At Occupy Camps, Veterans Bring the Wars Home

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."

Patterson became an interrogator in Iraq straight out of high school. His mother had to sign his enlistment papers. He turned 18 in Basic. "We're an industrialized nation who's a third world country. The super wealthy elite pretty much control our democratic process and everyone here is pretty much fighting for scraps and that's not right," he says.

I ask him what was the switch for him and when. He explained that it was WikiLeaks. It was the footage of the Apache helicopter gunning down Iraqis released by WikiLeaks in April of 2010. Up to that point he had been interrogating Iraqis and using what he describes as psychological torture. He was 10 years old when the World Trade Center was hit. He wanted to fight terrorism in Iraq. He bought into the whole thing, he tells me. He had been looking forward to signing up ever since the 5th grade and then, suddenly, last November, he found himself watching a video of his fellow soldiers gunning down Iraqis on the street and it all changed for him.

The Apache video, to a civilian, makes war look like a video game, but to Patterson, it was the first time he saw Iraqis as real people. Random people, with children and families who care about them. He tried to get out of the military as a conscientious objector after that. He was told it wouldn't work because he's an atheist. "So I just smoked a bunch of pot and got kicked out," he says. He was officially discharged on June 7th of this year. He went back home to Alaska, where he read about Occupy Wall Street on Reddit.

He then went to D.C. to sleep in a tent a block away from the White House.

Patterson speaks in sound bites. He's had a conversion and like those who find religion, the awakening has given him fervor. He's witnessing: "Combat at Arms and Military Intelligence all come to the same conclusion: War is a business!"

He interrogated people who were later put to death in Iraq with no appeals process, he says. It haunts him. He didn't fulfill his contract so he's not eligible for the GI Bill. Even if he were, he explains, he still couldn't afford to go to school without loans. He'd be wracked with debt just like so many other students who are down at their city's Occupations. "I just want to go to college and teach high school," he says.

For Patterson, like the other vets I spoke to, the Occupy Movement has provided a way to channel their outrage and their energy. Their involvement has been a plus for the movement, too, because vets are extremely helpful if you are planning a tent city in a park -- they can get things done, and they are used to living in tents. It's worth noting the anti-war movement during Vietnam was given legitimacy after the vets became their voice (John Kerry for example). But the vets themselves take solace in the act of being useful.

Or as Patterson puts it: "I haven't had one nightmare since I've been here."

Image credit: Tina DuPuy