshirt and baggy shorts. It's freezing outside. "I'm from Alaska," he offers as an explanation. He's been sleeping in a tent in D.C. for over a month now. I've traveled to five Occupations in two countries. In every demonstration (including the one in Canada) I've found a vet to talk to:
In Zuccotti Park, Army Specialist Jerry Bordeleau, 24, was sitting next to a table of IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) literature. On his sweater were two buttons: an Iraq Campaign metal and one from the IWW. He served two tours in Iraq and now says he's unemployed and can't find work for over $10 an hour. And he can't live on $10 an hour. When I asked him why he's at Occupy Wall Street he says, "I went and fought for capitalism and that's why I'm now a Marxist."
At Occupy Baltimore, I met 21-year-old Justin Carson, who tells me he served in the Army National Guard in Iraq from 2009 until this February. His nickname is Crazy Craze. He says he has PTSD and is bipolar but won't "do pharmaceuticals." Then he told me I should look into the Illuminati since I'm writing an article.
It was a surprise to meet Iraq war vets at these protests. There are only, after all, around a million Americans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan in what was once dubbed the War on Terror.
Their presence became national news when Iraq vet and former Marine Scott Olsen's skull was fractured by a non-lethal round fired by police in Oakland in late-October. A week later in New York, around 30 vets held a solidarity march from Zuccotti Park to the Stock Exchange. They had a rally at the park afterward where Bordeleau spoke. "This is the first major movement for social change we've seen in this country since the '70s," he said to me.
At Occupy DC, a painting of Scott Olsen in uniform is draped on the side of a tent. He's become a symbol of the Occupation Movement -- he fought overseas only to be injured when exercising his "freedom" of peaceful assembly at home. His name has become a shorthand to talk about why so many vets are at Occupy Wall Street.
"There's a reason Scott Olsen got shot in the head," says Patterson, looking down at his chain-restaurant hot cocoa. "Because he was out front."
Patterson still sports a military haircut and a bit of the Army swagger. He also has a touch of that telling hyper-awareness war vets sometimes display; he's a little twitchy, a little intense. He tells me he has PTSD and has been self-medicating with weed. He says it helps. What's also helped is being a part of this protest movement. "This is the only peaceful solution," he says. "If this movement doesn't work, our country is not going to make it ... We're just not going to make it."