Sunday, August 3, 2008

ts for Freedom seeks to rebuild support for war

Feeling slighted by the media’s portrayal of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an advocacy group composed of combat veterans is on a mission to present their side of the story. Based on firsthand experiences in these conflicts, the nonpartisan organization Vets for Freedom launched a campaign to educate the American public about why achieving success in these conflicts is imperative.

“When I moved back to Iowa after leaving the Marines, I felt like everything I was hearing on the news was so one-sided,” Ben Hayden, Iowa state captain of Vets for Freedom, told the Iowa Independent during a telephone interview. “For those of us who fought in the Iraq war, we weren’t really getting the chance or were not given the voice to express our perceptions of what was really happening on the ground, which seemed to be the opposite of what people were hearing in the news.”

“During my deployments, I also thought it was a morale downer whenever I read the newspaper, and the only thing I was reading was how people didn’t want us to be there,” Hayden said.

After graduating from Ankeny High School in 2003, Hayden, who now resides in Coralville, joined the Marines and served two deployments to Iraq with the 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion in 2005 and 2006.

“I really wanted to join the Marines after 9-11,” Hayden said. “I wanted to help out in some way and felt compelled to enlist. My brother is in the Marines and served in Afghanistan at the time, so that’s why I felt drawn to the Marines more than any other military branch.”

Hayden first heard of Vets for Freedom in September 2007 and got actively involved with the organization one month later. “I wanted to speak out and tell people what was really going on over there," he said, "and I felt that Vets for Freedom, which was founded by combat veterans, was the best avenue to push this cause.”

As the VFF state captain for the Iowa chapter, which currently has about 115 members, Hayden is primarily responsible for disseminating the organization's message to the media in Iowa. “What I want to do is take our message down to the local level, so people who don’t watch the national media get a chance to hear our message,” Hayden said.

During his first deployment to Iraq, when his unit partook in the siege of Fallujah, Hayden first felt the mission was bigger than himself. “I was overwhelmed by an outpouring of emotions from the Iraqi people, thanking us for what we were doing and begging us to do even more,” Hayden said. “To have parents come up to me on the streets and thank me for what we were doing and seeing people sacrifice their safety by telling us where the bad guys were made me want to come back to America and tell people what is really going on.

Our mission is to educate the American people about the importance of achieving success in both Iraq and Afghanistan, by applying our firsthand knowledge to the issues of strategy in American politics,” Hayden said. “We have a history of supporting candidates on both sides of the aisle. Basically we want the American people to know that it is extremely important for us to succeed in Iraq and Afghanistan and that it should not be such a partisan issue.”

Hayden defines success in Iraq and Afghanistan as helping create a democratic society that is able to stand on its own, protect itself and create its own form of a stable democracy. “I think that we will see success when Iraqis can go to the voting booths and to police stations to sign up without having suicide bombers blow them up,” Hayden said. “We see that Iraq now accounts for 75 percent of its own spending, and there are over 540,000 members in the Iraqi armed forces. I don’t think we are too far off from fully achieving success. At the same time we do need to be concerned about the terrorists; we don’t want to just leave Iraq and have these terrorists running rampant in the country.”

Moreover, Hayden contends that this vision of democracy in Iraq has to be something that can be agreed upon by the U.S. and Iraqi governments. “We don’t want to see terrorist organizations come in and take over the government, then harbor other terrorists, which may pose an even bigger threat to national security.”

Hayden remains optimistic about achieving success in Iraq and points to last year’s troop surge as one of the factors helping lay the foundation for success in Iraq. “We have seen some of the violence levels drop dramatically this past year," Hayden said. “When you look back at the beginning of the surge and where the Iraqi government and military was and how many terrorist organizations we had in the country and compare these to today, these are measurements of success.”

Vets for Freedom maintains nonpartisan status, pledges to hold candidates accountable

Regarding this year’s political campaigns, Hayden drew distinctions between VFF and past veterans’ advocacy groups such as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004. “We are not a 527 group, and we are not here to elect any candidate,” Hayden said. “As veterans, it is and always will be our job to protect the American people. We feel that we have seen the eyes of the enemies and what they are capable of doing, so it is our responsibility to get the word out and tell the people of Iowa that it is very important to be educated on this issue, regardless of what party they are in. This issue is way bigger than any election.

“The Iraqi people are extremely grateful for what we have done, and this message has been misconstrued by the media,” Hayden said. “If people would understand the importance of this issue, they would understand that we need to achieve success in Iraq and Afghanistan. “This is not a political issue, nor is it a partisan issue. To make it either one is extremely demeaning not only to the vets who have fought there but to the family and friends of those who did not make it home.”

However, Hayden said VFF will hold all candidates accountable for their words and actions that affect their vision of success in the wars. VFF launched an ad on the Internet in May that called on the presumptive Democrat presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, to pay a visit to Iraq (see video below). “We felt that it is important if he is going to run for president, he should go to Iraq and see the success that has happened since the surge. Two months later, he did just that."

Sen. Obama: When Will You Finally Visit Iraq? (Vets for Freedom ad)





“Again, we don’t see this as a partisan issue,” Hayden said. “We don’t care one way or another what candidate you vote for. We want everyone to know how the candidates feel and what they think about the situation in Iraq We have taken it upon ourselves to hold these candidates accountable for their actions and stances on Iraq.”

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